The word strikes fear in the listener’s heart almost before it comes off the speaker’s tongue. To be accused of legalism is a frightening thing – a label that no one wants. And it isn’t always used very accurately.
For decades, Christians have thrown down the “legalism” card in several illegitimate ways to avoid the kind of accountability and discipline that a profession of faith in Christ demands. I won’t cover those here as they have been deftly handled elsewhere. The casual accusation of legalism to stave off all forms of correction and painful self-discipline is never acceptable.
However, there are in fact several kind of religious attitudes and behaviors that really are as bad as the label implies, and it is helpful to consider what they are.
When we talk about true legalism, what exactly are we talking about? There are at least four categories of what people often call “legalism” that need to be avoided by anyone seeking to live by biblical faith.
- Righteousness by good works.
Many people try to be right with God on the basis of their works, rather than the God-prescribed method of faith alone in Christ alone (Romans 9:30-32).
This kind of legalism has a direct tie-in with the Law of Moses itself, because it was this law that the Jews of the New Testament era tried to keep in order to establish their own kind of righteousness before God.
There are many problems with this kind of approach to righteousness:
- It rejects God’s gracious offer of righteousness in Christ (Romans 10:3-4)
- The Law is inherently a system of works, not faith – but salvation and righteousness have never come by works, and have always come by faith (Galatians 3:11-12).
- The Law was never designed to impart life or, therefore, righteousness (Galatians 3:22) – so keeping it to try to gain those things is a futile effort.
- Instead of bringing righteousness, the Law brings the knowledge of sin’s utter wickedness by provoking sinful passions in those who have not been redeemed and transformed (Romans 3:19-20; 7:5, 7-13).
- Salvation by law would be tantamount to salvation by works, which would provide grounds for human boasting before God – and God is having no such thing (Romans 3:27-28; 1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
It is only faith in Christ, and not good works of any kind (including from God’s Law), that can make a man right with God (Galatians 2:16, Philippians 3:9).
If you think that you can be a “good person” or do a lot of good works and thereby get right with God, you are guilty of at least some flavor of this first form of legalism.
- Christian Growth by Law-Keeping
This one is a bit trickier, but still just as important. How do we know this? Because there is literally an entire New Testament letter written about it: Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Paul writes strong words in this book about the illegitimacy of being justified – declared righteous – by works. But that is not his point in writing the book.
Instead, he writes it to a group of people who would agree with Paul’s doctrine of how to become righteous initially, but who have slid toward picking the law back up on the post-conversion side of things.
And Paul says: You must never go that way.
You don’t start by faith and then finish the job by the Law, he says (Galatians 3:1-5) – the two systems are in contrast.
The way of living for the Christian is by faith in Christ (Galatians 2:20), and trying to keep the Law of Moses undercuts that life of faith and the work of Christ (Galatians 2:21), even if you understand that faith alone is allowed in coming to Christ initially.
The Christian is to keep God’s commandments, to be sure, but these are distinguished from the commandments found in the Mosaic Law per se (1 Corinthians 7:19). The Christian is to keep A law, but not the Law of Moses – instead it is the similar-yet-very-different Law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21, Galatians 6:2; cf. James 1:25, 2:8). A Christian is to walk by the Spirit, not by the flesh – which means that we must walk by faith and not by the Law.
A Christian must not take up the commandments of Moses as binding or helpful upon him for growth in godliness. He is to learn from them, but he is not to keep them – he has a different official standard, following the Law of Christ by faith.
- Mistaking Measurables for Maturity
There are several disciplines (or “means of grace”) that God uses in helping Christians to grow toward greater spiritual maturity. However, we often confuse the channels of godly preparation with the accomplishment of goodness. Daily bible study turns into points before God; prayers prayed daily become our confidence about our growth; frequency of church attendance becomes a source of pride.
These are not so simple to dismiss as they seem. The only easy way out is to simply get rid of Bible reading, prayer, and church attendance. But we can’t do this and remain faithful, because not only are these essential channels of grace for Christian living, they also are all-but-commanded actions in and of themselves (James 1:25; Ephesians 6:18; Hebrews 10:25). And because of this, Bible reading, prayer, and gathering with the church not only must not be neglected, but they are themselves honoring to God as actions of obedience.
The problem comes when people rely upon these things as their marker of spiritual maturity, instead of blending them into the entire picture. There are many more areas of obedience than Scripture reading and prayer, and while they are important for multiple reasons, they are not the sole measure of one’s godliness.
Under this heading also falls the problem of empty ritual: doing what God has commanded on the outside, but being insincere and hypocritical on the inside. You may do your righteous deeds to be noticed by men, but in private there is no fear of God and no true spiritual vitality (Matthew 6:1, 23:25-28).
Measurable spiritual disciplines and external obedience do not equal true spiritual growth.
- Personal Convictions Applied to Others’ Conscience
One of the easiest forms of legalism to fall into is the imposing of one’s own applications of biblical truth onto the lives and consciences of others. This one can be especially confusing, because the way that one person obeys God’s commandments can (but is not always) be very different than the avenue for someone else to obey God’s commandments. Similarly, what is wrong for one person may not be right for another.
To put it another way: Personal convictions can be rooted in biblical principles but still be personal applications and not universal requirements.
This is the product of applying truth personally according to spiritual wisdom and understanding (Colossians 1:9). The timeless, universal principles are the same, but often the application of the principles is very different. It’s one thing for Christians to not murder; but it’s a bit more challenging to know how each person should be “making the most of [his] time” (Ephesians 5:16).
Further complicating matters is that other people can give helpful input into how these things might best be carried out in other people’s lives – and that this is essential to wise and godly Christian living.
But there is a line that must not be crossed: imposing one’s own extra-biblical application of a biblical principle upon another person, telling them that they must do the specific action we tell them or they are sinning (Romans 14:1-4, 10).
This kind of legalism happens all too often. It is tragic and it gives a bad name to helping one another and to a serious pursuit of holiness.
All of these forms of legalism are damaging in their own unique ways, and must be avoided to have a true and vibrant Christian walk.