Similar to the Galatian churches the churches of Christ today seem to be divided into two irreconcilable camps: Those who are trying to maintain the faith as it is in Christ (Gal. 2:16), and those who go beyond the authority of God’s word (Gal. 2:16).

There is much talk these days about legalism. The word is used in a variety of ways, but few seem to know what it really means. Some despise laws, claiming that obeying God’s commandments is “legalistic.” The community church movement, using “grace” as a catch phrase dismisses any call to obedience as pure legalism.

Legalism is not a New Testament word. It describes an attitude toward salvation that Paul opposed in the book of Galatians. Legalism derives from the Latin word, legis, for “law.” This does not refer to law of just any kind, because without law there is no sin (1 Jn. 3:4). Legalism is the idea that by obeying the Law one earns his salvation. Paul said, “a man is not justified by works of the law” (Gal. 2:16). These were works of Mosaic Law (Acts 15:1, 5). Christ, by his death, has removed this law (Gal. 3:24-26).

We need to understand what legalism is not. Legalism is not being conservative, or concerned with obedience. Paul was concerned with obedience (Gal. 3:1). Legalism is not attention to doctrinal correctness. Paul cared about such correctness (Gal. 1:6-9). Legalism is not commandment keeping (1 Jn. 5:3). Some brethren accept the term “legalist” for themselves believing it is synonymous with soundness. Legalism is not soundness. Legalism is not something a Christian should aspire to profess.

Legalism has its liabilities. It is interesting that so much of the legalism debate these days centers on baptism. Are we legalists if we maintain the New Testament teaching that baptism is for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38)? The Bible teaches that we are saved in Christ by “grace…through the faith” [gospel] (Eph. 2:8, English Study Bible). There is nothing anyone can do that will add anything to Christ’s redemptive work. Grace is, however, conditioned upon our acceptance of God’s free gift through Jesus Christ. Involved in our sanctification is “the washing of water by the word” (Eph. 5:26). In his mercy he saves us “by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5). If baptism is a “work” it is God’s work, and not our own (Col. 2:12). It is certainly not a work of merit! (Eph. 2:9-10).

Is the act of baptism, then, essential to one’s salvation? Jesus says that it is: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mk. 16:16). What, then, are we to make of those who insist that, “Baptism is sacred, but not essential to one’s salvation”? Would we not say that they are in error? They have singled out New Testament teaching on immersion for doctrinal execution! They offer a program of selective obedience. They choose faith, but leave off baptism. Baptism, to them, is too restrictive – too “legalistic”! But, selective obedience is the strongest form of legalism threatening the church today. Therefore, those who decry legalism the loudest are themselves the strongest example of it!

by Dennis Gulledge