6 Min Read

If you want to demean someone in the church, you simply have to use the “L-word” when speaking to or about that person. The number of times one believer has called another believer a legalist is inestimable. Name-calling often ensues when someone in the church believes that another has said or done something that cuts across Christian liberty. Like its sister term, fundie, the label legalist has become something of a conventional religious slur in grace-oriented and gospel-centered churches. We must be extremely slow to use this word when speaking to or about others in a church fellowship. It may be that one believer simply has a weaker or softer conscience than another (Rom. 14–15). Additionally, those who love God’s law and seek to walk carefully in accord with it will always be susceptible to being called legalists.

We must guard against carelessly tossing around a charge of legalism. However, we must also recognize that legalism in various shapes and forms is alive and well in evangelical and Reformed churches. This too must be guarded against with the utmost determination. In order to avoid bringing a false charge against a believer, in order to avoid personally embracing legalism, and in order to help restore a believer who has fallen into legalism, we must know how to identify this perennial evil in both its doctrinal and practical forms.

Doctrinal Legalism

Legalism is, by definition, an attempt to add anything to the finished work of Christ. It is to trust in anything other than Christ and His finished work for one’s standing before God. The New Testament refutation of legalism is primarily a response to perversions of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The majority of the Savior’s opponents were those who believed that they were righteous in and of themselves, based on their zeal for and commitment to the law of God. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes exemplified, by their words and deeds, doctrinal legalism in the days of Christ and the Apostles. While they made occasional appeals to grace, they self-righteously truncated and twisted the Scriptural meaning of grace. The Apostle Paul summed up the nature of Jewish legalism when he wrote: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:3–4).

Understanding the relationship between the law and the gospel for our justification is paramount to learning how to avoid doctrinal legalism. The Scriptures teach that we are justified by the Savior’s works—not our own. The last Adam came to do all that the first Adam failed to do (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:47–49). He was “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5). He came to be our representative in order to fulfill the legal demands of God’s covenant—namely, to render to God perfect, personal, and continual obedience on behalf of His people. Jesus merited perfect righteousness for all those whom the Father had given Him. We, through faith-union with Him, receive a righteous status by virtue of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. In Christ, God provides what He demands. The good works for which God has redeemed believers, that we might walk in them, do not in any way whatsoever play into our justification. They are merely the necessary evidence that God has forgiven and accepted us in Christ.

However, doctrinal legalism can also creep into our minds through the back door of sanctification. The Apostle Paul intimated as much in Galatians 3:1–4. The members of the church in Galatia had allowed themselves to be deceived into believing that their standing before God ultimately depended on what they achieved in the flesh in the continuation of their Christian life. It is possible for us to begin the Christian life by believing in Christ and His saving work alone and then fall into the trap of foolishly imagining that it is entirely up to us to finish what He has begun. In sanctification, no less than in justification, the words of Jesus hold true: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

The grace of God in the gospel is the only cure for doctrinal and practical legalism.

Doctrinal legalism in sanctification is sometimes fueled by passionate preachers who emphasize Jesus’ teaching about the demands of Christian discipleship while divorcing them from or minimizing the Apostolic teaching on the nature of Christ’s saving work for sinners. The renowned Reformed theologian Geerhardus Vos explained the nature of this subtle form of legalism when he wrote:

There prevails still a subtle form of legalism which would rob the Savior of his crown of glory, earned by the cross, and would make of him a second Moses, offering us the stones of the law instead of the life-bread of the Gospel . . . [legalism is] powerless to save.

In Colossians 2:20–23, the Apostle Paul touches on yet another form of doctrinal legalism that sneaks in through the back door of sanctification. He writes:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—”Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Those who have embraced this form of doctrinal legalism forbid what God has not forbidden and command what He has not commanded. They bind themselves and others to a standard of external holiness to which God has not bound us in His Word. This is one of the most prevalent and pernicious forms of legalism in the church today. It often comes in the form of prohibitions against eating certain foods and drinking alcohol. It sometimes creeps in through personal convictions about parenting and education.

Practical Legalism

There is another kind of legalism we must be on guard against—the practical legalism that can imperceptibly take control of our hearts. By nature, our consciences are hardwired to the covenant of works. While believers have become new creatures in Christ, they still carry around with them an old man—an old Adamic sin nature. The default mode of the old nature is mentally to slide back under the covenant of works. We are ever in danger of becoming practical legalists by nurturing or overlooking a legalistic spirit.

It is altogether possible for a man or woman to have a head full of orthodox doctrine while having a heart full of self-righteousness and pride. We can be intellectually committed to the doctrines of grace and give lip service to the liberty that Christ has purchased for believers while at the same time denying these by our words and actions.

A legalistic spirit is fostered by spiritual pride. When a believer experiences growth in spiritual knowledge or power, he is in danger of beginning to trust in spiritual attainments. When this happens, practical legalists begin to look down on others and sinfully judge those who have not experienced what they have experienced. In his sermon “Bringing the Ark to Zion a Second Time,” Jonathan Edwards explained that he had observed the reality of spiritual pride and practical legalism among those who had experienced revival during the Great Awakening:

There is an exceeding disposition in men, as long as they live, to make a righteousness of what is in themselves, and an exceeding disposition in men to make a righteousness of spiritual experiences, as well as other things . . . a convert is apt to be exalted with high thoughts of his own eminency in grace.

Perhaps most damaging of all is the way in which a legalistic spirit can manifest itself in the pulpit. A minister can preach the grace of God in the gospel without experiencing that grace in his own life. This, in turn, tends to fuel a legalistic spirit among certain members of a church.

The Cure for Legalism

The grace of God in the gospel is the only cure for doctrinal and practical legalism. When we recognize doctrinal or practical legalism in our lives, we must flee to Christ crucified. As we do, we will again begin to grow in our love for the One who died to heal us of our propensity to trust in our own works or achievements. On a daily basis, we need to be reminded of the grace that has covered all of our sins, provided us with righteousness from outside of ourselves and freed us from the power of sin. Only then will we joyfully pursue holiness. Only then will we love God’s law without attempting to keep it for our justification before Him. The cry of a heart set free from legalism is this:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. (Gal. 2:20–21)