What is Legalism?

Ah the ole “L” word. Many of us use the word in our vocab. But what is it and what does it mean? That’s a question I’m asked on a frequent basis and one I like to revisit annually on this blog.

I can distinctly remember the time when this question begged for clarification in my own life. At one time three events collided (and all took place in the same week). I think each event reveals why clarifying the dangers of legalism are necessary and worthy of revisiting frequently.

First was a conversation with a woman who had decided to permit her daughter to skip church in order to participate in 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 with a man who labeled Christians who abstained from alcohol as legalists.

Let me say from the start that I’m not saying these people are right or wrong in their convictions. What is important to see is that each statement (I believe) reveals a superficial and fundamentally flawed view of legalism.

Let me explain.

Rules are not the problem

Almost 900 passages in the Bible contain the phrase “do not.” Which is to say that the Bible contains quite a lot of prohibitions. Jesus condensed some chief prohibitions for us: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother’” (Luke 18:20). There are a lot of rules in the Bible.

Which is to say that if you apply the entire Bible to the Christian life, you can end up with a long list of helpful rules and reminders (i.e. the “one anothers”). Doesn’t this fact explain why Jonathan Edwards was compelled to compose his long list of resolutions?

See the fundamental danger of legalism is not living with rules or not living by rules—whether you attend church every week or not, whether you drink wine or not. Legalism points to a much deeper heart issue.

A false gospel

At its most dangerous level, legalism is a soteriological problem. That is, legalism is a false gospel and a false hope. Legalism is the lie that says God’s pleasure and joy in me is dependent upon my performance rather than the finished work of Christ.

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 poor missionary in Africa to think God is more pleased with him than an American Christian businessman driving a Mercedes. 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.

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 living up to His expectations. It is the failure to remember that God’s pleasure in us comes outside of us (in the finished work of 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.

Rules are not the problem.

And 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?). And this is what makes legalism dangerous whether your convictions are biblically accurate or not.

From what I hear, often what is labeled as legalistic too often focuses primarily upon rules or a lack thereof rather than the gospel.

As I’ve seen in my own heart, what sustains self-righteous legalism is a failure to boast only in the righteousness of the Cross of Christ. Once I take my eyes off the Cross I begin boasting in my list of rules or boasting in my lack of rules. Either way, I know I have fallen into legalism.

22 thoughts on “What is Legalism?

  1. One way of thinking about legalism that I find helpful is this: when my standing with Christ is defined or determined by anything other than his bloody work at Calvary. The silk-shirted, beer-guzzling emergent can be just as legalistic as the three-piece-suit, King James only fundamentalist.

  2. This is such a profound topic, and one that I’m just beginning to get through my thick skull.

    I think one of the hallmarks of legalism is the devotion to “have to’s that are not based on love. It’s the “have to” of the slave, not the love of the Bride for her Bridegroom. Both slave and bride may make coffee for the same man, but the spirit is completely different. Unfortunately, the vigilant “anti-legalist” often just doesn’t want to make the coffee at all. As you wisely pointed out, the “I don’t have to” crowd is just as tied to legalism as the “have to” crowd.

    Oh, for more of the kind of love for God that brings about all of the good works which legalism can only imitate!

  3. Tony –
    Did you get that definition from legalism somewhere or is that self-created? Only reason I ask is that my pastor preached a sermon on legalism/grace this weekend using the same exact definition. I think it succintly captures the fact that God’s pleasure is in Himself. Anyway, I’d like to read/listen more about it and was curious if it came from a similar source?

  4. Thanks Tony. I found this really helpful. I’d never really thought about the typical negative reactions to what are perceived to be the most common legalistic problems as being legalistic themselves. I’m thinking that, deep down, the problem is a question of motivation, its not so much what we do as who we are doing it for – i.e. for ourselves or for God. Would you agree? (of course I recognize that we can be so deceived that we think we’re doing something for God when in reality we’re doing it for ourselves but that’s a whole ‘nother story).

  5. Yes, I think you are right, Martin. It has a lot to do with motive. Am I doing something because God has loved me or because I want to earn/preserve God’s love? Great point! Tony

  6. Brian, there is nothing on this blog original to me. And although I cannot specifically identify a resource where I learned this aspect of legalism I would recommend CJ Mahaney’s book Living the Cross Centered Life (the best on legalism). Tim Keller’s new book Prodigal God is likewise excellent here. Tony

  7. I think you need to be careful in describing how God is pleased in us. Our son-ship is by the blood and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, however, within that relationship there is a great deal of Scripture that talks about God judging us according to our works. There is also Scripture that talks about us being tried by fire and some works being as gold or silver and some as wood and hay and that the one who has no good works will not receive rewards but will still be saved.

    I sincerely doubt that you have any problems with what I’m saying, but there’s a lot of room in what you’ve written. I will also say that I have no problem in articulating that the means by which we do the works of righteousness is again Jesus Christ, but they are real works and will receive real judgement from God that is separate from his judgement that we are righteous and therefore his son. There is an aspect of the Lord’s pleasure in us that is comparable to the pleasure that a father takes in a son that does well and there will be sons who do better than others and in whom God is more pleased.

    Let me know if you think I’m way off base.

  8. Charles,

    I would ask the question this way, is God pleased with a greater degree of imperfection in one son over the next? Remember His standard for us is perfection, “be perfect even as my Father is perfect” and I don’t think He has relaxed that standard, thus God is pleased with us as we continue to believe, trust, have faith in His Son with whom He is well pleased!

    “Without faith(In Christ)it is impossible to please him”

  9. Thanks for the comment Charles. I wholeheartedly agree that we should be serious about faithfulness and fruitfulness. However, I disagree that we are ever in a position where God’s pleasure in us is contingent upon our faithfulness and fruitfulness. Alando asks the right question here.

    See it’s no longer I that lives but Christ lives within me. Christ is the vine and apart from him we can do nothing. The Bible makes it clear that even on my best days, God is not pleased with me but with his Son. So I would encourage extreme carefulness when we are talking about God’s pleasure in us (notice I tried to stay with the word “pleased” in the post).

    One of the themes of the NT is that the gospel is undermined by a theology of Christ + something else. It’s very easy for us to functionally live as though God is pleased with me because I have Christ + obedience or He is dis-pleased with me because I have Christ + remaining sin. We may not say this but often we live like this (to the detriment of our joy).

    The doctrine of justification has far-reaching implications for the Christian life and I think it’s here, in talking of God’s pleasure, that we see the doctrine’s great importance. We are accepted and loved by God because we have been purchased. My unrighteous has been imputed to Christ. Christ’s perfect righteousness has been imputed to me. I seek to obey not because I want to please God but because I could never please him more than has been purchased for me in the precious blood of his own Son.

    We can, like Paul, know that we are perfect in God’s sight, fully pleasing to him, and consider ourselves the “chief of sinners” at the same time.

    Make sense?


  10. Tony,
    I don’t have any issue with what you are saying. What I am saying is that you also have to reconcile a great deal of Scripture that talks about how God judges his sons differently. In other words, within the context of the saved, all sons are not equal. All sons do not receive the same rewards, nor the same honors. And yes, any work of righteousness done by a son is the work of Jesus Christ, yet from our perspective, we cannot look at the decisions we make and pretend that they have no bearing on the rewards that we will receive.

    If you want to stipulate the rewards that the sons of God receive in heaven have nothing to do with the pleasure of God (to preserve terminology), I guess I’m ok with that. But you need to come up with some way of identifying how God relates to those so rewarded above others.

    Again, I am talking about in the context of the saved, not the saved and the unsaved.

    Do you see what I’m saying?

  11. Thanks, Charles. Yes, this entire post is about genuine Christians struggling with legalism…. I would say that having different levels of reward does not equate into differing levels of God’s acceptance or pleasure in us. For me Edwards has been very helpful in showing that while each will have different levels of eternal reward, we will also have different levels of capacity to experience those rewards. In other words while there is differing capacities, all will experience the fullness of God. There will be no crying in heaven = no regrets. All will be perfectly joy-filled to the differing degrees of reward but all will be full. As one friend explains, a balloon is full of air if it’s the size of a softball, and it’s also full of air if that same balloon is the size of a basketball. But I would be deeply concerned with equating a level of eternal reward with God’s pleasure in me. I’m afraid that is a road paved to Rome not a concept built from the reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone.

  12. Let me try this another way:

    I’m not attacking your definition of legalism. What I’m saying is that while you state that rules are not the problem, it is very easy to read your post and come away with the idea that what one does once one is saved does not matter. That post-salvation obedience is irrelevant.

    It may be legalistic to think that God is more pleased with you than with someone else, but it is evil to believe that God does not care what you do.

    The decisions that we make as Christians are real. Not compared to other Christians, but compared to what God has placed before us, to the light we have been given, to the talents he has entrusted to us.

    Again, I don’t really have a problem surrendering the word “pleasure”, but read this passage and tell me why the words wood, hay, and stubble are used.

    According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
    (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)

    In the fullness of eternity, we will experience the fullness of God’s pleasure, but in this passage, God is not saying, “stubble is just as good as gold, only less shiny”. These words are there for a reason and they are related to the works of men. There is real value placed upon the way these sons of God built upon the foundation that is Jesus Christ. And that is not legalism.

    Please continue to wrestle with me on this if you disagree with me. This is fairly serious for me if I’m clutching to things I should not, and potentially serious for you and your audience as well.

  13. 1 Cor. 3 is not easy for me because I think the context of this passage is corporate: “For we are God’s fellow workers. You [Corinthians] are God’s field, God’s building” (v. 9). So it appears the “each one” is a talking about church leaders. This passage is frequently used as a standard for the personal works of all Christians and I don’t think that’s the case. I’ll need to look more at this passage. Even within it you see that all eternal reward comes as a result of being in Christ (“For all things are yours”; vv. 21-23).

    Charles, do you believe that a genuine believer will be forever marked, marred, and limited throughout eternity by the consequences of the sin and (unwise building) they are guilty of in this life?

  14. Charles, do you believe that a genuine believer will be forever marked, marred, and limited throughout eternity by the consequences of the sin and (unwise building) they are guilty of in this life?

    No. I tried to say in the last post that “In the fullness of eternity, we will experience the fullness of God’s pleasure” and by that I mean that all the that the elect experience will be for their blessing and benefit and will be by the work of Jesus Christ in and through them. I do believe we may well be marked by what we have endured, in the same way that Christ’s hands will never be “healed” I am open to the idea that we will bear in our likeness the marks of those things that glorify our Father, but none of that is the negative result of our sins. If they are connected to sin, they are blessings that God has made from sin or from the sins of others, if that makes sense (this last bit is pretty ad hoc, and I wouldn’t try to argue it very hard as I’m kind of thinking out loud)

    In all of this, I would attest that all good things that are done are by the work and power and blood of Jesus Christ, and that man can take no glory in any of it.

    Regarding the corporate nature of I Corinthians 3, I think there are concepts of the corporate nature being discussed, but I think the part about every man’s works being tried as by fire is talking about every Christian who does the work of God, who builds in any way, upon the foundation that is Christ.

    Thanks for taking time to discuss this with me, and please feel free to continue the discussion.

  15. Perhaps a very “simpleton” perspective; but, here it is:

    I don’t think it has anything to do with us. When we wear His name, what we do will either bring Him and His name glory or it will bring dishonor and shame. He is very concerned with that. I think the works and rules we are called to, have nothing to do with us pleasing Him more or less. We work, serve, and obey because as His followers we are to be His ambassadors and our very lives are to reflect Him to a lost and dying world and to show His power, Love and Glory.

    It is name sake and His Glory that He is interested in. If that is also our motivation and desire, we won’t become legalists on either side of the fence. Both sides, are man-centered not Christ centered and both errors bring shame and dishonor to Him and misrepresent the Gospel.

    For what’s it worth.

  16. P.S. On further reflection, how does one read the warnings to the 7 churches, without noting that the Lord is clearly pleased with some “works” and very displeased with others, i.e.,

    “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”

    From my limited understanding, It seems to me that He clearly does not like to be misrepresented (especially by “religious” people and/or those who wear His name). Great topic to look a little deeper into. Thanks for provoking thought.

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