The Biblical Basis for Standards
Is Having Standards Legalism & Phariseeism?

Dr. David L. Brown, Ph.D. & Dr. John Cawood


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 a Pharisee. 

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….” (Jude 1:4). 

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 righteousness.”

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.” 

The Definitions

The Law

We need to examine some definitions. Let’s start with the LAW. 

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, 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.”

A Pharisee

The Biblical 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 different!

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.

The Presence 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.

True 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.

The issue 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 5:16).

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, yes!

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 he walked."). 

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:"). 

Let 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 obedience.


David L. Brown, Ph.D.

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