C. J. Mahaney, “Breaking the Rule of Legalism: How the Cross Rescues You from the Performance Trap,” chapter 11 in Living the Cross-Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing  (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2006), 111–21.

A legalist is anyone who behaves as if they can earn God’s forgiveness through personal performance. (p. 112)

[Legalism is] a danger that we’ll never outgrow in this lifetime. The tendency for legalism exists for each of us each and every day—because of the pride and self-righteousness of our indwelling sin. (p. 114)

Douglas J. Moo, “Legalism,” in New Living Translation Study Bible (ed. Sean A. Harrison; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008), note on Col 2:16–23 (formatting added):

Legalism ([Col] 2:16–23)

Matt 23:13–33
Mark 7:1–15
Gal 2:14–21

At the time of Christ and the early church, Jews made much of rules and laws in their understanding of religion.

  • This was natural to them because God had given his law to the Jewish people as a mark of his favor upon them and as a way for them to ratify the covenant agreement he had made with them.
  • However, many Jews added to the laws that God had given his people, trying to develop rules for virtually every situation in which they might find themselves.
  • Their motivation was often a positive desire not to transgress any of God’s laws.
  • As Jesus often pointed out, however, the rules developed by rabbis sometimes became obstacles to obeying God’s rules (Mark 7:1–15).
  • Furthermore, many Jews thought that following the law would automatically endear them to God.

Paul apparently confronted a situation of this kind in [Col] 2:16–23.

  • False teachers, influenced by Jewish beliefs, were insisting that Christians follow certain rules as a way of expressing their faith.
  • Paul criticized this in light of faith in Christ. As the culmination of all God’s plans and purposes, Christ is the center of all true piety.

This does not mean that rules for conduct are inherently bad.

  • Some rules, such as the prohibition on lying (3:9), clearly manifest an aspect of Christ’s character.
  • Paul also had no problem with individual Christians imposing rules on themselves that they think are conducive to their own growth in Christ (cp. Rom 14:5; 1 Cor 8).
  • But they must not require others to obey these self-imposed rules.


  1. says

    Licentiousness seems a much bigger problem for Christ-professing people these days than legalism.

    Nonetheless, grace is an antidote to both because gives a different course than licentiousness and is the means of obedience.

  2. says

    It seems to me that legalism abounds in the church today.

    Everyone has something for you ‘to do’. One never quite arrives in Christ and His “easy yoke”.

    None of us is up to it, but Christ has died for the ungodly.

    That’s the good news.

  3. says

    Steve Martin,

    You said, “It seems to me that legalism abounds in the church today.
    Everyone has something for you ‘to do’.”

    When you put it that way, I can agree. But that activity is about supporting and sustaining the church.

    In any case, it is the Lord Christ we should be serving.

  4. Amy Knoll says

    I agree with you both, Mike & Steve. Due to licentiousness, people are under extreme guilt. In order to get rid of that guilt, they produce a list of things in their minds that they must do in order to “really” earn God’s favor (or outweigh the bad). Part of that list might be to do anything and everything one is asked, to maintain or sustain the church. This breeds fatigue and Christian “burn-out” and is anything but the easy and light yoke Matt. 11:28-30 talks about.

    Getting back to the true Gospel — that we are worse than we know, and YES, Jesus’ sacrifice was enough to pay for all of it — reminding ourselves every day that sin has indeed been paid for by Jesus Christ, and that I do not need to do some sort of penance to now be right with God — Jesus did it all! As I recognize this, I am drawn to Christ and to love Him supremely! I have the power of His Spirit living inside me — I am free to die to SELF and truly live unto God — I am free to quickly repent and be cleansed when I see my lack of love for Christ and neighbor — Christ’s sacrifice paid for it!! I am free to live an obedient life — not mixing up my concerns with my responsibilities, so that the yoke I bear is truly easy and light — it’s free of “SELF” and “penance” and “legalism!”

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