March 09, 2023

What Is Legalism?

Nathan W. Bingham & Burk Parsons
What Is Legalism?

The Bible commands us to obey God’s law and to live a life that models obedience to Christ. Are there ways that we can take this pursuit in the wrong direction? Today, Burk Parsons warns against three kinds of legalism.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Today on the Ask Ligonier podcast, I’m with Burk Parsons, one of our teaching fellows here at Ligonier Ministries. Dr. Parsons, what is legalism?

DR. BURK PARSONS: Well, that’s a very important question to consider because I think there is a lot of confusion surrounding legalism, and a lot of misconceptions about what legalism is and even what legalism isn’t. I’ve always looked at legalism as I’ve experienced it and studied it in the church and among Christians, and even in my own heart, that there really seems to be—and these are very rough generalizations—but it seems to be really kind of three different types of legalism. Not so much levels of legalism, but three different types of legalism.

And the way I’ve generally observed this is that you tend to have a sort of a basic, foundational legalism that was more or less represented by the Judaizers or the Judaizing heresy in the New Testament that we sometimes see in different sects of Christianity. But it is a sort of legalism that espouses that we are justified by God through faith and works—that it is not only our faith but also our works that gain us a right standing before God—that it’s only when we have faith in Jesus, faith in Christ, and when we are performing works unto salvation that, when we have both of those together, only then are we just before God. Only then are we counted righteous before God.

Now, my experience is that most people in the church do not espouse anything of the sort. They don’t acknowledge that. I don’t hear that taught. That may be true in certain Roman Catholic communities; it certainly is in Roman Catholicism confessionally on the books. But we see that there at Rome and in other sects of Christianity. But for the most part, it’s the second two types of legalism that I think we tend to run into far more often in the church.

And the first type of legalism—you could generally characterize it perhaps as sort of a pharisaical legalism—wherein Christians, well-meaning Christians, they look to the law of God, and they adhere to the law of God. And we’re not just speaking about the Mosaic law of the Old Testament, but the laws of Christ, the laws of God in the New Testament as well. But they look at the law of God and then they—in order to try to obey that law and in order to try to be faithful and obedient to that law—they add laws around those laws. And they add those laws around those laws not only for themselves, but they tend to, though they may not want to at the outset, they have a tendency to make those laws that they’ve made for themselves around God’s laws—they’ve had a tendency to begin to impose those laws around laws upon other Christians.

This happens in Christian families all the time, where parents who have maybe principles or practices in their lives that they follow, they will now impose them upon their children as, “If you do not do these things, you probably aren’t a Christian,” or, “If you don’t perform this law, if you’re not obedient to this law around God’s law, well then you’re probably not a Christian.” And so, it’s a sort of pharisaical legalism that you can still find Christians who espouse this sort of legalism, but the way in which they make laws around laws and then impose those laws on others that are not the laws of God, but rather the traditions of man. And they might be good traditions, and often they are, but they impose those laws on other Christians as if they were the law of God, thus making their traditions as if they were the Word of God, which Christ warned against, as we know. So that’s the second type of legalism that I see often in the church.

But the third type of legalism—and I would suggest the most prevalent in the church and also the most sneaky, the most deceptive type of legalism in the church—is really what we can call just, in general, Christian legalism. And that is that we know that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. We know that. But in striving to be holy, which we ought to do, in striving to be godly, in striving to be like Christ, in striving to please God in all that we do, and strive to glorify God in all that we think, say, do, whatever we do, whether we eat or drink, in all that we do, glorify God. That in striving to that end, we make certain practices that we have in our own lives, practices among our families, personal practices, ways of thinking, mindsets that we possess, that we essentially treat those in our own lives, in our own hearts, as if we do not do those, if we do not practice those, and if we do not perform those to the degree that we ourselves have imposed a standard upon ourselves, then we really are not as loved by God as we could be. That we essentially play this game with God and we make these practices, which are often good practices, and I’m not going to give examples of these. But good practices, good things that we as families do, things that you as a family do, things that I as a family do, things that I do personally, things that many Christians do personally. But the Bible doesn’t actually say, you must do this in this way, in this particular mode or this particular frequency, or this particular length of time. But we impose those principles.

And this happens in churches. It happens among Christian families wherein we essentially make ourselves feel as if we’re not really as loved by God as we actually are. And all of these types of legalism, they tend to take God’s law and separate it, as Dr. Sinclair Ferguson says, “It tends to take God’s law and separate it from God’s loving character, from who God is and His love and His grace.” And we sort of distinguish them, and we do that in our own hearts.

Now, one thing I just want to say as well that is very important is that we have to also understand what legalism isn’t. Legalism is not pursuing holiness. Legalism is not being dogmatic about following Scripture and following the law of God. We need to understand that bearing fruit, that doing good works, obeying God’s law is not legalism. That’s what we’re called to do as God’s people, justified by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ’s righteous works alone, and living our lives bearing fruit, walking with the Spirit, striving to be obedient in every way as we follow the example of Jesus Christ, our Savior.