Monday, August 24, 2009

What Legalism Really Means

Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight. -Romans 3:20

Charges of legalism are rampant in parts of the Christian world. Some seem to gain a lot of satisfaction in calling people names for Jesus. Specifically, some seem to delight in calling legalists those who are against the recreational use of mind altering drugs (alcohol, marijuana, etc.).

Some say legalism is believing something is wrong that is not explicitly stated in the Bible. If that is true, however, then those who oppose slavery are legalists. After all, the Bible does not actually say, “Thou shalt not own a slave.”

Some grant that you can have a quiet personal conviction, but if you say that practice is wrong for others, then you are a legalist. So apparently you can be personally opposed to slavery and be acceptable, but if you think slavery is wrong for others, you are now a card-carrying legalist.

With this definition those who oppose pornographic DVDs are legalists. After all, the Bible says nothing about DVDs, DVD players, TV, or Computers. Some people love loopholes.

With the above definition the list of legalists would be long. The biblical loopholes would be vast. The “non-legalists” can then say, “Ah, the Bible doesn’t exactly, specifically, precisely, in so many words, say not to do it, so go for it!” The Bible, however, gives clear teaching and principles that do cover issues like the ones above. (See Gulf Coast Pastor alcohol articles for July, 2009.)

To some, legalism is simply when you are against anything they’re for. Some have called anyone who opposes sex outside of marriage a legalist. One fellow called others legalists because they would not agree with his getting “spiritually married” to someone when he was still legally married to another.

Sure, people can get too picky, too judgmental, and demand that everyone do exactly what they say. But that’s not legalism. We should be able to consider whether biblical teaching applies to a practice without hurling charges of legalism and Pharisaism. And legalism is certainly not trying to live a godly life with biblical convictions.

On the other hand, some have turned the tables on the accusers: “A legalist is someone who loves Jesus more than you do.” ”When there is something in the Bible that churches don’t like, they call it ‘legalism.’”

The true definition of biblical legalism.Legalism is a false belief that attempts to merit favor with God by the works of the law, by doing good deeds. Legalism is condemned in Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16. Rather than by the works of the law, we are to obtain favor with God through faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus (Romans 3:21-28); then we are to do good works.

A few quotes:“…legalistic, a religion of achievement, giving ground for human pride (cf. Rom. 3:27-28; 9:11, 32; 11:6).” -Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Intervarsity Press. 1993; p. 843.
“…legalism, the attempt to merit favor with God by good works.” -Ibid; p. 976.

“The Jewish legalists had perverted the divine intention of the law and made it into a way to gain God’s favor based on personal merit.” -Robert H. Mounce, Romans, The New American Commentary, Broadman, Nashville, TN, 1995; p. 208.

Speaking of Romans 3:20, “In this verse ‘law’ both times is without the definite article in the Greek; so it means ‘legalism.’” -Herschel H. Hobbs, Romans, Word Books, Waco, TX, 1977; p. 44.

“Biblically speaking, ‘legalism’ is trusting in the law for salvation. In Galatians (which is a good example of legalism), the Judaizers were saying that without circumcision one could not be saved. Paul blasted that idea to smithereens! ‘Legalism’ is a word greatly misused and maligned by uneducated preachers and Christians today, who refer to standards about holy living as legalism. If someone, shall we say, preaches against booze (or tobacco, or movies, or dancing, or whatever) some immediately shout ‘legalism,’ showing their ignorance.” -Dr. R. L. Sumner; Editor, Biblical Evangelist; author.

“More precisely, legalism is the false belief that keeping certain laws - whether biblical or not - can be used as a condition for meriting God’s grace, whether for justification or sanctification (see Galatians 3:3). But one can legislate wise laws about human behavior without being legalistic in the biblical sense of the concept. Otherwise, laws against drunk driving and illegal immigration - and a host of other things beneficial to society - would be legalistic and, thereby, wrong.” -Dr. Norman L. Geisler; president, Southern Evangelical Seminary; author.

Those who oppose what you are for, are not legalists; unless they maintain their practices are the way to get to Heaven. Argue your case on the merits, but don’t start calling the fellow who may be winning the argument, a legalist.

- by David R. Brumbelow, Gulf Coast Pastor, August 24, AD 2009

Charles H. Spurgeon on Alcohol
Alcohol Condemned in the Bible
Deuteronomy 14:26 - Does it Commend Alcohol?
Other articles in lower right hand margin under Gulf Coast Pastor Articles (Labels).


  1. I think you definition and clarification on legalism is right on. I do think it has become a word that gets thrown around alot without anyone really knowing what it means, much like liberal and fundamentalist. Thank you for your clarification.

    I hope I would never be quilty of calling those who support temporance legalist. Unworthy scholars and bad Biblical interpreters, yes. Legalist no.

  2. Robert,
    There for a moment I thought we were actually going to agree :-).

    Well, we do agree on legalism, and I appreciate your comments on it. The rest, we’ll just have to continue to agree to disagree.
    David R. Brumbelow

  3. David, This is a great post! I get rather weary of reading folks call others legalists when I know that legalists believe that their actions somehow earn them salvation. It is such an insult to those trying to steadfastly "pattern" themselves after Christ and surrender to the leading of the Holy Spirit and "present" themselves as "a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God".

    I know my righteousness is only in Christ but I must live righteously and not unrighteously. Otherwise, what kind of light am I? What kind of salt am I?

    Again...thanks. selahV

  4. Thanks, SelahV, your words are very encouraging.
    David R. Brumbelow

  5. "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgement, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (Matt. 23: 23).

    What would you do with this passage David? I just think issues such as alcohol have been beat to death and both views can claim scripture to back their views. The reformed forefathers enjoyed much freedom in their wine and a good cigar. Charles Spurgeon was another who did this. Would you say they were in sin?

  6. Debbie,
    I have no problem with the Scripture you mention. If a person is only concerned with minor matters of the faith and ignores the weightier matters of doctrine, they are in violation of this verse. Notice that Jesus commended them for keeping the secondary matters and said that they should also keep those that are primary (these you ought to have done, without leaving the other undone), . You will be happy to know that I am in complete agreement with Jesus on this matter :-).

    Some of the Christian leaders of the past had wrong habits and beliefs. Some drank, some smoked, some believed in slavery and discrimination, some believed in infant baptism, etc. The answer to all of that is simple; I just believe according to the Bible that they were wrong.

    It is interesting that you bring up Charles Spurgeon. In later life he repudiated alcohol and stopped smoking. Good for him.

    Southern Baptists vote overwhelmingly for resolutions against beverage alcohol, yet in the blog world most Baptists seem to be for drinking. It is interesting that in the view of many bloggers, when someone speaks for drinking on the internet, that’s fine; but when someone then speaks against drinking - he is the one causing trouble.

    Southern Baptists and the evangelical Christian world in general have in the past taken a strong stand against alcohol for very good reasons. Now that view is under assault. Don’t fault us for defending our view.
    David R. Brumbelow

  7. David,

    I have no problem with you speaking out about the evils of drinking. I have said before that I think drinking is a bad idea and would never encourage anyone to start. The problem I have stems from manipulating and twisting scripture to represent something that is not true. By this I mean representing that alcohol in Biblical times was not alcoholic. Doing this is not only wrong, as proven by a vast majority of Biblical scholars, but is intellectually and spiritually irresponsible.

    When one must alter scripture true meaning and context to support a small point of faith, it become easier and easier to explain away areas that are more critical. It is a very slippery slope. I think I have talked to you enough to believe that you would never make this mistake. You seem very grounded. There are others that would take a header down this slope and end up in a place that it would be hard to bring them back from.

  8. David, I appreciate that tidbit about Spurgeon's repudiation of alcohol and smoking. The problem with not beating a dead horse (i.e. alcohol) is that more and more are lauding and advocating consuming alcohol. If by my beating and your beating, we are able to help one person save his/her from a life of destroyed by alcohol, then we will have done an admirable thing. And what if that one person heeds that warning and becomes another Spurgeon who doesn't advocate drinking or smoking? All the better.

    But what if our silence on the subject, and our acceptance of drinking encourages just one person to drink and that person is one who becomes an alcholic OR simply binge drinks one time, OR has just one too many, and ends up dead in a ravine somewhere with a couple of children to live without a daddy. Will we be pleased with ourselves? I won't be. This is not about legalism. It's about common sense. And that is wisdom. selahV

  9. Robert, I don't think anyone I know is "representing that alcohol in Biblical times was not alcoholic". They are representing that wine is not all alcoholic. And the kind that is alcoholic should not be consumed by Christians because it is "unwise". selahV

  10. I am such a wonderful typist. I meant to say Wine was alcoholic. And Selah it was consumed by Christians and Christ himself. You can say that it is unwise to drink, because it can lead being drunk. I agree. I can not agree that the wine that was around during Biblical times was non-alcoholic. That is just not true.

  11. Anon,
    I'm not sure if you are serious. But put your name on your comments and I will be glad to respond.
    David R. Brumbelow

  12. Robert, sorry we disagree on such a debatable issue. I guess you still haven't read Alcohol Today: Abstinence in An Age of Indulgence by Peter Lumpkins, have you? selahV

  13. No Selah, I haven't read it. I prefer to use the Bible to make my decisions. And actually it's not as hotly a debated issue as some make it look. The majority of trusted Biblical scholars, about 90%, say that the wine in question was alcoholic based on historical context and word usage. Only a few believe it wasn't alcoholic, and to come to that conclusion they have to discount large chunks of historical context and manipulate scripture in a way that most are not comfortable with.

  14. Except that isn't true David. Could you cite a link or a book where this is fact? I know Spurgeon pretty well, and I researched your statement and did not find that he quit smoking or quit having a drink.

  15. Debbie,
    In his early years the English Baptist Preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, disagreed with those who advocated abstinence from beverage alcohol. But as time went by, the temperance advocates (those who promoted total abstinence from beverage alcohol), convinced Spurgeon; or maybe the Holy Spirit convinced him. Lewis Drummond speaks to this issue and points out that Spurgeon actually become a temperance advocate. Temperance meetings were even held in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Spurgeon’s church.

    Spurgeon would eventually boldly declare, “Next to the preaching of the Gospel, the most necessary thing to be done in England is to induce our people to become abstainers.” Lewis Drummond stated of Spurgeon, “Obviously he had become a strong advocate for abstinence.”

    Both above quotes are from the book, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers by Dr. Lewis A. Drummond. Both quotes are definitely referring to abstinence from alcohol, as the context will show; in case anyone wants to look it up. Drummond was a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

    Spurgeon also smoked cigars. In my opinion, the matter of cigars is somewhat of a different issue. First, how smoking adversely affects your health was not fully known until years after Spurgeon’s time. Most opponents of smoking in Spurgeon’s day simply considered it a bad, filthy, and possibly unhealthy habit. Today we know for a fact that smoking is harmful to health. Still, there have been some outstanding preachers that smoked. Again, I simply think they were wrong and were a bad influence in this area.

    It is disputed whether Spurgeon gave up his cigars. But the following is evidence that he did. Eric W. Hayden, pastor of Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle (1956-61) said, “When I was a student the College principal, Dr. C. W. Evans, used to say that Spurgeon gave up smoking for two reasons: 1. He was disgusted when he saw a sign for "Spurgeon Tobacco" in a shop window, and 2. He saw the harmful effect it was having on ‘old John,’ his coachman.”
    David R. Brumbelow

  16. I'm confused now for sure! If the alcohol or wine spoken of in the Bible was not alcoholic form, how did Moses and some others mentioned in the Bible get drunk? Just my thoughts..but that's what the Bible scriptures say.

    Lawana Wright

  17. Lawana,
    Thanks for stopping by. You ask a good question.

    My answer would be that just as there are different kinds of wine and drinks today, so there were in Bible times. They were very knowledgeable and industrious about making and preserving drinks and food, without our modern day conveniences of electricity, refrigerators, and freezers. Many country folks still do variations today of ancient methods of preserving food.

    You are right that they had strong, alcoholic drinks (although not as strong as our most alcoholic drinks) and drunkenness was condemned in the Bible. But they also had non-alcoholic drinks. Wine referred to both intoxicating and un-intoxicating drinks. I and many others believe when God condemned wine (Proverbs 20:1) He was speaking of the alcoholic wine. When He commended wine, He was speaking of the non-alcoholic kinds.

    You may want to check out my posts on this subject for July, 2009. But if you have any more questions, feel free to ask.
    David R. Brumbelow


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