Legalism. Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s bad. And in a world where Christians seem to disagree over basically everything, that’s saying something.
Even so, if you asked the average Christian to define legalism, the answers may not come so quickly. What exactly counts as legalism? How do we know it when we see it? The confusion is exacerbated by the fact that the term can be used in different ways. People can use the same word but infuse it with very different meanings.
In hopes of dissipating a little of the fogginess, here’s a breakdown of different ways to understand legalism.
Legalism and Salvation
Let’s begin with the most obvious meaning of legalism. At its core, legalism is when we base our justification on our own law-keeping rather than on the finished work of Christ. If we depend on our own merits, our own efforts, even our own rituals, to make us acceptable before a holy God, then we have become legalists.
In short, legalism is salvation by works. We will call this salvation-legalism.
It is precisely this sort of legalism that Paul was fighting in the letter to the Galatians. Indeed, Paul was clear that the Galatians, having been deceived by the “Judaizers,” had embraced another gospel altogether: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ are are turning to a different gospel” (1:6).
Of course, this is why the real gospel—that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—is such good news. In this gospel, we are freed from the heavy yoke of works-righteousness. [Read more…]