What is Legalism?

What is legalism

Many accuse those who love the law of Yahweh of being a legalist. But just what is legalism? Is it obeying the commands of Yahweh with all our hearts? Is it adding to the commands of Yahweh? Is it focusing too much on obedience and not enough on “salvation”?

There is no such word as “legalism” found anywhere in scripture, but according to Nave’s Topical index, here are a few examples of Legalism:

Mark 2:23- Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: 26 “how he went into the house of Yahweh [in] [the] [days] of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” 27 And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28 “Therefore the Son of Man is also Master of the Sabbath.” Mark 3:1 And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him.

Here we see an example of where the Scribes and Pharisees had added to the commandment of Sabbath observance. Here is yet another example:

Luke 13:14- But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Yahushua had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 The Master then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead [it] away to water it? 16 “So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound–think of it–for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?”

Yes, the Scribes and Pharisees had added over 1000 laws to the Sabbath command, sometimes making exemptions for themselves. If there is such a thing as legalism, this would be it. It is adding to the word of Yahweh:

Deut 12:32 (NKJV) “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.

They had added many other things to His word but Yahushua showed them how wrong it was. According to Yahushua, the motives of the Scribes and Pharisees was not out of a love for Yahweh but out of a love for traditions and doctrines of men:

Mark 7:6- He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: `This people honors Me with [their] lips, But their heart is far from Me. 7 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching [as] doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 “For laying aside the commandment of Yahweh, you hold the tradition of men–the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”

There are many traditions in the festivals that are observed by mainstream Christianity that are the perfect example of what they should call legalism.

Festivals like Christmas and Easter and observing the Sabbath on the first day of the week. None of these traditions are in the word of Yahweh but rather came from paganism. All these things are adding to Yahweh’s already perfect word.

But is legalism also considered focusing too much on obedience rather than salvation? This is the common accusation.

What if someone said to you that unless you are walking in obedience, you do not even know Yahushua at all? What if someone said to you that if you claim to know Him, but do not walk in obedience, you are a liar? Is that focusing too much on obedience? Is that legalism?

Let’s see what the word of Yahweh says:

1 John 2:3-6 (NKJV) Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. 4 He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of Elohim is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. 6 He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked

Wow, is this legalism? Some would say “yes” if it had come out of another man’s mouth and not the scriptures themselves. But we can see here in scripture that it is not legalism. What if a man goes around teaching the commandments of Yahweh and really focusing on them? Is this legalism?

Matt 5:17 (NKJV) “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches [them], he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Very interesting! We can see that those whoever does and teaches even the least of the commandments of Yahweh shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Now some would say that trying to take a commandment to an extreme would be considered ‘legalism’. Is this truth? What about our Master Yahushua?

Matt 5:21 (NKJV) “You have heard that it was said to those of old, `You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ 22 “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, `Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, `You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.

Was Yahushua a legalist? He certainly went more into this commandment than was was written. He revealed the purpose behind the commandment! 

How about in this scripture?:

Matt 5:27 (NKJV) “You have heard that it was said to those of old, `You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

I wonder if Yahushua was here, living His life in the sight of all men today…would He be called a legalist? Probably yes.

Was He a legalist? No.

Yahushua was not adding to any of the commandments here. He taught that if you hate your brother that it is like you are committing murder in your heart. And He taught that if you lust after a woman, than you have already committed adultery in your heart. Lust and Hate were sins long before Yahushua came to earth for it is written “Do not covet your neighbors wife” and “You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge”

It isn’t legalistic to be careful about keeping Yahweh’s commandments. Remember Yahushua said:

Matthew 23:23- 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, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

Notice He said that the weightier matters of the Torah/law are judgment, mercy and faith. But that the Pharisees should have done the weightier matters without neglecting the finer points. It isn’t legalism to keep the finer points, it is expected that we do the finer points without neglecting the weightier ones.

I think that many people are too concerned about being a legalist and not enough concerned that they are an illegalist and are ignoring the commandments of Yahweh!

Let us hear the words of Yahushua:

Luke 6:46 (NKJV) ” But why do you call Me `Master, Master,’ and do not do the things which I say? 47 “Whoever comes to Me, and hears My sayings and does them, I will show you whom he is like: 48 “He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently against that house, and could not shake it, for it was founded on the rock. 49 “But he who heard and did nothing is like a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation, against which the stream beat vehemently; and immediately it fell. And the ruin of that house was great.”

What house do you want to build? Let us build the house on the rock! HalleluYah! It is time that we wake up and walk as Yahushua walked!

Let us now examine some scriptures that deal with the importance of obedience. To whom does Yahweh give His Spirit?

Acts 5:32 (NKJV) “And we are His witnesses to these things, and [so] also [is] the Holy Spirit whom Yahweh has given to those who obey Him.”

Now let me tell you that you MUST be obedient to have salvation! Contrary to popular opinion, you are lost unless you take a step in obedience! We are commanded to “Repent”. What does it mean to repent? It means to “to change one’s mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins”. Is this not an act and a work of obedience? If Yahweh tells us to repent and we do it, this is surely an act of obedience. And then we are expected to be baptized:

Acts 2:38 (NKJV) Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Yahushua the Messiah for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is all part of Salvation. Now I understand that there are exceptions to baptism but they should be very rare indeed. No matter what, even for the thief who was impaled with Yahushua (see Luke 23:43), repentance was a requirement. We know also that sometimes we will fail Him:

1 Joh 1:9- If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us [our] sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

1 Joh 2:1- My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Yahushua the Messiah the righteous.

IF we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive us. What if we come across something in His word that we have not noticed before and realized that we were not walking in obedience? Should our first step not be to stop and pray right at that moment and confess our sin unto Him? I think this is what we should be doing. Even confessing then, is an act of obedience!

Let us now examine some more scriptures that deal with the importance of obedience:

Phil 2:12 (NKJV) Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;

Is this what we often see today? Fear and trembling? What is usually heard is “Ah! He doesn’t care about that commandment or this commandment!” or “We don’t have to do that anymore because (insert excuse here)”

Let us walk in His perfect will because we love Yahushua so much that we want to be like Him. But who is like Him? Who walks in the Torah law as He did? Very few. Very few observe the Sabbath as He did. Very few keep the feast days as He did. Very few wear the tassels as He did. Very few keep the unclean/clean commandments as He did. Very few honor Yahweh’s name as He did. Yes, very few show the true love for obedience to His Father as He did! He was very picky as to who He would call a brother:

Luke 8:20 (NKJV) And it was told Him [by] [some], who said, “Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see You.” Luke 8:21 But He answered and said to them, “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of Yahweh and do it.”

Look at how devoted to obedience Yahushua was:

Matt 26:38 (NKJV) Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.” 39 He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You [will].”

Yahushua not only obeyed the commandments given to Him. He obeyed them to His death. Even though none were with Him. He asked His disciples to watch with Him. But they didn’t…they fell asleep.

Let us awake from OUR slumber and obey the commandments of Father Yahweh!

John 14:15 (NKJV) “If you love Me, keep My commandments.”

John 14:21 (NKJV) “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”

This is not legalism. This is LOVE.