Understanding Legalism

Understanding Legalism

How do we define legalism? Because the term legalism is a very serious one (and because my heart is especially susceptible to it) I frequently think about how the roots of legalism sprout in our lives. So today I want to work towards a definition.

Three events from last year (that all took place back in Omaha in the same week) reveal why clarification on the dangers of legalism are necessary. First was a conversation with a woman who had decided it was okay that her daughter skip church for soccer games. “I don’t want to be legalistic about church,” she said. Another encounter was with a man who defined legalism as “living by lots of rules.” And the third encounter was over an issue concerning alcohol and how those who say Christians should not drink are legalists.

I’m not saying these people are right or wrong in their convictions. What I am saying is that each statement sadly reveals a misunderstanding about legalism. What we commonly forget is that legalism is dangerous whether your biblical convictions are right or wrong. Holding biblically accurate convictions does not automatically protect from legalism.

Rules are not the problem

The danger of legalism does not seem to be found primarily by living with rules or not living by rules — whether you attend church every week or not, whether you drink wine or not.

Jesus says, ‘take every precaution you need to prevent your heart from sinning.’ “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29).

If you apply the entire bible to the Christian life, you can end up with a long list of helpful rules and reminders (like the “one anothers”). Count how many times the phrase “do not” occurs in the Proverbs. It’s no wonder that Jonathan Edwards came up with his long list of resolutions.

Rules are not the central problem in legalism.

A false gospel

Legalism is (most dangerously) a soteriological problem. That is, legalism is a false gospel. Legalism is the damning lie that says God’s pleasure and joy in me is dependent upon my obedience.

It is legalism that causes the Pharisee to look proudly into the sky in the presence of a tax collector. It is legalism that causes a missionary in Africa to think God is more pleased with him than the Christian businessman in America. And it is legalism that causes the preacher behind the pulpit to think God is more pleased with him than the tatooed Christian teenager sitting in the back row.

The common salvation (Jude 3)

Legalism is the lie that God will find more pleasure in me because my obedience is greater than others or that God looks at me with disgust because I am not growing in grace as quickly as my friends. It is the failure to remember that God’s pleasure in us comes outside of us (in Christ). Legalism causes the heart to forget that God sings over us because of the work He has done, not because of what we have done (Zeph. 3:15-17).

Believers equally bring pleasure to God because the pleasure He receives in us is the purchased pleasure of the substitution of Jesus Christ. Any imagined superiority to other Christians (not rules or a lack of rules) is the sure sign of the legalist.

The irony of legalism

The great irony (and danger) of legalism is this … If you think God is more pleased with you because you take your child to a soccer game instead of church, if you think God is more pleased with you because you do not live by rules, and if you think God is more pleased with you because you do drink alcohol – you are just as legalistic as the man who thinks that perfect church attendance, lists of rules and abstaining from alcohol makes him more pleasing to God.

Whether our convictions are biblical or unbiblical is another issue altogether. Legalism is not so much objective (are my convictions biblical or not?) but subjective (what do my convictions get me?). So legalism is just as dangerous whether your convictions are biblically accurate or not. From what I hear, this is not the common definition floating around the broad Evangelical landscape.

Sadly, churches that do not train their sheep to boast only in the righteousness of the Cross of Christ, but are frequently carried into other controversies and debates, or pride themselves in a lack of rules and regulations, can equally create a breeding ground for self-righteous legalism. And this is true even if the church is biblically correct every time on every debate.

———————-

Related: Living the Cross Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney

27 thoughts on “Understanding Legalism

  1. I needed this answer last Wednesday. I had to stumble through it, but think I got the point. Next time I hope I can articulate it a little better. Thanks, T! Thank you for the awesome pictures at the baptism too. That really meant a lot that you and K were there for that. XOXO -Ames

  2. Hey, Ames. It was a joy to celebrate your baptism on Sunday! It was a great opportunity to openly confess the beauty of the Cross. Continue to rejoice and boast only in this one truth (Gal. 6:14) and you will find joy now and pleasures forever (Ps. 16:11). Blessings StaLkr

    BtaLkr

  3. So this is what legalism is all about.. i must say that it is different from what i heard recently.. thanks for this.. God bless..

  4. Excellent, thank you

    Legalism is not what you do, but why you do it.

    Many define legalism as ‘adding’ our own laws to the ‘Moral Law’. I think that is a wrong and dangerous definition because it itself encourages legalism.

    Whenever people define santification as something seriously different from repeated justification, I think there is also a big risk of legalism.

    Whenever we are more conscious of what we ‘must’ do than we are of the love and mercy of God in Christ, then there is a danger of legalism.

    Whenever we are more conscious even of ourselves than we are of the love and mercy of God in Christ, then there is the danger of legalism.

    The Old Covenant showed that legalism could not work. Jesus’ main criticisms were of the legalism of the Pharisees. Eve’s first recorded words were full of legalism.

    Legalism is where we often take refuge when we have a real glimpse (outside the love and mercy of God in Christ) of our sinfulness and our nothingness.

    …at least in my view !
    Richard

  5. I can’t seem to get anyone to respond to the accusations that Christians ‘pick and choose’ what rules to follow. I created the following questionnaire that no one seems to want to answer:

    1. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:15)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    2. Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:22)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    3. Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    4. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. (Matthew 5:22)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    5. Do not resist an evil person. (Matthew 5:39)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    6. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    7. Be perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    8. When you pray, go into your room, close the door. (Matthew 6:6)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    9. Forgive men their sins. (Matthew 6:14)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    10. Do not judge. (Matthew 7:1)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    11. Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard (Leviticus 19:27)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    12. Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists. (Leviticus 19:31)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    13. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. (Leviticus 19:19)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    14. If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death. (Leviticus 20:13)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    15. Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. (Leviticus 20:28)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken literally

    16. If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. (Leviticus 20:9)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken seriously

    17. Women are to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes. (1 Timothy 2:9)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken seriously

    18. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. (1 Timothy 2:12)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken seriously

    19. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off. (1 Corinthian 11:6)
    a. Agree with
    b. Ignore
    c. Not to be taken seriously

    20. Do you obey the bible or do you pick and choose what to follow?
    a. yes
    b. no

  6. This is a great list. Thanks for assembling this.

    I think the inherent failure within this list is that you set agreement as opposed to not taking things literally, as if non-literal interpretations are to compromise the meaning and to fail to take scripture seriously. The Bible is written in some 40 different literary styles so it would be foolish for us to read it all in the same way.

    For example Jesus was not saying that cutting of your hands and poking out eyes will make someone more holy. The problem is the heart. His point is that we need to take drastic measures to avoid temptations and to take sin seriously. So do we take this literally? Did the disciples cut their hands off? Nope. Are the disciples law-forsaking rebels? Nope. So we agree with the principle by understanding the literary style of Christ.

    But your list gives us an excellent view into the holiness of God by reminding us that merely showing anger towards someone we are worthy of eternal damnation. Yes I agree!! Apart from Jesus and his death on the cross we would all be condemned, even for our “small” sins and our “morally-average character” (see Barth post from the past month on this blog).

    Paul explains his hope in light of the law so well …

    “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

  7. Thanks for your response, as a follow up, do you think that we should judge others and not forgive their sins. What about gay people?

  8. Yes we are to forgive those who have sinned against us, while simultaneously knowing that ultimate and eternal forgiveness–justification before God–is His alone to give (Luke 5:21).

    I am a worse sinner than any gay man because I can see the self-righteousness and the sinful judgment of my own heart. A proper understanding of my sinful heart reminds me that I am the chief sinner. Until we are bowed down to the dust over our wretchedness, we will get caught in the hypocritical vortex of comparing ourselves to others (Luke 18:9-14). The cross frees us to admit our sin, moves believers to tears as we see the glory of God’s grace in saving our wretched hearts, and moves us to act by inviting drunks over for dinner (Luke 15:2) to share with them the greatest news of all–the cross of Jesus Christ has freed us from our wretched sin!

  9. Dear Mr Reinke:

    I just wanted to ask why it is that you say: “Legallism is the damning lie that says God’s pleasure and joy in me is dependent upon my obedience.”

    Can we really be damned for this? Do you have any biblical basis for believing this? Does God not take pleasure and joy in our obedience? If not: can there really be much point to the Christian life being lived in any particular way, if “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” (Romans 11:36)

    I’m very sorry if these questions–or my tone–seems especially aversive. To tell the truth I’m hungry and starting to get cranky. I’ve been at work too long. Please get back to me though, at either of these email addresses: I’m the Youth Spiritual Director at a P.C.A. church, and I want to know if I’m teaching the teenagers wrong!

    Yours in Christ:
    Jedd Walters

  10. Hello Jedd. I’ve intentionally overstated to make a point. God’s pleasure in the Christian derives from the finished work of Jesus Christ on our behalf, his righteousness for my unrighteousness. No matter how good I ever become–and God is glorified in my practical obedience and pursuit of holiness–I cannot add to God’s pleasure in me beyond his delight in the work of His Son. Legalism is forgetting this fact. My life is not lived in the roller coaster of wondering if God loves me, if I’m being good enough to make him happy, I know he is delighted in me because he has taken his judgments away from me in the cross (Zeph 3). Does this make it clearer? Tony

  11. Thanks Tony:

    You’re obviously a very busy man and you’ve written me a kind, orthodox,–from the Calvinistic perspective–and to some degree helpful reply; so please don’t feel that you are obligated to get back to me again.

    I found your hugely impressive blog when I was shopping around on the internet for a working definition of legalism to try to teach to our youth-group, and I’m having the devil of a time!

    Here’s the thing. If, as you say, “God is glorified in my practical obedience and pursuit of holiness”: then, this necessarily implies some diminution of God’s glorification when we don’t obey or pursue holiness–and, of course, this is impossible.

    It appears to me, that our only alternative is to say that God can be more pleased with us individually when we refrain from sinning, than when we deliberately sin, i.e. as would be congruent with 10,000 biblical examples, e.g. 1 Tim 2:3 “This is good and pleases God our Savior”. If we can please God, can’t we displease Him? I do not think that this belief should be called legalism.

    I perfectly understand if you don’t have time to bandy arguments with some tedious, logic-chopping jackass, but even if so, please pray for me: I teach youth-group on Sunday!

  12. This is why I make it clear that I’m here talking about soteriology, that is, the basis of salvation: “Legalism is (most dangerously) a soteriological problem. That is, legalism is a false gospel. Legalism is the damning lie that says God’s pleasure and joy in me is dependent upon my obedience.” I cannot believe that God’s saving acceptance of me is determined by personal obedience (filthy rags). Do we agree here?

    Tony

  13. Sorry. If you’re speaking merely soteriologically, then I acknowledge that that is a rather different argument. You threw me off because you said: “Legalism is the lie that God will find more pleasure in me because my obedience is greater than others or that God looks at me with disgust because I’m not growing in grace as quickly as my friends.”

    I assumed that the speaker’s “friends” who were “growing in grace”, were on the same soteriological path as he. My contention was that–for all we know–God might well feel “disgust” at our sinful behavior, and pleasure with our obedience. Otherwise, how are we to understand our Lord’s disgust with the church in Laodicea wich is neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm. Things which we “spew out of our mouths” are generally disgusting. Is it not apparent that the church in Laodicea was not “growing in grace as quickly as their friends”: the other churches?

    My favorite paragraph in your blog is “The Irony of Legalism”. You talk about how pride in self-imposed exemption from rules is just the creation of another rule to take pride in: and that was brilliant. Antinomianism and legalism are both weeds of the same demonic root of pride.

    I feel, to some extent, like I’ve behaved like the man in St. Paul who “has an unhealthy interest in controversies and arguments about words” (1Tim 6:4), and I don’t want to be that guy. You’ve helped me out a great deal, and I appreciate it. Thank you.

  14. Jed, you are not “that guy” by any means. We are talking about the gospel and gospel-words matter significantly. I admit that I overstated the case in the sentence you have excerpted, but I hope the context of soteriology helped to frame it first. Perhaps this will be misread and that would be my fault as the author… As for lukewarmness, I’ll need to give more thought to this. But I know this is a collective reference of the church, not of individuals, and I think this is an important point. Overall I want to protect the sufficiency of the death of Christ for pleasing God without sounding as though personal holiness does not matter, it does–in fact it’s one reason we are saved (those he justified he glorified). Yet, I hope to not walk day-by-day uncertain of God’s love because I have/have not done enough or met a standard of obedience. Christians on earth now are sinner and as sinner we are “prone to wander, Lord I feel it.” But this does not mean God loves us less. I appreciate the discussion! Tony

  15. Me too. Thanks tons! I love your passion for the gospel, and really look forward to more of your stuff. It helps. God is using you.
    Yours in Christ:
    Jed

  16. Wow! Thanks a lot! your discussions really helped me, as much as lloyd jones’ books. But i still have some questions. I always was a legalist since i was young, but recently i took a look over grace and the real Gospel, but i still have some problems with legalism. You know, always when i go to bed i feel really sad that i didn’t read enough the Bible, or Gospel books,and i feel ashamed of talking to God because i know i could had done more, you know, how can i say i love him if i can’t even dedicate and read more? I just can say thanks God because salvation is not attained by my works but for your Son… I really want to know more and more about Christ and be able to worship him as good as possible, and be able to do great things like Abraham, but i’m really lazy, and have some problems about reading, and i walk each day sadly because i know i could had done more. Please help me.

    (Please, be patient with my english, Im Brazilian ^^ )Thiago

  17. Tony,
    I have really enjoyed reading all of the above. The Lord has been revealing to me that I have been living as a legalist in many ways. I had lost sight of God’s grace and over the past 6 months my prayer has become ‘restore to me the joy of my salvation’.
    I agree as you have stated above that God does not love us any less no matter how we live, but I believe that He witholds His blessing when we live disobediently.
    What do you think of that?
    Regards.

  18. Thanks for the comment Sarah. I think it’s important to distinguish God’s dealing with those who are his enemies from those who are his children. Once we are in Christ we sadly still sin but we are no longer *punished* for our sin. God disciplines us for our good, but not angrily, and this is not punishment for Law breaking. So I think it’s vital to keep these two realms separate. So I am fine with saying that God’ withholds blessing as discipline but not if we are saying this is a punishment for a particular sin. God is our Father and this makes a huge difference between his punishment of Law-breakers and his discipline of his justified children. God is angry with the first, and maintains his joy in the second (all because of Christ). Make sense?

  19. Great blog post! That is so helpful! I have been trying to find a more accurate definition of legalism than what I’ve been using. I also like the comment above, “Legalism is not what you do, but why you do it.” Aptly put!

  20. He does not love us less but there is consequences for our sins, when we are justified all the eternal consequences of sin are canceled but the temporal consequences of sin are not necessarily removed. we are still suffering the consequences of the Gen. 3 story. For me it is not about wether he finds less pleasure in me but wether or not I’ve hurt or disappointed him. scripture does not give us basis for disregarding Gods revealed commands. Jesus himself said”if you love me, keep my commandments (John 14: 15) we are not at liberty to reject such commands and to do so would be an abuse of Christian freedom. ( Jude 1:4) for certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality ( turning grace into a license to sin) and deny our only master and Lord Jesus Christ)..I love him I’m not trying to earn points, but just loving my Lord..for me justification is intimately linked with union with Christ, I don’t desire to live according to the flesh, but rather by the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-17)

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