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What is the root error of legalism?

What is the root error of legalism and how does it show itself in the life of a Christian?

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How does legalism relate to the Flesh?


Hi @tsweaver


how does legalism relate to the flesh

I would say the most concise answer would probably be Romans 7:5 :

For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death

I’d love to talk about this further to discuss the context and the phrases if there’s something specifically questionable about the verse or the context of it after you read it.


“What is the root error of legalism and how does it show itself in the life of a Christian?”

(A quick read through the book of Galations (just 6 short chapters) will give you the most comprehensive answer)

You might have heard of the “Hero’s journey” unto victory.
Maybe the following little story-analogy I made up could be called the un-heroic journey of defeat: Maybe it could somewhat serve as a canvas to consider how the strings of “legalism” are attached at the root.

Overwhelmed by a most impossible assignment a frustrated student once exclaimed “This is impossible!! I can’t do it and I won’t do it!!.. How am I supposed to do “w”, “X”, “Y”, “Z” when I don’t know “T”? and when “U” and “V” are working against me” he protested. To which the teacher answered: "Here is how: Be patient. Keep listening. Be truthful. Do your homework. Study the books I’ve given you. Be gentle, Don’t be afraid. But be careful. Truly consider what I say.

Taking another run at it the student was diligent to read and ponder, he put forth renewed efforts to try to be patient and truthful, to be sober and thoughtful, and he tried diligently to not be afraid even though his knee-jerkk reactions sometimes got the best of him. He took all that the teacher said and tried to be all that he could be. He also tried to breathe deep and relax and to see the world in the most divine perspective so as to account for all things properly. By this he would increase his discovery of excellent doctrines and attain the wisdoms and wonderfulness’s of truth which could guide his steps to that which was wise and good, where in theory, he would not stumble in the face of temptations, confusion, and mystery and the complexities of life.

Pursuing these efforts he would experience blissful “ah-ha” moments and find good principles to live by. He would discover truth and doctrine for sure. But it could only act like a tease in the absence of true and living Divine guidance. He would find that even when he got his doctrine correct, he would often get the application of it all wrong.

How common is it for a man like this to justify his secret errors buried underneath good principles and technically-correct judgments? And how uncommon is it for each of us to come to a breaking point (having learned by the journey of defeat) where the hypocrite finally begs for mercy as he bleeds with honesty and truth along the lines of James 4:9 (Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom James 4:9)

Along these same lines I would also submit the near-conclusion of Romans 7: Romans 7:24 : O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?


A legalistic person tends to “do” to be make them-self acceptable instead of knowing they are complete in what Christ “did” to make them acceptable. And that is of flesh and not dependant on faith alone.

Then there is the opposite effect, the “I don’t need any works” type of belief. James speaks to that mindset thoroughly.

Ken :canada:


Hi @tsweaver,

Exploring the roots of legalism is key to avoiding it. So thank you for the question!

An excerpt from this article gives us a foundation-

Luther says “It’s very hard for a man to believe that God is gracious to him. The human heart can’t grasp this.” If we don’t look to grace, we look to ourselves and to our own efforts.There in lies the roots of legalism.

The roots of legalism are in the sinful and fallen human heart itself. The heart manifests its sinful condition in our crippling desire to lean on our own merits and our own abilities in the attempt to somehow climb out of the miry pit of sin and reach all the way to heaven. …

Curiously enough, the opposite of legalism also stumbles over grace. The opposite of legalism is antinomianism. This word includes the Greek prefix anti-, “against, in place of,” and the Greek word nomos, “law.” Theologically speaking, antinomians run away from any obligation to law or to any divine command… It’s not liberty—it’s license.

The solution to legalism is not antinomianism. The solution to antinomianism is not legalism. The solution to both is grace, that thing Luther told us was hard to grasp. Exploring the roots of legalism further will serve not only to expose it, but also to display the brilliant and stunning contours of its solution, the grace of God.

Legalism is all about focusing on the external without regard to the internal condition of the heart before the Lord. It is not to be confused with obedience because a changed heart longs not to live according to the desires of the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 6)

A few examples of what it may look like -

  1. A lack of understanding of how utterly spiritually broken we are without God can cause us to depend on our religious performance rather than the grace of God as a means of measuring righteousness. It can be marked by contempt for others or self when righteous living fails and boasting when it succeeds. At the root can lie pride/deception, an unwillingness to accept how broken we really are, that we try hard to prove ourselves as being good. The result is shame that keeps us away from God or we try covering that shame with our good works instead of accepting Christ’s robe of righteousness.

Luke 11:39 NKJV Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness.

  1. Legalists emphasize the letter of the law so much that they miss the Spirit of the law which is justice and love.

Luke 11:42 NKJV

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.

Matthew 12:7 NKJV

But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ a you would not have condemned the guiltless.

  1. Legalists can take the law beyond the original intent and bind the human conscience by placing restrictions where God has not placed restrictions.

Luke 11:46 NKJV And He said, “Woe to you also, lawyers! For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Examples for modern times are restrictions on what type of instruments are used in worship or if they are used, restrictions on dress code, on food etc. Strivings about the law where God has given liberty leads to schisms.

Titus 3:9 NKJV
But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless.

  1. A Need for Control or power - When someone is able to keep the law that goes beyond what’s written, it can place them in a place of power over those who cant keep that law. There may be submission to them by others not out of love for God but out of fear and a sense of moral failure. It just leads to a feeling of bondage. God is on the sidelines and the religious leaders are front and center.

The bottom line is when we are not fully broken in humility before the Lord and haven’t received the grace of God, we can be led by motives such as pride, fear, guilt, covetousness or power and slip into legalism, professing to be wise we become foolish.

Here’s another thread that should be helpful to you to understand how we can slipping away from grace leads to legalism.

God bless!


Thank you @Lakshmismehta and @Curious. Your responses were particularly helpful. Here is my summary of the answers to my questions after reading your responses and reflecting:

The root error of legalism is that it minimizes God’s holiness and supports the idea that you need to follow rules to obtain His holiness and blessing. The way this shows itself in the Christian life is the abuse of grace. Legalism covers grace because it promotes obedience to receive a blessing. Grace says we are already blessed, and our performance does not matter. Standards, rules, and laws fail to make us pure or keep us pure because impurity comes from the heart. A pure heart does not come from standards, rules, and laws.

Legalism can relate to our Flesh in ways. For example, sometimes my Flesh does not want to practice a spiritual discipline because I do not feel like I have the time, or I am too tired, etc. However, I typically end up forcing myself to do it anyway because I feel as though it is something I must do to obtain holiness and blessing. This is legalism directly relating to my Flesh.

Let me know what you think.


I think if you boiled it all the way down to one word, it would be : Pride. It certainly comes from the sinful nature of the heart like others have mentioned. Pride boasts in it’s own understanding, it breeds arrogance. We see these things lived out in the Pharisees that condemned Jesus and laid heavy burdens upon the people. They kept compiling law after law upon people and each other to prove their holiness. Their pride was their downfall. God loves the humble heart which is evidenced in scripture. It’s a simplistic answer to your question but I hope it helps none the less.

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I agree here. The force behind obedience is self not the Holy Spirit. The only point I would like to emphasize is that faith through grace always seeks to obey God. When walking in disobedience, genuine faith leaves us unhappy and restless and willing to repent.

If you were forcing yourself to be in prayer and relationship with God, that would be just fine, not legalism. However, if you do it with the purpose of receiving a blessing, then I think God is not the focus, which might mean that we we are being led by self rather than the Holy Spirit. So, in the second situation, the walk can turn legalistic.

I hope that provides more clarity.

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Yes, legalism is generated by a self righteous attitude, while dependance on Jesus’ righteousness is driven by faith in His works. A person can know they are genuinely saved, when their life practices are motivated by their love for God, since the Spirit takes residence in a human in order to, save them unto good works. It is therefore the Holy Spirit that promotes good works and not human will intent on personal glorification.

It is a precarious place to wander. If a person assumed they were doing everything right to earn acceptance into heaven, that is so different than living for God’s glory, knowing they have a reward in heaven. One seeks to build their own righteousness, keeping a record and hanging on to it as if clinging to what saves them; while the other receives Christ’s righteousness and even though they place all their good deeds at Jesus feet, they joyfully receive God’s blessings.

Good topic tswaever,



@tsweaver Hi!

I think the definition of legalism is when a person believes that you are justified before God through works of the law. So, I think the root error of legalism is that it’s works based. However, I would like to point out that keeping commandments in and of itself is not legalism, because although Christians are justified by faith(Ephesians 2:8-9), Christians are called to keep God’s commandments(1 John 5:3, James 2:18) as a result of salvation and not a means of salvation.

I also think there is another element to legalism, which I might say is the spirit of legalism. Which in order to explain I might use the following illustration.

Hypothetically, say two brothers were fighting with each other, and their father stops them and says, “Don’t hit your brother”. So, they stop fighting for a moment, but then the 1st brother, in order to antagonize the 2nd brother, puts his finger extremely close to the 2nd brother’s face, and when the 2nd brother complains, the 1st brother says, “What’s the problem?, I’m not hitting you, I’m not even touching you…”.

So, the law that the father gave was, “Don’t hit your brother”. That’s the letter of the law. However, the spirit of that same law was, “Love your brother”, which is why you shouldn’t hit him or antagonize him. So, although the 1st brother was adhering to the letter of the law that his father gave, the 1st brother was at the same time violating the spirit of that same law, which makes him a lawbreaker. Had the 1st brother obeyed the spirit of the law that his father gave, it would have subsequently resulted in the 1st brother obeying the letter of the law that his father gave, as well as any other laws that weren’t specifically mentioned, and the brothers could have been at peace.

I think that is basically the spirit of legalism. Where a person is trying to navigate around laws which they feel are imposed on them, in order to achieve that person’s own selfish ends, which results in undermining the actual purpose of those laws. So even though a person may be superficially adhering to the letter of those laws, they are actually breaking those laws by violating the spirit with which those same laws were given.


A most excellent explanation by example Jonathan,

The way you explained legalism here helps define the multiple levels of ways it affects people who seek it, and what they will go and do to attain legalism. To chose an ignorant view of what the law means by attempting to give the impression they are fulfilling it. It’s the very thing that Jesus called the Pharisees out about.

Ken :canada: