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Legalism (or nomism), in Christian theology, is the act of putting law above gospel by establishing requirements for salvation beyond repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and reducing the broad, inclusive, and general precepts of the Bible to narrow and rigid moral codes. It is an over-emphasis of discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigour, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law at the expense of the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God's grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption. On the Biblical viewpoint that redemption is not earned by works, but that obedient faith is required to enter and remain in the redeemed state, see covenantal nomism.
The words 'legalism' or 'legalist' do not occur in the Old or New Testaments. Legalism's root word, "law" (Greek nomos), occurs frequently in the New Testament, and sometimes is interpreted as legalism. In 1921, Ernest De Witt Burton stated that in Gal. 2:16, "nomou is here evidently used ... in its legalistic sense, denoting divine law viewed as a purely legalistic system made up of statutes, on the basis of obedience or disobedience to which individuals are approved or condemned as a matter of debt without grace. This is divine law as the legalist defined it." The Greek of Paul's day lacked any term corresponding to the distinct position of "legalism", "legalist", or "legalistic", leading C.E.B. Cranfield to commend "the possibility that Pauline statements which at first sight seem to disparage the law, were really directed not against the law itself but against that misunderstanding and misuse of it for which we now have a convenient terminology" (legalism).Messianic Jewish Bible translator David H. Stern cited these two scholars to support the translation framework that often "'nomos' means 'legalism' and not God's Torah", especially in Paul's constructs erga nomou (literally "works of law", rendered by Stern "legalistic observance of Torah commands") and upo nomon (literally "under law", rendered by Stern by 13 words, "in subjection to the system which results from perverting the Torah into legalism").
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