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
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
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!
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
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
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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:").
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.