The Biblical Basis for Standards
Having Standards Legalism & Phariseeism?
Dr. David L. Brown, Ph.D. & Dr. John
Legalism is a term wildly thrown around in many Christian circles today.
Often Christians who desire to maintain holy standards and who are zealous for
pure doctrine as set forth in the Word of God are accused of being legalists and
Pharisees. Walking obediently before God and urging others to do the same often
brings harassing accusations of being a grace killer, a Puritain, a legalist and
The modern church shouts at the top of their lungs, “we are
not under law, we are under GRACE!” But they have a very unbiblical view of what
grace is. Charles Swindoll writes -- [Grace] “means I'm free to choose
righteousness or disobedience… Christ's blood has cleansed us from our sin, we
are gloriously free - free to please Him. But we don't have to.” He goes on to
say, “Life is like a menu in the Grace Restaurant. In this new establishment you
are free to choose whatever you want.” (Charles R. Swindoll, The Grace
Awakening; Nashville: Word Publishing, 1990)
The promoters of this
“choose whatever you want” grace “cherry pick” proof texts that seem to support
their idea that the grace of God allows the believer to live like he or she
wants to, which in truth is “turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness….”
For the believer, God’s grace is the enablement God gives
Christians to say no to sin and to make them able to live for and serve Him. It
is God giving the believer the desire and power to live the Christian life and
serve Him (Philippians 2:12-13; 1 Corinthians 15:10).
One verse used to support the false grace being promoted in our day is a
portion of Romans 6:14 which says “for ye are not under the law, but under
grace.” This is one of the passages quoted to support the anti-law,
anti-standard thinking that pervades the modern church. However, they have
jerked this verse completely out of context! This passage is NOT supporting the
“live like you please” mentality. Let’s examine the context - Romans 6:12-18
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the
lusts thereof. 13 Neither yield ye your members as instruments of
unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive
from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. 14 For
sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under
grace. 15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under
grace? God forbid. 16 Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to
obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of
obedience unto righteousness? 17 But God be thanked, that ye were the servants
of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was
delivered you. 18 Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of
God’s Grace gives the believer NO license to choose to
live as we please! This is very clearly stated in Titus 2:11-12 “For the grace
of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, 12 Teaching us that,
denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and
godly, in this present world.”
We need to examine some definitions. Let’s start with
God established 613 specific rules, that He revealed to Moses
who in turn revealed them to the Nation of Israel, which they were to follow.
These included the 10 Commandments, the Moral Law and the Ceremonial Law. These
can be found in Exodus, Leviticus & Deuteronomy. One Jewish source states it
this way -- According to the Talmud there are 613 mitzvot ("commandments") in
the Torah. There are 248 positive mitzvot and 365 negative mitzvot given. The
Law is GOOD! (Romans 7:7-12)
The term legalism is not used in the Bible, however the concept is. Let me
explain. Legalism is NOT the presence of rules but rather a wrong attitude about
and a wrong application of those the rules.
Let me give you an example
of what I mean. When a person tries to use the law as a system for earning
salvation that IS legalism. God NEVER gave the Law as a means of salvation! The
Bible says, “By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” Galatians
2:16 Again, we read similar language in Romans 3:20 - “Therefore by the deeds of
the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the
knowledge of sin.”
Let me give you a second example of legalism. When a
person performs a rule or standard merely to attract attention and or glorify
their own actions, that is legalism!
A good example of this type of
legalism is found in Matthew 23:1-7 “Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to
his disciples, 2Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: 3All
therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye
after their works: for they say, and do not. 4For they bind heavy burdens and
grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will
not move them with one of their fingers. 5But all their works they do for to be
seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of
their garments, 6And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in
the synagogues, 7And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi,
Keeping rules to be noticed by people so that they consider you
spiritual is legalism.
Another illustration of legalism is Matthew 6:1-8
“Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye
have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. 2Therefore when thou doest
thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the
synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say
unto you, They have their reward. 3But when thou doest alms, let not thy left
hand know what thy right hand doeth: 4That thine alms may be in secret: and thy
Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. 5And when thou
prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing
in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of
men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6But thou, when thou
prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy
Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward
thee openly. 7But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for
they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8Be not ye
therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of,
before ye ask him.”
definition of a Pharisee is a member of an ancient Jewish sect that emphasized
strict interpretation and observance of the Mosaic Law and Jewish oral and
written tradition. Pharisees are a religious party in Palestine that emerged
about 160 BC in opposition to the Sadducees. The Pharisees in the New Testament
are portrayed as self-righteous hypocrites. Our Lord takes them to task for this
in Matthew 23:13-23. See also Luke 18:10-14.
But, just because a
Christian advocates and practices living an obedient, holy life before God, that
does NOT make him a legalist or a Pharisee.
Many standards are clearly
stated in the Bible: You must not lie, you must not commit adultery, you must
not be immoral. But often, Christians may balk when confronted with “other”
standards their church or peers expect them to follow.
Is it Biblically
valid for individual Christians or churches to establish rigid standards of
conduct in areas not specifically covered in Scripture? Yes! The Word of God may
not cover every subject, but does lay down principles for making determinations.
Romans 12:1-2 is a passage familiar to most Christians. Here the apostle
Paul writes, “Be not conformed to this world.” Christians are commanded to be
The world is constantly trying to squeeze believers into its
mold – to put the screws on believers, to pressure believers, to make the
individual believer just another person of the world.
We all live in the
world 24 hours a day. What we see, what we read, what we hear on the radio and
watch on television, are all conditioned by the world’s philosophy. Under this
bombardment, it is difficult sometimes to recognize when we are being molded by
the world, simply because we are in it so much.
In Ephesians 4:17, God
challenges believers to “walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of the
mind”. There must be a difference between the manner of life of a believer and
the manner of life of the unsaved person, or “Gentile”.
When the Bible
sets no specific standard of conduct for a particular situation, we often
question who should establish a standard. But behind that question, there is
God’s challenge that makes some standard necessary.
Again, that challenge
is to be different than the world, and to have a manner of life different from
the unsaved. This does not come naturally to the believer. So some standard must
be found to evaluate how unsaved persons walk in given situations and how
Christians are to be different.
of Standards Is Not Legalism
Here is the issue. The
presence of standards is NOT legalism as many would have you to believe! It is
true that legalism as a system is wrong, and quite contrary to the teaching of
the Word of God. But is it also true that the presence of standards or rules
automatically equals legalism?
God established many rules for the nation
of Israel in the Old Testament. Was He guilty of legalism? Of course not! There
were laws, but not legalism.
In fact, the New Testament carries many
commands given to the church or to individuals. Many of these commands are not
unlike those given Israel. Notice there are commands to “be filled with the Holy
Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18) to “provoke one another to love” (Hebrews 10:24), for
women to dress “in modest apparel” (1 Timothy 2:9), for men not to have “long
hair” (1 Corinthians 11:14), and on and on. These are rules, but clearly they do
not make the New Testament legalistic.
Legalism is not the presence of
rules, but rather a wrong attitude about rules. When one performs a rule or
standard merely to glory in their own actions, that is legalism.
spirituality in the New Testament grows from an individual’s relationship to the
Spirit. Is he sensitive to the Spirit? If he is walking day by day, moment by
moment, under the control and influence of the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:16 &
25), then he will be spiritual. Is he putting off the old man and putting on the
new man (Ephesians 4:22-32). Is he seeking to be holy as God is holy! I remind
you of 1 Peter 1:13-16 which says, “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be
sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the
revelation of Jesus Christ; 14As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves
according to the former lusts in your ignorance: 15But as he which hath called
you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; 16Because it is
written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.”
A person who keeps rules may not be
spiritual. But a person who is spiritual does live by rules. The spiritual
person delights in living by the standards of God’s Word, and delights in
allowing God’s Spirit to control or standardize his life.
really boils down to this: Rules and standards are necessary for individual
Christians to maintain their own testimonies, and the testimonies of the
churches or organizations they represent.
“Ye are our epistles written in our hearts, known and read by all men”, says
Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:2.
By our lives both the saved and unsaved see
the principles of God’s Word—or they do not see those principles. Individual
Christians must look to the Bible and establish personal standards so that “men
may see our good works and glorify our Father which is in heaven” (Matthew
Likewise, fundamental Bible-believing churches and organizations
must establish standards by which they can corporately represent themselves
before the saved and unsaved communities.
To those who question the need
for standards, the answer is: Legalism, no! False spirituality, no! Testimony,
Show your love for Christ by keeping His commandments (John 14:15
"If ye love me, keep my commandments."). Make it obvious by your life that you
love him with all your being! (Mark 12:30 "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God
with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all
thy strength: this is the first commandment.").
Show your respect for
Christ, walking blamelessly in His ordinances (Philippians 2:15 "That ye may be
blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a
crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world;").
Be enthusiastic by obeying Him with all your might and by serving Him with
all your strength. (Romans 12:11 "Not slothful [lax] in business [diligence];
fervent in spirit; serving the Lord;")
Glorify Christ by imitating Him in all things and by walking as He walked (1
John 2:6 "He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as
Trust in Christ to live and reign in your heart! (Romans
6:12-13 "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it
in the lusts thereof. 13 Neither yield ye your members as instruments of
unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive
from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.").
Have confidence in Christ that He will fulfill in your all of great and
precious promises He has given (2 Peter 1:4 "Whereby are given unto us exceeding
great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine
nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.") and
that He will work in you all the good pleasure of His goodness, and all the work
of faith with power (2 Thessalonians 1:11 "Wherefore also we pray always for
you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the
good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power:").
Him who has done all for you, do all in you!
Beloved that is NOT
legalism! That is being controlled by the Holy Spirit, which demonstrates itself
in Holy Living! And we need more of that in our own lives! And all of God’s
people said – AMEN!
It is not legalist to live a Holy life! It is