Three P’s of Legalism

Josh Buice

white book page on brown wooden table

When Jesus was invited into the home of a Pharisee for a meal, he accepted the invitation. It was during that gathering in the home of the Pharisee that Jesus clashed with the most conservative groups of the Jewish religious circle of his day. The controversy centered on the Jewish ritual of hand washing that was common in Jesus’ day. Before approaching the table for dinner, the appropriate thing to do would be to go through a ritual of hand washing that was mandated by the rabbinical teaching of the day.

Jesus bypassed the ritual and approached the table and reclined with the Pharisees and Lawyers. This stunned the Pharisee who invited Jesus into his home. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, and intentionally used that as an opportunity to expose the legalistic religious practices of the Pharisees and Lawyers. Jesus was not in violation of the Law of God, but he was in clear violation of the standards of the rabbinical teachings and this infuriated the Pharisee.

Jesus issued three statements of “woe” that must be understood contextually and applied to us in our modern context. In order to do so, we must begin with a definition of legalism in order to properly discuss the dangers within this article. In many ways, the word legalism has been abused and improperly applied to people who simply have a different set of standards than others. We must guard ourselves against improper applications of this technical term.

Legalism is any additive to the finished work of Christ on our behalf. It’s any practice that adds the work of man to the grace of God for the forgiveness of sin. Legalism is man cooperating with God in order to bring about the results of salvation. We see this problem in the church at Galatia when Paul addressed the problem of the Judaizers who had plagued the church. They were teaching a false gospel that added circumcision to the work of Jesus on the cross. Paul writes:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.1Galatians 1:6–9

In this article, I will attempt to explain three common dangers of legalism that can grip the heart of religious conservatives.


The most legalistic people in the New Testament are also the most conservative people among the religious circle of the Jews. The Pharisees were seen as the most careful and faithful Israelites. They abhorred how Israel had not learned her lesson from the exile, and they sought to enforce the law as a means of not repeating the rebellion of the past. They were so careful that they put a fence around the law of God. Their additional regulations were designed to stop people from getting anywhere near a violation of the law. However, over time their regulations were elevated to the level of God’s law and became added burdens that hindered the people.

When Jesus confronted the Pharisees when he was invited into the home for dinner, he made a very important statement that points to the pridefulness of legalism. Jesus said:

Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.2Luke 11:43

It was common for the Pharisees to request the best seats in the synagogues. This was viewed as a seat of honor. They were respected as powerful leaders among the Jewish people and the heart of the Pharisee craved such recognition. This pride was not limited to the house of worship, but also carried over into the markets where the Pharisees would be stopped and recognized as honored members of the Jewish society.

When we examine how we worship God, do we see any evidence of pride lingering in our hearts? Do we view ourselves as more acceptable to God based on the attire we wear, the musical choices we make, the Bible translation we use, the instruments we use, or the liturgical arrangement of our worship service? Do we believe ourselves to be more holy than people in other churches who do things different than we do based on choices that are not specifically regulated by clear prescriptions and prohibitions in Scripture?


Legalism is a performance driven system of religion that places emphasis on the work of man. Although faith will always produce works, legalism is a way of worship that emphasizes the necessity of works that results in salvation. This was what the Reformers stood against in their day as they taught sola Fide (faith alone). Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone.

Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone.

When Jesus confronted the Pharisees, the experts in the law were present in the room as well. These lawyers (or Scribes) prided themselves in their performance in the flesh. They were experts at keeping the law. Jesus confronted them too when they were offended by how he confronted the Pharisees. Jesus said:

Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.3Luke 11:46

The lawyers taught people the rabbinical code regarding life and worship. They mandated the teaching of the rabbis which buried the law of God beneath a mountain of religious additives and resulted in a heavy burden upon the people. Rather than looking to the law of God as a guide and schoolmaster that points to Christ—they were hindered by the additives. As people followed in the footsteps of the lawyers and Pharisees—they began to look to their performance as the measuring stick of acceptability before God. Did they or did they not keep the rules and regulations of the rabbinical teachings? That was the standard.

William Hendriksen observes:

These burdens consisted of the many regulations by means of which the ancient rabbis, and the law-experts after them, had buried the law of God and deprived men of their liberty and peace of mind; ordaining, for example, that picking and eating heads of grain on the sabbath, and rubbing them with their hands (6:1), amounted to reaping and threshing; that healing a person on the sabbath was wrong unless that individual’s life were in immediate danger (6:6–11); and that ceremonial washing (or rinsing) of the hands in connection with every meal was required of everybody (11:38).4 William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke, vol. 11, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 641.

As we go about life and as we gather for worship on the Lord’s Day, do we look to our performance as a means of cooperating with God for salvation? Do we believe that the way in which we worship God is somehow resulting in our salvation? We must remember that performance righteousness is salvation by works. However, Scripture does not teach that we are saved by works. We are saved by faith alone in Christ alone, which means we receive righteousness by imputation (it’s credited to our account) based on the work of Jesus on our behalf.


The Pharisees and law experts believed that they were working their way to God by their external obedience and performance. In many ways, they were finding pleasure and delight in their conservative behaviors and external duties as they were consistently regulated by the teachings of the rabbis. This approach to worship was poisonous and deadly. The legalist soothes his soul as he walks the path to hell.

The legalist soothes his soul as he walks the path to hell.

Jesus confronts this deadly error by issuing specific statements of “woe.” These statements were powerful and weighty. The woes of Jesus were statements of condemnation and damnation. They served as piercing statements that exposed the self-righteousness of the most conservative religious people of Israel. Their way of life was poisonous. Jerry Bridges observes:

We are much more concerned about someone abusing his freedom than we are about his guarding it. We are more afraid of indulging the sinful nature than we are of falling into legalism. Yet legalism does indulge the sinful nature because it fosters self-righteousness and religious pride. It also diverts us from the real issues of the Christian life by focusing on external and sometimes trivial issues.5Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2017), 134.

We must guard ourselves from the poison of legalism. We must refuse to draw a line where God doesn’t draw a line. On the other hand, we must not respond to legalistic error in a way that results in the error of antinomianism. Biblically regulated worship and life is where we find freedom and joy as we submit to the clear prescriptions set forth by God. To be regulated is not to be hindered so long as the regulation is by God rather than the rules and regulations added to God’s sufficient Word.

As we guard against legalism, we must likewise guard against licentiousness that leads a person to a fake religious freedom that is actually sinful.

As we guard against legalism, we must likewise guard against licentiousness that leads a person to a fake religious freedom that is actually sinful. Holy Scripture is sufficient and provides everything necessary for life and worship. We must keep our guard up and remember that any pursuit of holiness is not to be classified as legalism. God has called us to a life of holiness and for that, we should never apologize.

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1 Galatians 1:6–9
2 Luke 11:43
3 Luke 11:46
4 William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke, vol. 11, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 641.
5 Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2017), 134.
Author white book page on brown wooden table

Josh Buice

Pastor Pray's Mill Baptist Church

Josh Buice is the founder and president of G3 Ministries and serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church on the westside of Atlanta. He is married to Kari and they have four children, Karis, John Mark, Kalli, and Judson. Additionally, he serves as Assistant Professor of Preaching at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He enjoys theology, preaching, church history, and has a firm commitment to the local church. He also enjoys many sports and the outdoors, including long distance running and high country hunting. He has been writing on Delivered by Grace since he was in seminary and it has expanded with a large readership through the years.