Legalism, the Yoke of Bondage

Since the dawn of history and in each age or dispensation thereafter, man has always attempted to justify himself, to make himself holy, clean, acceptable and right with God. In addition, man has always attempted to improve on God’s plan of redemption. Such attempts have always led man to some form of legalism.

Since the beginning of the church and for nearly 2,000 years, there has also existed a great debate within-a theological tug of war between proponents of law vs. grace and works vs. faith. This is a struggle that will continue until Jesus returns.

Legalism: A Religious Phenomenon

Legalism is a religious phenomenon within the Body of Christ. At the core of legalism is the concept of righteousness through works (human merit). For the purposes of this article, I would like to offer the following definition of works.

Works, may be defined as righteous acts, deeds, effort, or service based on human merit.

Righteousness through works is self-righteousness. Self-righteousness and legalism are both a curse and a stumbling block to the Body of Christ (Rom. 9:31-33). In my opinion, legalism is responsible for more darkness and false teaching within the Body of Christ than anything else.

Legalism: The Yoke of Bondage

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines legalism as strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code. For purposes of this work, I offer a definition of legalism:

Legalism is any belief system where man derives merit through the keeping of the Law or other man-made doctrines, disciplines, or rules in order that he might obtain righteousness with God and thereby secure for himself favor, blessings, and in the end, salvation and eternal life.

Putting it simply-Legalism is righteousness through works, from which the apostle Paul admonishes “be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1). Some have mistakenly referred to “the yoke of bondage” in Galatians 5:1 as the bondage of sin. However, Paul the apostle of grace tells us that:

The yoke of bondage is a direct biblical reference to being justified by keeping the Law of Moses and what is known today as legalism.

However, in spite of Paul’s admonition, many are still “entangled” in legalism and cannot free themselves from that which they “desire” to be under (Gal 4:21). It is the same yoke, which the apostle Peter said, “neither we nor our father’s were able to bear” (Acts 15:10).

What is a Legalist?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a legalist as one that views things from a legal standpoint; especially: one that places primary emphasis on legal principles or on the formal structure of governmental institutions. I would like to offer another definition of a legalist.

Within theology, a legalist is one who deals with man from the basis of the law and not from the basis of grace.

A legalist’s theology, ministry, and methods are often characterized by self-righteousness, judgment, and condemnation. A legalist emphasizes the demand of the law with little or no compassion, mercy, or redemption.

An example of this is the account of the woman taken in adultery in St. John chapter 8.

In 2006 Charles Smoot founded The Grace Network, a “Church Planting Movement” (CPM) based in Maui, Hawaii.

In 2009 Charles and his wife Helen founded Simple Church Ministries of Lancaster, a local House Church community dedicated to the message of Sovereign Grace, House church evangelism, and discipleship.

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