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.
Legalism and Rules
But there are other ways to define legalism. Another form of legalism is also common in Scripture, namely when believers are told they must follow man-made rules rather than (or alongside) God’s rules. Our fallen human natures not only tend to resist God’s law, but we have a propensity to make our own laws.
In short, legalism is when you add to God’s word. We will call this rules-legalism.
Paul was also very aware this form of legalism. In Romans 14, he wanted to make sure that Christians were not judging each other over “disputable matters.” Some Christians ate meat, other didn’t (v. 2). Some Christians followed certain holy days, others didn’t (v.5). Some Christians drank wine, others didn’t (v. 21).
And Paul is very plain that we should not “pass judgment” (v.3) on our fellow believer over such matters. Our conscience is bound only to God’s word, not to man’s private opinion.
Of course, this is exactly the kind of legalism that defined the ministry of the Pharisees. They were masters of adding to God’s word. So much so, that Jesus rebukes them: “You hypocrites . . . you leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6-8).
It’s important to distinguish this kind of legalism from the one above. Many Christians are quick to add man-made rules to their faith, though far fewer would think they must keep them to be saved. That means a person can reject salvation-legalism but still be holding to rules-legalism.
Why would a person do this? Why are people so prone to rules-legalism? Because it gives us a way to feel better about ourselves. Notice that whenever we add a rule to the Christian faith, it just happens to be the rule we prefer and the rule we are keeping. And this allows us to be part of the “in” group, and to view others as part of the “out” group.
And that is the definition of sinful judging. There’s a right form of “judging” where we distinguish between right and wrong (contrary to what the world thinks). But, biblically speaking, sinful judging is when we tell someone their behavior is wrong, when it is not really wrong (Rom 14:3).
Here is where we see the importance of doctrines like sola Scriptura. In effect, that doctrine protects our Christian liberty. Only God’s word can bind our conscience, not man-made laws.
J. Gresham Machen put it well, “Dependence upon a word of man would be slavish, but dependence upon God’s Word is life…The Bible to the Christian is not a burdensome law, but the very Magna Carta of Christian liberty.”
Legalism and Tone
The final kind of legalism I will mention here (and there are others), is more difficult to pin down, but still very real. It is a legalism of spirit, rather than a legalism of doctrine.
We have all encountered pastors, leaders, and ministries that plainly affirm salvation by grace and plainly reject man-made laws. On paper, they are orthodox. And yet, their ministries are marked by a heavy-handed, crushing, and even oppressive focus on law-keeping. People in such churches often feel watched, criticized, picked apart, and even fearful of stepping out of line.
In short, this sort of legalism is an imbalanced focus on the Law. It is legalism in tone. So, we can call this tone-legalism.
Needless to say, tone-legalism is the most difficult type of legalism to identify. Often those who engage in this sort of legalism will defend their ministries on the grounds that, “I am just pointing out people’s sin.” It is legalism cloaked in orthodoxy.
Of course, it is true that there’s a place for pointing out people’s sin. And it is also true that God cares very much about Christian obedience. But the people in these churches know there’s something amiss, even if they may not be able to fully articulate it. Sadly, some Christians don’t even realize how distorted their experience is until they leave and join a church that has a balanced and joyful focus on the gospel. Looking back, all they might be able to say is, “That church was legalistic,” not realizing that they are dealing with tone-legalism.
Concern over tone-legalism might explain why we have so many exhortations for pastors to be gentle with their flocks and not domineering (1 Tim 3:3; 1 Pet 5:3; Matt 20:25). Our ministries should not be defined by our “cracking the whip,” but by patient, gentle shepherding.
In sum, legalism is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. And understanding the nuances of the term can help us navigate conversations and theological discussions. The next time a person says, “That’s legalism,” you can begin by asking them which definition they are using.
Eugene F Douglass says
I once had a discussion with a Seventh Day Adventist about the sabbath. He was insistent it should be practiced on Saturday, and not on Sunday as contemporary Christians celebrate the Lord’s day, as a celebration of His resurrection. I asked him if he trusted God’s word about such matters, and he said yes.
As you mention above, I referred him to Romans 14, regarding the days of worship, I quote:
“Paul was also very aware this form of legalism. In Romans 14, he wanted to make sure that Christians were not judging each other over “disputable matters.” Some Christians ate meat, other didn’t (v. 2). Some Christians followed certain holy days, others didn’t (v.5). Some Christians drank wine, others didn’t (v. 21).”
Well, he got angry as he was not prepared for such a response.. The problem was not the day he (and other Seventh Day Adventists) celebrated the sabbath, it was demanding it be Saturday only. Unfortunately, SDAs and others are burdened down with this kind of legalism, but largely it is harmless if one does NOT rely on practicing good works earns one’s salvation or justification.
I am not a SDA as such and also I cannot speak for the particular person you were talking with and why he got angry – but I have listened to some teaching about this matter and I can see that if Protestantism were to go Sola Scriptura they were bound to keep the Sabbath – appearantly on the Council of Trent this was pointed out by the Catholics. Rome itself is very proud to point out that it is a doken, the mark of their authority that they are not bound by Scripture, but can change time and law on their accord. Obviously people might wish to argue over certain passages and it takes a fair amount of genuine searching for truth. The foundation however is that the Sabbath is not part of the ceremonial law, it’s part of the ten commandments and it can be seen from cover to cover in the Bible how precious the Sabbath is to God’s heart. Same as any other of the ten commandments we are not keeping them to be saved. We keep them naturally as a consequence of being saved.
Ron Thomas says
I have been in many debates on the topic and will continue to engage in them. Your last paragraph is the key.
I gotta be honest here .. and maybe it’s because I’ve always grown up around evangelical types… But in my limited bubble I’ve always felt the opposite about tone. I very rarely hear sin being talked about in church at a, unless it’s the token let’s shock everyone and talk about pornography. Many messages just about how loved we are, events, or maybe convict us to make sure we forgive. In an age where many young adults in the church are sleeping together before marriage, going to night clubs and getting drunk, don’t read their bibles…divorce being so rampant and married couples withholding sex from another, not treating each other well etc. I dunno. I feel Pastor’s should be challenging congregations more. Compared to Jesus time when some took it too far and added to it, but many others were well versed in scripture and could quote large sections.
As for the first one.. yes anybody who says by faith alone is technically correct, but if I can sorta paraphrase Paul said faith without works is useless and I’ll show you my faith though my works. Like good trees bearing good fruit and bad trees bearing bad fruit. Some may say they believe but if they continue going around sinning unashamedly then are they really born again with a new nature?
The solution to sin you see is the gospel, not rules to obey. Proper use of the law is to show people how far they fall short. Jesus used the law in the sermon on the mount to show people how wicked their hearts truly were. But the remedy to our sin is Christ. Maybe what you’re longing for is preaching that uses the mirror of the law to show our true desperation for Christ. And then, the gospel is so beautiful because where else can we turn but to Jesus for His righteousness without which no one will see God.
Jesus himself said if you love me you will obey my father’s commands.
It’s not about earning salvation or being better than others like some legalists might think.. but you cant just keep on sinning without remorse and claim to be a new creation. Some of the books near the end.. think 1 John specially talks about testing oneself and making sure you’re walking in the light.
You are correct that the ‘motivation’ is the gospel itself..but we need to keep learning and transforming through the renewal of our minds. We can’t continue to try to just remain ignorant. As Paul said (and this is what I mean by church feels unchallenging) at some point we gotta move to some meat and just keep having milk
Yes, 2 Peter 1 talks about making your calling and election sure, and Jesus says in Matthew 7:21 that many will say “Lord, Lord” and He will say I never knew you. But we also know that God redeems all that are His and that no one can snatch them out of His hand. If you’re concerned about someone you see in church who is in sin, you should confront them in love and care for their soul. But know that the remedy is always the gospel. There’s no moving on from it. The “meat” is growing deeper in the understanding and articulation of the gospel and all its implications. The law shows us our sin, but the solution is trust Jesus–He did what you could not. And anyone who is truly saved WILL see fruit! It will be Holy Spirit wrought, not white knuckle effort. He who began a good work in you will complete it. He saved us to walk in the good works He set put before hand for us to accomplish.
1 for 9:27 But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.
That pretty close to what you’d call white knuckle effort. Although I’d just call it discipline which is a good thing to have and to practice. I believe there is plenty of room for personal discipline to walk hand in hand with the gospel. Self control is one of the fruits of the spirits. I think it’s too easy to think the gospel allows one to walk away from personal accountability.
Romans 6:1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
Definitely not trying to diminish the power of the gospel. On the contrary I think it has the power to change desires Nd bring forth fruits like self control, patience, kindness
Thanks for this, Dr. Kruger! Extremely helpful and nuanced. I wonder if “focusing on the letter to the neglect of the spirit of the Law” would be another form. I’m sure there are others, as you mentioned.
Question: Would the Pharisees be guilty of *both* rules-legalism (explicitly shown in the gospels) *and* salvation-legalism (perhaps more implicit in the gospels among the Pharisees, but explicit among the Galatian believers)? Second Temple Judaism was somewhat diverse, not monolithic. But would it be accurate to say that all the various perspectives within Judaism had virtually the same definition of grace (i.e., that the gift of grace is given only to those who deserve it)? And that, though the Pharisees believed in God’s grace, they defined it much differently than a Christian would (cf. Rom. 4:4, 5)?
I suppose there is a good legalism (legalism and grace?) in the sense that Christians are restored to do good works that stem from the law. Even if it is small steps and small beginnings. A big step in putting it all together was being made aware of the difference between salvation and sanctification. Which ultimately come from the Godhead. So even here boasting is out of the question when it comes to what we have and have not done.
There is no “good legalism”. Good works spring from a heart being redeemed by Christ. The works we walk in are an act of the Holy Spirit within us (Eph 2:10). Faith without works is dead, but also anything done without faith is sin. Faith is a gift from God and true faith WILL produce good works. Denying our own efforts and looking to Christ for His righteousness is the only way.
I see your argument. I still see a connection between the ten commandments (law) post salvation. On the one hand the law shows up our inadequate and fallen nature but being redeemed we are then set free to serve and walk in godliness (following or utilising the law in a good and godly way). Yes it is God the Father, Christ the Son & the Holy Spirit that enables all these things to happen by Grace. After all, I did mention that it was more from a sanctification side of things, not salvation/justification. I am legally set or declared free to walk in the new and living way.
Hey Kruger, good article.
I run into the tone-legalism more from church people, not really the pastors. I met a couple visiting our church and I learned they had driven an hour to be there. When I found out where they lived, I told them there was a great church right in their community and a great pastor, who I happen to know. They told me that pastor was unacceptable. Turns out, his daughter was known to be a fan of the Harry Potter books. Also that pastor did not hold to many of the teachings of a famous (who must not be named here) pastor. I was floored by these reasons to reject a very good man, but whatever.
Your description of “tone-legalism” reminds me of a comment by Sinclair Ferguson in his lectures (40 years ago?) on the Marrow Controversy: “It’s possible to have a Gospel Head but a Legal Heart.”
Steve COTTAM says
Great article, Michael and very useful.
Distinguishing three types of legalism is really helpful.
Sometimes legalism and obedience are conflated. I have always understood legalism as seeking to please God by following a bunch of rules rather than obeying what God teaches us in His Word.
Mark Salomon says
“Biblically speaking, judging is when we tell someone their behavior is wrong, when it is not really wrong” – I have a real problem with this definition. Read I Corinthians 5, for example, and tell me how this could possibly fit. Biblically speaking, you are not speaking biblically.
“Biblically speaking, judging is when we tell someone their behaviour is wrong, when it is not really wrong (Rom 14:3). Yes but in (1 Cor 5) the behaviour in the church was wrong but not being called out for what it was. Both are Biblical within a set context. Just like sin is not doing things that we should but also doing things that we shouldn’t. “And that is the definition of judging. Contrary to what the world thinks, judging is not just telling someone their wrong (the Bible actually requires us to distinguish between right and wrong).”
First, let me say that God did not change the Fourth Commandment. He doesn’t care what day you go to church which would be the day AFTER he said to rest as He rested. Second, legalism has nothing to do with anything. It is a manmade doctrine against observing the Torah (Instructions) which people call God’s Law. Just read Matthew 5:17-20. 1 John 3:4 and Rev. 12:17 and 14:12 (to name a few of many) and tell me that the Father’s commands have nothing to do with a Believer’s walk. You do not understand that the Pharisees, like today’s church, made up their own doctrines and traditions which the people beneath them had to follow. Jesus was upset that they did this while ignoring the Father’s rules! Everyone needs to stop following the Greek Jesus and start trying to understand the Hebrew Yeshua! Why is it okay for the church to say homosexuality is wrong when it is part of Torah?!? And, there are other things they use from Torah while claiming it was nailed to the cross (wrong). Jesus came to show us HOW to walk. Read the red letters. You’ll get a MUCH different picture which is contrary to church teachings! Then read some Alfred Edersheim books on the Life of Jesus. He did a great job on Hebrew history and why the Pharisees hated Jesus so much! [Theology student]
Where does the Torah teach that homosexuality is good?
Why just the red letters when Jesus chose his disciples to spread the good news to the ends of the earth. Surely the authority he gave them and their witness come into play. Matt 28.
18Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Don’t you create a legalism yourself. What about John 3.
5Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’…