The Meriting Type Of Legalism

In 2 Corinthians 11:3-4 shows even from the time of the Apostles, there were false gospels being preached among some churchgoers: “But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you may well put up with it.” In verse 3 here, Paul reveals such different gospels can be used by Satan to lead our minds away from a pure devotion to Jesus Christ.

Galatians 2:14 speaks of “the truth of the Gospel”. If there are truths about the Gospel, there can obviously be errors taught about it as well. There have been many false gospels preached in churches over the centuries. These false gospels come under two main groupings. The first grouping is known as legalism. The second can be called easy believism.

One type of legalism involves trying to earn or deserve God’s infinite love, His grace, His acceptance, a place in heaven, avoidance of eternal punishment, the baptism in the Holy Spirit, miracles, spiritual gifts, authority over demons and other blessings from Him – by our human efforts to be good and live rightly.

In Ephesians 2:8-9, the Apostle Paul reveals it is impossible to earn any aspect of God’s salvation by our human efforts: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” In verse 8 here Paul reveals we have been saved from the rule of sin and Satan and from eternal punishment through a pure gift of God. The original Greek New Testament word for “grace” is “charis” which means “that which is given freely and generously” [1] or “free favor, free gift”. [2]

If it were possible to earn or deserve God’s gifts or grace then we could no longer call these things gifts or grace. For example, if I said to my child that he would receive a wonderful gift from me if he earnt or deserved it though good behaviour, then this would not be a gift. It would be a deserved reward instead. There is a big difference between merited rewards and unmerited gifts. When commenting on Romans 4:2, 4 and 25, Colin Brown says: “The ideas of grace…and as debt…i.e. a reward for work accomplished are mutually exclusive”. [3] Brown uses the expression “mutually exclusive” here to refer to the fact “grace” and “rewards” have two totally different meanings.

Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:20 teach no person can be declared righteous by God through works of law. Romans 3:20 states: “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight...” Works of law means trying to earn or deserve being declared righteous by obeying the Law of Moses by mere human power and without trusting faith in God. Works of law can also refer to acts of obedience done by mere human power to the broader Law of God expressed, for example, in the two great love commands Jesus gave (see Matthew 22:37-40).

One modern view suggests that Paul uses the expression “works of law” just to mean being under the Mosaic Covenant and Law. This view argues that when Paul said no-one can be justified by works of law (see Romans 3:20, 3:28 and Galatians 2:16), he was only attacking the Jewish claim that God would only justify those humans who were under the Mosaic Covenant and Law. Paul does challenge Jewish beliefs about such matters in Romans 2:1-3:20. In Romans 2:17, Paul refers to this different Jewish problem of “resting on the Law”.

But Paul’s expression “works of Law” refers to human actions in response to the Mosaic Covenant and Law and not to just the Mosaic Covenant and Law itself. The Mosaic Covenant contains laws and statutes which command various works or actions. But the Mosaic Covenant is not the human works itself. Refer to Douglas Moo’s “The N.I.V. Application Commentary – Romans”, [4] for more discussion on the phrase “works of Law”.

Only someone who obeys everything in the Law of Moses perfectly every day or who loves God and others every moment of every day can be declared righteous by God through works of Law. If you sin just once, you cannot be declared righteous through the Law of Moses or the broader Law of God. Because we all sin (see Romans 3:9-18, 3:23 and Galatians 3:22), none of us can be declared righteous by works of law.

Legalism also involves trying to earn or deserve salvation or other blessings from God by any type of work or action and not just by works of Law. In Romans 11:6, Paul contrasts all works to God’s grace: “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.” In Galatians 3:21, Paul stresses that it is impossible for any fallen human to receive eternal life through obedience to any type of laws, not only the Mosaic Law: “…For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.”

Under the New Covenant, God commands believers to do good works (see Ephesians 2:10, Titus 3:8 and James 2:14-26). But these good works are done as fruits of His grace and of our faith, but not as legalistic meriting mechanisms.


Do you have legalistic tendencies?


Do you believe you have earned a place in heaven? Do you believe some Christians deserve to receive miracles more than others? Do you imagine prayer, fasting, praise, other good works or your faith earns miracles and prosperity from God? Do you think you have to read the Bible more, fast more and become more holy in your daily living in order to deserve the baptism in the Holy Spirit? Do you imagine the Holy Spirit will leave you every time you fall into sin after being born-again and will only return if you repent?

If you answer, “Yes” to any of the above questions, this reveals you have a legalistic attitude to God. You do not understand God’s infinite grace. A place in heaven, miracles, healings, the baptism in the Holy Spirit and His presence within us are all totally free gifts. True faith does not try to earn or deserve any of these gifts of God. True faith instead thankfully receives these gifts, knowing we do not deserve these, but because of Jesus’ love, death and resurrection, He longs to give us these.

Galatians 3:5, Romans 11:6, Ephesians 2:7-9, 3:7-8, and 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 prove God’s gifts cannot be earnt or deserved by our human efforts. Galatians 3:5 says: “Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”


Legalists overemphasise the human aspects of salvation


Christians with legalistic tendencies tend to overemphasise the Biblical doctrine of human responsibility so much they:


·         undervalue what God has done through Jesus’ death and resurrection

·         undervalue what God is doing or wants to do in believers’ lives by His unmerited grace through the wonderful work of the Holy Spirit within them.


Legalistic Christians often teach about the Biblical doctrines of repentance from sin, righteousness and holy living in ways that have little, if any, relationship to the above two key Biblical emphases. As a result, they end up producing a religion of self-effort, self-reliance, self-centredness, self-righteousness, pride about good works and self-condemnation about any personal sin.


Jewish legalism before and during Christ's time


In the time of Christ and the Apostles, many of the Jews who rejected Him had a limited understanding of their being under the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic Covenants (see Matthew 3:8-9, 22:41-43, Luke 3:8, John 5:45-47, 7:42, 8:33, 8:39, 9:29 and Acts 6:14). But these Jews twisted and perverted various aspects of these God-given covenants. One of their errors was legalism. Many of these Jews had imagined they could merit or earn the maintenance of their originally grace-based right standing with God, being declared righteous at the Final Judgement, being given eternal life and being granted earthly prosperity and other blessings. These legalistic tendencies were also present among many Jews in the period after the prophet Malachi’s death in about the 400’s B.C. to the time of Christ.

This does not mean all Jews living during the above period and in Christ's time were self-righteous legalists. Godly Jews who had saving faith were not legalists. Simeon, the prophetess Anna, Zechariah, Elizabeth and John the Baptist were examples of godly Jews with such faith in God.

Proof that some or many of the Jews just before and during Christ's time were legalistic can be seen in the Jewish Apocryphal writings Tobit, Sirach (also called “Ecclesiaticus”) and 2 Maccabees. These three were written approximately between                  .

Tobit 12:9 teaches the legalistic concept that giving money to the needy atones for sin: “For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fulness of life.” (R.S.V. – Catholic edition). Sirach 3:30 teaches the same legalistic idea: “Water extinguishes a blazing fire: so almsgiving atones for sin.” (R.S.V. – Catholic edition). Atonement refers to the removal of the guilt and punishment owing because of our sins.

2 Maccabees 7:9 says those who die for the laws of the Mosaic Covenant will be resurrected in eternal life: “And when he was at the last breath, he said, ‘You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.’” (R.S.V. – Catholic edition). Read also “The Septuagint with Apocrypha” translation of 2 Maccabees 7:9: And when he was at the last gasp, he said, Thou like a fury takest us out of this present life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for his laws, unto everlasting life.”

In his “The Histories”, the Roman historian Tacitus (approx. 56-120 A.D.) recorded that the Jews at his time “think that eternal life is granted to those who die in battle or execution – hence their eagerness to have children, and their contempt of death.” [5] This false Jewish belief was based on the Old Testament Apocryphal book verse 2 Maccabees 7:9 and is the source of the similar Muslim teaching about martyrs.

Note also Sirach 3:3 makes the legalistic claim that honouring our father earns for us the atonement of our sins: “Whoever honours his father atones for sins.” (R.S.V. –Catholic edition). This verse teaches falsely that our good works can remove the guilt and punishment owing for our sins.

In their Community Rule (Part VIII), the Qumran Sect says “In the Council of the Community there shall be twelve men and three Priests, perfectly versed in all that is revealed of the Law, whose works shall be truth, righteousness, justice, loving kindness and humility. They shall preserve the faith in the Lord with steadfastness and meekness and shall atone for sin by the practice of justice and by suffering the sorrows of affliction. [6] Community Rule (Part IX) says the members of the Qumran Community “shall atone for guilty rebellion and for sins of unfaithfulness that they may obtain lovingkindness for the Lord without the flesh of holocausts and fat of sacrifice. And prayer rightly offered shall be as an acceptable fragrance of righteousness, and perfection of way as a delectable free-will offering”. [7] In these two quotes, we see the Qumran Sect taught the legalistic idea that the practice of good works and our own personal suffering provides atonement for our sins.

Note that among the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, copies of the Apocryphal books Ecclesiasticus and Tobit were found. [8] As stated earlier, these Apocryphal writings legalistically taught atonement for sins could be merited by good works.


An example of legalism in the Mishnah


The Jewish Mishnah teaches a legalistic attitude in Yoma 8:8 about repentance meriting atonement of sins: “…B. Death and the Day of Atonement atone when joined to repentance. C. Repentance atones for minor transgressions of positive and negative commandments. D. And to serious transgressions, (repentance) suspends the punishment until the Day of Atonement comes along and atones.”

The Old Testament does not teach that repentance atones for sin. Atonement is not provided by a combination of the death of a substitute and repentance. Atonement is provided by the death of the innocent substitute only. Repentance is, however, one of the God-appointed means of receiving the gracious benefits provided by the atoning death of a substitute. The other God-ordained means is faith.



Legalistic Jewish elders and the Roman with great faith


It is true numerous Jews in Christ's time had a good understanding of God’s undeserved mercy. For example, many of those who asked the Lord Jesus to heal them, asked Him to do this on the basis of His mercy (see Matthew 9:27-29, 15:21-28, 17:14-23, 20:30-34, Mark 10:46-52, Luke 17:11-19 and 18:35-43).

But the New Testament reveals some Jews had the legalistic attitude that miracles and blessings could be deserved or merited by good works. For example, read Luke 7:2-5: “And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die. So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.”

The Jewish elders imagined the Roman centurion deserved to be healed by the Lord because the centurion loved the Jews and very generously built them a synagogue. In Greek, the word “deserving” above is the word “axios” which means “having a relatively high degree of comparable merit [9] or “worthy, deserve”. [10] These Jewish elders were like some modern church leaders who teach that believers deserve or merit being healed or blessed financially because the latter love others and have given extremely generously to their local church or to the projects of various ministries.

Compare this to the right attitude of the Roman centurion. Luke 7:6-7 records: “Then Jesus went with them. And when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, ‘Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.’” The Roman centurion emphasised he did not believe that he deserved or merited the Lord doing a miracle for him. This is even though the centurion had obviously done many highly commendable good works.

The Roman centurion had wonderful faith in the Person of the Lord Jesus and His Words. He believed whatever Christ commanded would immediately occur. His strong faith also expressed itself in the fact he did not approach the Lord with the attitude he deserved the miracle because of his own good attitudes or actions. Note Christ said He had never seen such great faith (see Luke 7:9) and healed the centurion’s servant.


Eternal life is not merited as a reward for God-empowered works


From about the mid-100’s A.D., there were a number of varying views in the Christian churches about how people received eternal life. One of the main views was at water baptism people became new creations in Christ and received the Holy Spirit and God’s grace within them, and then on the basis of this grace they did good works. These grace-empowered good works in obedience to various Biblical laws or commands supposedly merited them eternal life after death.

The above view is contrary to the teaching of the New Testament in a number of areas. For example, John 3:15, 3:16, 3:36, 5:24, 6:47, 1 John 3:14, 5:12 and 5:13 teach that New Testament believers receive eternal life during their earthly lives. In Old Testament times, believers did not receive eternal life until after they died physically. But in New Testament times, believers receive eternal life at the point of conversion.

In John 5:24, Christ taught: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgement, but has passed from death into life.” In Greek, the expression “has passed” is in the perfect tense and the word “has” in the expression “has everlasting life” is present tense. In Greek, the perfect tense refers to completed actions with continuing effects or states resulting from previous actions and the present tense usually to continuous or repeated actions. So Jesus here teaches that those who receive His Words and believe in God Who sent Him have passed from a state of being spiritually dead or separated from God’s eternal life to being in union with His eternal life. This occurred as a completed past action at conversion. The perfect tense of “has passed” relates to this. The present tense of “has” in the expression “has everlasting life” refers to the fact true believers have eternal life in a continuous or ongoing sense in this earthly life.

In its context, John 5:24 also relates to what would occur after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Verse 25 says: “Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.”

In 1 John 3:14, John stated: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death.” In Greek, the expression “we have passed” is in the perfect tense. Therefore 1 John 3:14 teaches we as believers in Jesus Christ have moved as a completed action from a state of spiritual death to being in union with God’s eternal life. This verse also shows one of the signs or effects of our having received eternal life is we love our brothers and sisters in Christ.

1 John 5:11-13 teaches: “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.” In verse 11 here, John says God has already given believers eternal life and this life is resident in God’s Son.

In the original Greek of verse 12 above, the words “has” and “have” – both used twice – are all present tense. Therefore in verse 12, John is saying those who have the Son of God living within them now in an ongoing sense, have eternal life within them at present continuously. In verse 13, John tells those who believe in Jesus Christ, that he wants them to know they have eternal life now. He says “you have eternal life”. In Greek, the expression “you have” is present tense. This means believers now have eternal life in a ongoing sense.

John 6:63 says: “It is the Spirit who gives life…” and 2 Corinthians 3:6 declares: “…the Spirit gives life.” Because all New Covenant believers have the Spirit in them (see Romans 8:9), they already have eternal life in them.

In John 3:15 and 16, Jesus declared that whoever believes in Him has eternal life. John 3:16 says: “…whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” In Greek, the words “believe” and “have” in John 3:15 and 3:16 are present tense. As stated before, usually the Greek present tense signifies actions which are continuous or repetitive occurrences. In these two verses, Christ revealed that those who believe continuously in Him have eternal life now continuously. In John 3:36, John the Baptist said the same thing. Note John’s words “believes” and “has” are present tense also.

Many churchgoers have misunderstood Paul’s words in Titus 1:2 and 3:7. In the contexts of Titus 1:2 and 3:7, the expression “hope of eternal life” refers to the future fullest manifestation of God’s eternal life in us after our bodies are resurrected by His life. In Greek, the word “hope” in Titus 1:2 and 3:7 are forms of the word “elpis”. “Elpis” means “to look forward with confidence to that which is good and beneficial”. [11] Vine argues “elpis” relates to the future. [12]

Matthew 25:46 refers to the state of eternal life after the Final Judgement. But it does not mean eternal life cannot be first experienced in this life.

The New Testament teaching on our receiving eternal life is similar to its explanation about our being sanctified. Acts 20:32, 26:18, Romans 15:16, 1 Corinthians 1:2 and Hebrews 10:10 all use the perfect tense of the Greek word for being sanctified. These verses reveal all believers are sanctified at conversion as completed actions with continuing effects or are in a state of sanctification. But note 1 Thessalonians 3:13 teaches there will be a fuller outworking of God’s holiness in our lives at Jesus’ Second Coming. [13]

In Romans 6:23, Paul stresses that eternal life is a totally free unmerited gift: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our lord.” (N.A.S.B.) In Greek, the expression “free gift” here is “charisma” which means “a gift freely and graciously given” [14] or “that which is given freely and generously”. [15]

1 Peter 3:7 refers to eternal life as “the grace of life.” In Greek, the word “grace” here is a form of the word “charis” which means in this context “gracious gift” [16] or “that which is given freely and generously” [17] or “free favor, free gift, grace”. [18] So to suggest eternal life is partly grace and partly a merited reward for obedience to various Biblical laws contradicts both Paul and Peter’s teaching.

Also, note in Galatians 3:21, Paul stressed that no fallen human can receive eternal life through obedience to any type of laws – Biblical or otherwise: “…For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.” Those individuals among Orthodox, Protestant Evangelicals, Protestant Liberals, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals and Charismatics who believe in forms of the meriting type of legalism have a poor understanding of the differences between the Biblical teachings on God’s unmerited grace and mercy on one hand and His merited rewards on the other. They unite these Biblical teachings together in various confused mixtures. For example, on one occasion, they will call eternal life “a free unmerited gift” and then in the next breath refer to it as a “deserved reward”.



Bible Study Questions


1.         Explain what the meriting type of legalism involves.

2.         What are the works of Law?

3.         Explain what is the difference between works of law and the Romans 2:17 phrase “resting on the Law”.

4.         What does Romans 11:6 teach?

5.         Explain what Galatians 3:21 reveals.

6.         What are the signs that we have legalistic tendencies?

7.         What legalistic attitudes were taught in the Apocryphal Books of:

a)             Tobit

b)             Sirach

c)             and 2 Maccabees.

8.         Discuss an example of the legalism of the Qumran Sect.

9.         What legalistic attitude does Yoma 8:8 in the Jewish Mishnah teach?

10.     Compare the legalistic attitudes of the Jewish elder with the humble faith of the Roman Centurion in Luke 7:2-5.

11.     Discuss the verses which show eternal life:

a)             can be received in our earthly lives

b)             and is experienced after believers die.





[1] Louw and Nida, pages 569 and 749.

[2] Perschbacher, page 436.

[3] Colin Brown, page 120.

[4] Douglas Moo “The N.I.V. Application Commentary – Romans”, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2000, pages 119-121.

[5] Tacitus, “The Histories”, Book 5, 5.

[6] G. Vermes, “The Dead Sea Scrolls in English”, Third Edition, Penguin, Harmondsworth, England, 1975, page 72.

[7] Ibid, page 74.

[8] Ibid, page XIV in Introduction.

[9] Louw and Nida, page 622.

[10] Bauer, page 78.

[11] Louw and Nida, page 296.

[12] Vine, page 311.

[13] Refer to Chapter           “Growing in Holiness” for details about the practical outworkings of holiness after conversion in our earthly lives.

[14] Bauer, page 878.

[15] Louw and Nida, page 569.

[16] Bauer, page 878.

[17] Louw and Nida, page 569.

[18] Perschbacher, page 436.



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