Do the Churches of Christ Teach Legalism?

This lesson is part of a series entitled "Ready to Make a Defense."




A.      According to The New Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, Legalism is “close attention to, and precise obedience to, the stated requirements of the law, without regard to their intention (i.e. attention to the letter rather than to the spirit of the law).”

B.      The terms “legalism,” “legalist,” and “legalistic” are not found in most English translations of the New Testament, but the concept of legalism is presented.

                                                             1.      Jesus condemned the Pharisees for legalism and hypocrisy, for they complied with the laws of their religion in their teachings and deeds, but their hearts were wrong.

a.       “‘Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.’” (Matt. 23:28)

b.       “‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.’” (Luke 16:15)

                                                             2.      Legalism is combated in many of the epistles also, for there were certain Jewish Christians who errantly taught many of the early churches that it was necessary for Gentiles to comply with the Law of Moses, especially circumcision, in order for them to be saved.

a.       “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:4)

b.       “‘I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.’” (Gal. 2:21)

C.      In addition to the dictionary definition and the scriptural concept of legalism, the perception of legalism among most religious people is that of a system of religion in which a person is justified (made right) because he adheres to all of the commandments of a law.

                                                             1.      No man except Christ has ever been justified this way because no one but Christ has ever adhered to the law of God without transgression.  See Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:20; 8:3; Hebrews 4:15.

                                                             2.      As it is, mankind has failed to keep the laws of God flawlessly, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23)

D.      However, legalism also has a solution for one who transgresses the law (sins).

                                                             1.      Legalism teaches that the transgressor can be justified by performing a work specified in the law to atone for the sin.

                                                             2.      According to the errant reasoning of legalism, it is the work itself that merits justification.  In other words, the work that the transgressor performs is so valuable that God is indebted to the transgressor to forgive the sin.  See Romans 4:4.

                                                             3.      Therefore, legalism cancels the necessity of God’s grace and mercy, for the transgressor can earn his salvation by performing works of the law.

E.       It is this concept of legalism that the churches of Christ are charged with teaching.

                                                             1.      I have never known of a gospel preacher nor have I heard any sermon preached or lesson taught in the churches of Christ that advocated legalism as presented above.

                                                             2.      Yet, this is the perception of some who, I charge, lack understanding regarding the Bible doctrine of obedience as it relates to grace and faith.



A.      No one that I know in the churches of Christ denies that the Bible teaches salvation by grace through faith.

                                                             1.      This doctrine is taught in the churches as it is stated in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.”

                                                             2.      To my knowledge, nothing that the churches teach or practice contradicts nor conflicts with this Bible doctrine.

B.      The error that is made by those who charge the church with teaching legalism is the belief that having conditions whereby one receives salvation is incompatible with the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.  A closer examination of grace and faith will reveal that both require obedience to the conditions.

C.      Consider the Bible doctrine of salvation by grace.

                                                             1.      “Grace” is translated from charis, and its meaning depends on the context where it is used.  When grace pertains to a gift that God offers, it means “the friendly disposition from which the kindly act proceeds.” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words)

a.       In Ephesians 2:8-9 (quoted above), emphasis is given to the fact that the salvation given by grace is a gift, i.e., it is unmerited or undeserved.  Salvation is not a wage.  See also Romans 3:24.

b.       Thus, “grace” is simply and rightly defined in this context as “unmerited favor”.

                                                             2.      In His grace, God offered salvation as a gift through the death of Christ to undeserving sinners.

a.       “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Rom. 5:7-9).

b.       This passage indicates that sinners were unworthy (undeserving) of the death of Christ, but God gave Him anyway because of His great love.

c.        Indeed, sinful man is corrupt and incapable of redeeming himself.  Therefore, God graciously provided a Redeemer for us because He loves us.

                                                             3.      However, this free offer of salvation by the grace of God is conditional.

a.       Even those who charge the churches of Christ with teaching legalism must recognize that the phrase “saved by grace through faith” indicates that faith is a condition for receiving salvation by grace.  Simply having faith does not make God indebted to save us, and therefore faith must be a condition.

b.       The fact that faith (or anything else) is required as a condition for receiving salvation by grace does not nullify the gift of salvation, i.e., the condition does not change the gift into a wage.

c.        The New Testament attributes salvation from sin to many things done by the believer, but those things do not nullify the grace of God.  Some of those things are:

i.         Belief (John 8:24)

ii.        Repentance (2 Cor. 7:10)

iii.      Confession (Rom. 10:10)

iv.      Baptism (1 Pet. 3:21)

d.       All of those things that are described in the Bible as leading to forgiveness of sins and salvation are part of God’s overall plan of salvation, which is given to man by His grace.  It is not legalism to teach that man must comply with God’s plan in order to be saved.

e.        Indeed, when the grace of God appeared to us, bringing salvation to all men, it also brought the knowledge of the conditions by which man can receive that salvation.  See Titus 2:11-14.

D.      Let us also consider the doctrine of salvation through faith.

                                                             1.      As noted above, to be “saved by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8) indicates that faith is a condition of salvation by grace.

a.       No one can deny that faith itself is a condition, but there may be differing concepts of what faith is.

b.       The Scriptural definition of faith is the correct definition, and this type of faith is the condition upon which salvation by grace is received.

                                                             2.      “Faith” is defined explicitly in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

a.       “The assurance of things hoped for” means that faith is what makes the things for which a person hopes become certain to him.

b.       “The conviction of things not seen” means that a person’s faith is the proof that he believes in something that he has never seen.

c.        This chapter shows that faith is more than simple mental acknowledgement (belief).  Within faith are the elements of belief, trust, hope, and action

                                                             3.      Chapter 11 of Hebrews goes on to give a practical explanation for what faith is by showing how faith was manifested in those who have had it.

a.       In each example, the Scripture shows that men and women acted when they had faith.

b.       The examples of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and others are presented as persons who had faith and acted upon it.

c.        All taken into account, this definition combined with these examples lead to a practical understanding that faith is a belief in the unseen that leads one to take actions that he otherwise would not.

d.       This is the kind of faith required for the salvation of man, as Hebrews 10:39 states, “But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.”  In stating that we are “of those who have faith…”, the writer is showing that the manifestation of our faith in action must be comparable to those persons of faith described in chapter 11.

                                                             4.      Salvation through the condition of faith requires a living faith, not a dead faith.

a.       James 2:14-26 teaches that faith without works is dead.  If faith is dead, then it is useless, and it cannot lead to salvation.

b.       “What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works?  Can that faith save him?” (Jas. 2:14)

c.        “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (Jas. 2:26)

d.       Does James nullify grace by requiring works of faith?  Does James teach legalism, i.e., salvation by works?  Certainly not!  However, works of faith are conditions for salvation.

e.        This is why Paul described the purpose of his apostleship as being “to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5).

E.       This is the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith that is taught in the Bible, and this is what is also taught in the churches of Christ.

                                                             1.      This doctrine is not one of legalism, for in every conditional work of faith performed it is to be understood that the power of salvation is in the blood of Jesus and His gospel.

                                                             2.      Members of the churches of Christ understand that it is they who are indebted to God, not the other way around, and they do not believe that they earn their salvation by means of works of merit.



A.      Those who accuse the churches of Christ of teaching legalism fail to understand how we gain access to the fullness of God’s grace.

                                                             1.      They charge those who teach the conditions of God’s plan of salvation by grace of making performance of those conditions into the source of salvation.  This is a false charge.

                                                             2.      Meanwhile, those who make these charges omit the conditions and therefore nullify the Word of God, which counsels those conditions in order to receive salvation.

B.      Christ is the source of salvation to all those who obey Him (Heb. 5:9).

                                                             1.      By logic, we must conclude that Christ is not the source of salvation to those who fail to obey Him, and there is no other source of salvation (Acts 4:12).

                                                             2.      What is there to obey if not the conditions and commandments of His Word?


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