Was the Pharisees' Leaven Legalism?

This is the 1st article in “The Leaven of the Pharisees” series.

  • Matthew 16:6 “Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.”
  • Mark 8:15 “And he charged them, saying, Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod.”
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Legalism…is an interesting topic that has only come into vogue in modern times. The words “legalism” and “legalist” are not found in the Bible. The words were not in common use in English before the 1900’s. For instance, Webster’s classic 1828 dictionary does not even contain the words. That is not to say that the words did not appear at all in English (i.e. used in the controversial “The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher – 1645) just that the words and infatuation with them were not so common as they are in Contemporary Christianity.

Legalism…is also interesting in that the word is almost exclusively used in a negative light, and few there are (if any) who ever go around calling themselves “legalists.” The words “legalists” and “legalism” is most often used as insults and attacks on others’ character. Sadly, most don’t even stop to think if the accusations are biblical or correct before they throw down the gauntlet on those deemed “legalists.”

Legalism…is also interesting (and confusing) in that it is defined numerous ways dependent upon the person. Some define legalism in a positive light, while most in evangelicalism define legalism negatively. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines legalism as “an adherent of moral legalism or one that places primary emphasis on legal principles.” Dictionary.com defines it as “strict adherence to law especially to the letter rather than the spirit.” Legalism in ancient China BC emphasized strict adherence to a legal code and the absolute power of the emperor. Different evangelicals define legalism as “preoccupation with form at the expense of substance” or “making up rules and holding those rules as Gospel when they are not.” (Taken from direct quotes of various neo-evangelicals.)  The most prevalent definition given by modern evangelicals for legalism is the attempt to be saved by the law, and is most frequently used in connection with the Pharisees.

First of all, please know that I do not at all believe works save a person. (Eph. 2:9 “Not of works…”) The law is important, however.

  • The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (Gal. 3:24)
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Jesus did not destroy the law. Unless otherwise commanded in the New Testament, we are to adhere to God’s law.

  • Matthew 5:17 “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”
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Those who lump both holy living and works salvation under one term, ‘legalism,’ are wrong and biblically errant. Salvation is only “by grace through faith”, but all of God’s law must still be obeyed.

  • 1John 3:4 “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
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Sin still exists in every believer. And sin is still disobeying/transgressing God’s law. Wanting to “eschew” (I Pet. 3:11) sin and obey all of God’s law does not make a person a legalist. That wouldn’t make sense.

Secondly, since the words legalism and legalist are not found in Scripture, then Pharisees were not called legalists in Scripture. To use the Pharisees as an example of legalism is incorrect and a stretch. Notice two things about the Pharisees concerning so called “legalism”: #1 the Pharisees did not add works salvation to Jesus, they rejected Jesus completely (Mt. 23:13), and #2 the Pharisees did not even strictly obey God’s law. That was, in fact, their big problem. Jesus warned about the Pharisees’ leaven, and He even stated point blank what that leaven was. (Please read “Was The Pharisees’ Leaven Hypocrisy?”.) The Pharisees were not an example of holy Christian living. No, quite the opposite! The Pharisees were the picture of sin and wickedness and filth dressed up in false religious appearances! For now, though, since our practice on this website is to lay precept upon precept and line upon line, please know from this article that:

  • #1 – The words legalism and legalist are not in the Bible.
  • #2 – The words legalism and legalist have become more of a modern-day obsession with evangelicals, particularly those who despise holy, Christian living.
  • #3 – The Pharisees were not called legalists since the word doesn’t exist in the Bible.
  • #4 – The Pharisees’ issue/leaven was not legalism.
  • #5 – Believers in Jesus Christ who want to dress holy, listen to holy music, etc… are not legalists.
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To continue series, please read “Was the Pharisees’ Leaven Separation?”