Jesus and Legalism

Jesus replaced legalism with the greater principle of love, and in doing so he destroyed the Law as it was understood in his day.

The scribes and Pharisees were known for meticulous observation of the detailed commandments found in the Old Testament, and they even followed the multitude of picky rules the scribes derived from those commandments.

The 10 Commandments

The legalists considered themselves righteous before God for their disciplined attention to his rules, unlike the unrighteous common people (sinners) who were unable or unwilling to be as careful as they.

Jesus repeatedly takes the legalists to task for their arrogant self-righteousness and he sides with the common sinners the Father loves so much, accusing the legalists in one place, You load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

Jesus Came to Fulfill the Law

It seems that Jesus’ (and his followers’) attitude toward the Law was understood by critics as abandonment of the Law. Perhaps they thought Jesus advocated living without any restraint on behavior, but Matthew chapter 5 indicates they were mistaken.

Jesus says:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

This is a very strong statement for the validity of the Law, but one should not conclude that Jesus promotes legalism. While he supports the purpose of the Law to guide correct behavior, he does not see the Law as a checklist of rules by which we can demonstrate our righteousness before God.

The key is in his statement:

I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

How Does Jesus Fulfill the Law?

What does Jesus mean by ‘fulfill them’? One suggestion is that he means he came to keep the Law perfectly as no one else was able to do; he was the perfect observer of the legalistic rules.

This is unlikely because we see that Jesus was constantly harassed for NOT observing the Law, especially the rules regarding the Sabbath. I don’t think any scribe or Pharisee of Jesus’ day would agree that Jesus observed the Law.

The meaning of the word ‘fulfill’ (πληρῶσαι) has many shades of meaning. It can mean confirm, validate, accomplish, or perform; it can mean complete, bring to its end, or finish. But based on everything else Jesus says about the law, the most appropriate meaning of the word as applied here seems to be ‘to set forth the true meaning of’.

Jesus did not come to repudiate the purpose of the Law but to explain what the Law was really all about at a time when its observance had decayed into legalism. He did not come to say ‘I can observe the Law perfectly and you can’t.’ Rather, he came to set forth the true meaning of the Law, and that true meaning can be summed up as ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

We are not to ignore our responsibility to observe proper behavior toward God and toward others, but we are not to reduce our responsibility to a list of legalistic rules, no matter how long the list might be. Instead we are to internalize the principle of loving others so that it can guide us in any conceivable situation.

How Does this Apply to Legalism Today?

Jesus concludes his statement with this observation:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Of course, this does not mean we must be more legalistic than the Pharisees but that we should see our behavior on a completely different level—love for others.

Growing up as a legalist, I witnessed and experienced the burden of living by the Law. There were two options: one could convince himself that he was successful and become a self-righteous Pharisee, or he could recognize his failure to observe the rules consistently and live in defeat and embarrassment before God.

Another negative development was the constant judgment of each other and of outsiders (sinners). Judging others is a great burden and it hurts people, and those who feel they do a great job of judging are among the most unpleasant people in the world.

Jesus Demonstrates the Difference between Law and Principle

This might all seem somewhat theoretical, but fortunately Matthew reports Jesus’ elaborations on some of the major issues of the Law. They are quite informative and we will talk about them next time.

Photo Credit: More Good Foundation via Compfight cc
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33 Responses to Jesus and Legalism

  1. michaeleeast says:

    I like your translation – to set forth the true meaning of – the law.
    This is certainly what Jesus did.
    He did not always obey the letter of the law but divined its spirit.
    And that spirit is Love.


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  3. labreuer says:

    Given what you’ve said here, how would you deal with the following:

    What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, (Rom 9:30-32)

    My interpretation of this is that there was a way for the Israelites to both obey the law and become righteous: by faith. By listening to God (contra the Jewish doctrine of Not in Heaven, repudiated by Paul in Rom 10) and wanting what he wants. Is 58 is a wonderful example of what’s at God’s heart. It’s almost as if all those laws God gave Israel were a kind of ‘scaffolding’, to get them to something more Is 58-like.


    • Labreuer, I agree with you that Isaiah 58 is a wonderful picture into the heart of God. This chapter dismisses dry legalism as incomplete and ineffective. As for the scaffolding of the laws ‘God gave to Israel’, it is difficult to know which of Israel’s laws actually came from God.

      I don’t think Paul was developing a doctrine of how the Israelites could have become righteous, he was grappling with the fact that most Jews of his day did not accept the message of Jesus. His ruminations on the problem revealed his anguish and the attempt to resolve the question as to why it was the case.

      You say: “My interpretation of this is that there was a way for the Israelites to both obey the law and become righteous: by faith.” Are you advocating some set of rules that believers should follow? If so, what examples do you have?


      • labreuer says:

        I’m not sure I understand the difference between “dry legalism” and, say, the attitude taken by the author of Psalm 119. As to the laws in Torah, I have no problem believing God gave imperfect laws to an imperfect people; he was doing his best to draw a very backward people to him, and perfect laws would have been like dropping a frog in boiling water.

        You say: “My interpretation of this is that there was a way for the Israelites to both obey the law and become righteous: by faith.” Are you advocating some set of rules that believers should follow? If so, what examples do you have?

        I’m advocating that there is structure or lawfulness to how to love people, kind of like how there is structure/lawfulness to how to build a building. There is an intellectual, knowledge-based aspect to love: Jesus said to love God with (1) heart, (2) mind, (3) soul, (4) strength. I think that as we learn to love others more, we learn more about what love is, and I believe we are called to communicate that to each other.

        Here are a few examples of ‘rules’, or at least ‘very good approximations’:

        1. I define ‘relational sin‘ as anything that harms or threatens to harm a relationship between two people. I think passages like Mt 5:23-24, Mt 18:15-22, and Eph 4:25-27 (see link) give us pretty direct guidance as to how to deal with relational sin: quickly, and as privately as possible. Paul and others urge us to strive for peace and unity, and this is one of the ways I think it must be done. Therefore, I doubt one can love one’s brother or sister in Christ, if one does not resolve relational sin quickly.

        2. 1 Corinthians 12 talks about three categories of person we are fleshly-inclined to treat poorly: (1) those who seem weaker; (2) those we think less honorable; (3) the unpresentable parts [of the body]. I wrote a Hermeneutics.SE question on this, but it didn’t really go anywhere interesting. What I would say about this passage is that if we are not dealing with (1-3) properly, we are failing to love properly. When Paul “shows us a better way”, what he is saying is that properly loving means that the potential problems (real in the Corinthian church) he discusses in 1 Corinthians 12 are eliminated whenever they pop up.

        3. The NT has quite a few things to say about unity and division. A few years ago, a member of a Christian group issued an ultimatum: either that person would leave, or another person would leave. This was serious business, and required biblical guidance. How does one know which is more loving to do? I’m not sure “the principle of love” gets you all the way there. So, I looked through scripture and found the very, very strict requirements for ejecting someone from a Christian group. Either their immorality had to exceed that of the surrounding culture, their conscience had to be seared, or they had to be actively causing factions in the group. I don’t think there were any other valid reasons. A decision had to be made on this issue; I assembled a large number of scripture and did my best to infer the ‘spirit of the law’ from many ‘letters of the law’.

        Do these make sense?


        • Labreuer,

          Just a few moments ago, in comments on my Jesus and the Principle of Love post, I asked you what you list of guidelines are for living Jesus’ principle of love. I suppose this is your list.

          I have no problem with your list, and I am glad it works for you. But I don’t see it necessarily as a guide for other people, though it might be helpful to some. I like your statement on relational sin; I consider all ‘sin’ to be relational offences against other people.


          • labreuer says:

            I have no problem with your list, and I am glad it works for you. But I don’t see it necessarily as a guide for other people, though it might be helpful to some. I like your statement on relational sin; I consider all ‘sin’ to be relational offences against other people.

            To understand my position, consider how different people’s physiologies respond differently to a given medicine. We have two options:

            1. There is no pattern to how a given person’s physiology responds to a given medicine.
            2. There are actual, discoverable rules as to how physiologies respond to medicine, but not everyone’s physiology is sufficiently similar to the next person’s.

            I see you getting close to advocating #1, which is a kind of subjectivism about how to love other people. My objection is that I think that love is actually according to Law—to how God made reality—and that we can increasingly discover Law. But lower-case law is merely an approximation of Law, just like all scientific discoveries are an approximation of how particle-and-field reality works.

            The trick, of course, is that “how to love another human being” is probably the most complex task that a human being can undertake. People can be so different from each other! Sometimes the same act is loving to multiple people, but sometimes it isn’t! But do we here throw up our hands and say that different people are just too different to try and discover further ‘lawfulness’, or do we just embark upon this task properly?

            I don’t believe we’ll ever e.g. come up with a computer program that will tell us how to act in any given situation. But that is a very different statement from coming up with a computer program which could tell us how to act increasingly well. Now, I think that as we learn to treat each other better and better, we’ll open up whole new vistas for how to relate to one another, such that there is always more ‘love’ to discover. But if we refuse to codify approximations—like science does—I worry that we’ll limit our ability to love better and better and better and better, like 1 Thess 4:9-10 discusses.


          • Labreuer,

            It seems apparent that we have different approaches, and I don’t claim that mine is the best. I appreciate your comments here and on other blogs, but I think we have beaten this particular horse enough.


  4. Jane says:

    I think my comment was lost in cyberspace so sorry if I comment twice 😦 Was just saying it was interesting to read this after reading the following passage in my daily prayer this morning;

    Luke 5:12-16
    Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.

    So this got me thinking about Jesus and ‘the Law’ (I am also confused about what this even entails, as you said Tim, it’s hard to know which ones even come from God.) The act of Jesus requesting someone to make a sacrifice at the temple highlighted for me the confusion I guess of Jesus the Jew and what this means for me now. I’ve always thought of Jesus as the ultimate and final sacrifice and that’s why we don’t sacrifice at temples anymore…and of course in this passage the crucifixion had not yet occurred. If anyone can make sense of my rambled thoughts and have any of their own I’d love to hear them!


    • michaeleeast says:

      Most Progressive Christians no longer believe that Jesus was a human sacrifice for our sins. I believe that Jesus was crucified because he threatened the authorities of the day. He was not punished by God.
      The passage that you quoted refers to the Pharisees purity code. The man with leprosy was considered unclean and was not permitted in the temple. He was shinned by society. Jesus tells him to show the priests that he has been made clean so that he can be reconciled with the community.


      • labreuer says:


        Most Progressive Christians no longer believe that Jesus was a human sacrifice for our sins.

        I’m curious; how do most Progressive Christians do with the following?

        And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb 10:11-14)

        I’ve long interpreted Jesus’ sacrifice as somehow, mystically, taking the suffering of many—due to sins—onto himself. That is, the results of sin aren’t magically erased. Just like we suffer (at least, an opportunity cost) when we mourn with a friend or pay down a friend’s debt, Jesus suffers with us, for us. Sin really has consequences. I see this as kind of like the law of the conservation of energy: the consequences of sin have to be born by someone, and Jesus offers to be that someone. We are called to do the same, by Colossians 1:24 and other verses.

        How would most Progressive Christians think about the above paragraph? Or feel free to just speak for yourself, if you don’t have an idea of what they’d say. I am very curious, as I feel like I’m somewhere between Orthodox Christianity and Progressive Christianity.


        • michaeleeast says:

          I cannot speak for others of course, but many Progressive Christians may hold similar views to myself.
          I don’t believe that God punishes us for our mistakes.
          There are no automatic consequences except the reactions of other people to our behavior.
          I don’t believe that God requires a blood sacrifice for our sins.
          This is a primitive notion of an angry God to be appeased.
          The Book of Job refutes this kind of theology.
          We cannot judge God by our earthly standards.
          Natural justice is a human construct.
          God is our loving Father.
          He does not punish us.
          Any attempt to project Newtonian laws into the moral realm will fail.
          God is transcendent.
          He is not bound by earthly laws.
          I hope this answers your question.


          • labreuer says:

            I don’t believe that God punishes us for our mistakes.
            There are no automatic consequences except the reactions of other people to our behavior.

            I’m not sure this is actually at odds with what the conservative Christian would say. After all, what’s the difference between God actively punishing you, and God setting up the universe so that sinful actions yield bad consequences, consequences which someone will hopefully see as bad, and take the requisite steps to fix? Surely we all believe that God has set up the world so that we can increasingly understand him? False steps would be beset with increasing amounts of pain, while good steps would have increasing amounts of joy. Sometimes I do feel like a rat in a maze, heh.

            God is transcendent.
            He is not bound by earthly laws.

            I’m not sure anyone is saying this? The idea that God can love us, without hating that which hurts us, seems a bit odd. I suppose you could continue to say that “God is transcendent”, but that will ultimately push God out of our experience whatsoever by making every term we use to describe him equivocal. Then God just becomes this transcendent Other whom we cannot know.


          • michaeleeast says:

            Thank you for your reply.
            I’m not sure that I go along with the idea that the world is set up with pain for false steps and joy for good steps.
            This seems to me to be a rather crude carrot and stick approach.
            Once again I would quote the Book of Job, which I believe was written to refute this idea.
            Rather I would say that with God we experience spontaneous joy. Without God we are subject to the ups and downs of life.
            I hope this is clear.


    • Hi Jane,

      Michael has already shared some good insights in response to your question, which seems to be: Why did Jesus support performing sacrifices at the temple?

      Jesus’ coming to us with better information about God’s love for us and his desire to have a relationship with each of us made obsolete the approach to God before Jesus came: that God was angry with us for our failures and had to be appeased in some way. Though many Jewish followers of Jesus continued temple observations until it was destroyed in 70 AD–but with a different attitude I’m sure.

      Some of Jesus’ followers reflected on the difference between these two approaches by contrasting the sacrifice of Jesus with the sacrifices of the temple. Later Christians turned these reflections into the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. I agree with Michael that Jesus’ death was not a human sacrifice for our sins, and a growing number of Christians disagree with the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

      I believe a central feature of Jesus’ message was the promise of eternal life, and his resurrection demonstrates his ability to deliver on that promise. For me the significance is not in the manner, or cause, of Jesus’ death but in his resurrection.


    • Eli says:

      When i first began studying the bible this also puzzled me.. but as i researched and found in levitcus14 the “law on this” it was eye opening..Jesus was using the law to show the region that he was Lord. The priest purpose was never to heal but to acknowledge that a healing had taken place and to proclaim it was from GOD…The rituals the priest would perform witj the birds is excactly what Jesus did on the cross…praise God!!!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Jane says:

    Thanks Michael, I’m still grappling with the atonement thing too (what kind of God needs blood for sin?) but there are still things for me that mean I can’t rule it out completely yet. It’s my category for the atoning sacrifice laws for the old testament – the scapegoat thing as well. I don’t want to hijack the thread though, so if you have any other article or links, I’d be keen to read on!


    • michaeleeast says:

      I don’t have any specific links on this subject.
      I found Matthew Fox’s concept of Original Blessing helpful.
      (Although the book of that title covers a lot of extra ground which I did not find as helpful.)
      “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Genesis 1:31a (NRSV)
      This obviates any need for an atoning sacrifice.
      The myth of Adam and Eve was an explanation for human suffering.
      It is based on false premises.
      Jesus speaks of forgiveness of sins, cancellation of debt etc..
      And this before the crucifixion.
      So a blood sacrifice was not necessary.
      I hope you find these thoughts helpful.


      • Marc says:


        You always express your opinions, but what do you base them on? You are obviously ignorant about the beliefs and values of the most ancient Christians. You assign to myth what has been believed by Christians from the beginning. Your understanding of our Lord’s atoning sacrifice has no basis in Christian history. Like most professing Christians outside the Ancient Church, you follow the papal model of rejecting conciliar authority of the Church and relying upon your own opinion.


    • Marc says:


      The terrible “satisfaction theory of atonement” put forth by Anselm in the 12th Century has corrupted much of Christian understanding on this matter. Jesus did not have to die on the Cross to satisfy God’s affront by our sins. Jesus died on the Cross to trample down death by death and open the way to resurrection and eternal life to humanity. Jesus sacrificed Himself to change the dying ontological reality of the human condition. He experienced the second death so we do not have to. Jesus Christ fulfilled the role of both of the goats in the ancient Jewish atonement ritual.


      • Very well stated Marc,

        I think the issue is not so much the death of Jesus but his resurrection. In his resurrection Jesus validated everything he said, especially about the Father and his offer of eternal life.


        • scraffiti says:

          I like Marc’s explanation – “Jesus did not have to die on the Cross to satisfy God’s affront by our sins. Jesus died on the Cross to trample down death by death and open the way to resurrection and eternal life to humanity. Jesus sacrificed Himself to change the dying ontological reality of the human condition”. What has always puzzled me is what was the after-life expectation in ancient Jewish belief! Before Jesus turned up that is.


          • michaeleeast says:

            The Old Testament refers to the afterlife as Sheol.
            This was a shadowy place where the dead lived.
            It was a bit like Hades.
            Tim may know more about it than me.


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  8. scraffiti says:

    Thanks Michael. I always thought that Hades was the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Sheol. After the lengthy occupation of Alexander the Great, the Hebrews were so intergrated with the Greek language and culture, they could no longer read their own scriptures. The Septuagint was commissioned to redress this. The Greeks did not have a word for Sheol so they used there own word Hades which was there version of the afterlife. I also believe this is where all of the confusion relating to the concept of hell comes from. I thought that Sheol was a sort of holding station for the dead or ‘gravedom’ as I have heard it described. I have also heard Sheol being described as nothing more than the memory of God relaying to those that have passed. What has always puzzled me is what exactly were they waiting for?


  9. michaeleeast says:

    I presume that they were waiting for Jesus to come.


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  13. The thing about ‘keeping’ the Law is when done through human effort, all kinds of rules had to define ‘how’ to keep it. The burden got heavier and heavier. Legalism is the same. The best way I can understand the difference between keeping the Law and fulfilling it, is to turn all those ‘thou shalt nots to positives. Jesus didn’t kill, steal, commit adultery because He didn’t want to and it wasn’t in His nature to break His Father’s commandments.

    Anyway, not much to quibble with on this one. I don’t like legalism either. It is deadly, in the spiritual sense.


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