The “L” word. It’s one of the ugliest of all words: legalism. Defined as the idea that we can earn right standing with God, it does violence to the glorious gospel of Christ. It says, “No, sorry, it’s not enough,” to the substitutionary atoning work of Christ. It confuses the way to forgiveness, it tarnishes the gospel of grace, it lays up heavy burdens that no one can carry, it crushes hope, and fuels despair. It declares that man possesses finesse to propitiate the just wrath of God due our sin. For that, legalism is deadly and must be opposed at every level. Paul called it another gospel whose proponents are condemned (Gal 1:8-9).
Consequently, labeling something/one legalistic ought to be done with caution. To bring the charge is to say that this thing or person is in danger of propagating an unsavable system and trampling the cross of Christ. So if we label something legalistic, we better thoroughly understand the gospel, the definition of legalism, and what exactly is happening with what we are labeling as legalistic. Otherwise, we are sinning by erroneously labeling something in opposition to the cross of Jesus Christ.
Even so, the legalism card often gets overplayed. More and more I’ve interacted with Christians humbly and faithfully working out their salvation with fear and trembling, only to have the legalism card slapped on them. As such, they’re being fallaciously warned about legalism boogeymen. There are many I’ve heard of lurking in Christendom.
1. Encouraging others to turn from sin and obey Christ’s commands.
This too-frequent error typically goes something like this: “You know, I hear what you are saying about _____ in my life, but honestly, Romans says I’m free and forgiven, so stop laying up legalistic burdens on me. Nobody is perfect.” But this is far from legalism. In Galatians, Paul says, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1-2).
Notice, that gently helping others to repent of sin and obey Christ, so far from being legalism, is instead fulfilling “the law of Christ.” It’s loving. You are laying aside your comfort, your time, and, potentially, that person considering you their friend, for something greater: love.
How could that be love? Encouraging repentance is like encouraging someone to put in the effort to take their winning lottery ticket and drive the few hours to the state capital to get the winnings. Yeah, it’s a little bit of a pain to get there (confess and turn from sin), but the rewards of arriving at the capital (restoration, God’s forgiving, unchanging love in Christ) far outweigh the inconvenience.
Obedience is God’s best for us. We get to obey. We have to turn from thinking that repentance and turning to greater obedience is some kind of drudgery. Repentance and obedience are not “just grin and bear” it living, like slamming that delicious raw kale and wheat grass smoothie our doctor recommended. But by the power of the Spirit, repentance and walking in obedience is merely travelling the variegated avenues of grace, assurance, and intimacy with our good God.
2. Being discouraged over our failure to obey God’s commands.
This boogeyman comes in the form of, “Ah, come on, don’t be down about your sin. You’re being too hard on yourself, you legalist.” This boogeyman has an aversion to being broken over our sin and mourning our disobedience. But is that legalism?
“For My hand made all these things, thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD. “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isa 66:2). To be “contrite of spirit” has the idea of lame or broken in spirit, similar to those at Pentecost (Acts 2:37) who were shattered over their sin. God looks favorably to such a demeanor.
Stuart Scott has rightly said, “We never find the Scriptures saying, ‘Come on now, you’re thinking too poorly of yourself’ or ‘What you need is to consider yourself more’” (The Exemplary Husband, 177).
In a similar vein, Christ said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:3-4). So far from a legalistic mindset, discouragement over sin is a demeanor that is pleasing to God. You are blessed, in that it evidences you’re of the kingdom of heaven and under the grace of divine favor.
3. A feeling of guilt.
Guilt, or a sense of one’s violation of God’s commands is not inherently legalistic. This boogeyman protests, “You made me feel guilty. That’s so legalistic of you.”
It presupposes that a feeling of guilt means something wrong is happening, and is legalistic. But guilt can be a good thing. It’s like the sounding smoke alarm of the soul. Certainly it’s possible to feel guilty for wrong reasons, for example, if I have a misinformed conscience. But I could feel guilty for sin. So when the guilt comes, instead of playing the legalism card, I need to investigate what triggered the smoke alarm.
Plus, crying legalism in response to guilt is to put subjective feeling as the end-all determination on the matter. But legalism needs to be evaluated, not by feelings, but biblical truth. Was this person actually placing legalistic standards on me? Is what they said really insisting that certain works are necessary for me to merit right standing with God? Or might I be shooing away the Spirit’s work of conviction with the legalism label?
Guilt is often God’s good gift to us to trigger repentance from error in belief or living. Like in Luke 18:13, the tax collector was crushed with guilt, and it was not due to a legalistic demeanor but the convicting power of God. His guilt was a gift of grace from God to generate repentance unto salvation. And Jesus commends him for his shattered demeanor. Richard Greenham wrote, “Never any of God’s children were comforted thoroughly, but they were first humbled for their sins.” The presence of guilt is not an automatic indicator of legalism.
4. Great desire for increasing spiritual maturity.
This boogeyman typically says: “You know, you’re so focused on wanting to mature and grow. You’re putting legalistic standards on yourself. It’s legalism to think on growing so much.”
We need not meditate all day long on, “I need to grow, I need to grow.” However, an inner desire to have Christ increasingly formed in us is a sign of spiritual health. It’s an attitude akin to when Christ said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:6). Like a baby with a voracious appetite, a consistent longing to grow in Christ is a sign of the Spirit’s life and health in us.
We’re saved to grow. Like a baby born, we’re born from the Spirit to mature into spiritual adulthood. NT writers rebuke professing Christians for not having progressed in spiritual maturity (1 Cor 3:1-2, Heb 5:11-14). And the Apostle of grace greatly desired to increase in spiritual maturity while in no way being legalistic (Phil 3:12-14).
5. Trying hard to obey Christ’s commands.
Being one of the more tragic errors, this boogeyman comes in the form of, “Mellow out on trying hard to obey. You’re free in Christ to let go and let God,” and chides humble saints from giving efforted consideration of obedience to their Lord. Ironically, this “legalism” label is sometimes slapped on someone as a solution to the conviction solicited by the other person’s godly life.
But is this legalistic? In light of redemptive realities, Paul exhorted the churches:
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58).
“So then, my beloved…work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13).
The Apostle of grace rightly detested legalism with all his might (cf. Gal 1:8-9, 2:3-5), while simultaneously exhorting all in Christ to be “always abounding” in obedience and “working out their salvation,” something which did not come without effort. As Demarest writes, “Christians’ serious regard for God’s law does not constitute legalism” (The Cross and Salvation, 423). And in Schreiner’s excellent work, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, he writes:
“Some who understand grace overreact and rule out the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ of the NT. They become more ‘biblical’ than the Bible! But grace and demand are not necessarily opposed to one another. God’s grace also gives us the ability to live in a way that pleases God, even if we never reach perfection…[Paul] did not believe that such commands would lead Christians to become legalists; otherwise, he would not have included these commands” (229).
On top of that, obedience is already a pre-planned deal for God’s people: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10). As an inevitable consequence of justification, concentrated effort to obey is in the blueprint of sanctification.
Further, this boogeyman can be shooed away on the grounds of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. By faith in Christ, he comes to reverse our depravity by making us willing and able to obey God. This was prophesied when God said, “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ezek 36:27). Notice that the New Covenant ministry of the Holy Spirit enables careful obedience. Similarly Paul teaches that one of the consequences of salvation is “that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4). Along these lines, Schreiner comments, “Doing the law is required for justification and is unattainable, while fulfilling the law is the consequence of justification and the result of the Spirit’s work” (Galatians, 335). One of the chief ministries of the Spirit is causing careful regard for God’s commands in the redeemed.
Sometimes the objection is made: “Well, we need not think about trying so hard. Just relax and think on redemptive realities.” Certainly the fullness our Christian life does not constitute preaching to ourselves, “Try hard, try hard,” all day long. Yet neither can we avoid thinking about obedience. The flesh is active. Our first thought is not always, for example, “I so delight to sing praises after bouncing that check, the kids being sick, and the car broke down again.” Obedience takes effort. And it’s OK. You need not fear the legalism boogeyman even if you really want to obey and you need to put your shoulder into doing so. Both the desire, effort, and action are pleasing to God.
Along those lines, Christ assured his people that trying hard to obey him is anything but legalism: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
So, to call someone legalistic for doing so is wrong. It’s equivalent to saying, “Stop loving Christ so much.” Imagine getting to heaven and God the Father saying to you, “You know, I wish you would not have tried so hard to obey my Son so as to love him. That was so legalistic of you.”
God is pleased with his children as they give effort towards obedience because they are like a little child who knows he is secure and will not be disowned. In light of that familial security, they so love their Father, thus delight to work hard in pleasing him. His children labor hard to obey, not to earn right standing with God, but because they already have it.
Believers, then, can securely and joyfully pursue obedience with concentrated effort free from the paranoia of the legalist boogeyman. With Paul, they can say, “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (2 Cor 5:9).
Where legalism truly exists, we must resist and oppose it at every level. Few things mar the Person and finished work of Jesus Christ like it. But let’s be calculated and careful so as to ensure we’re shooing away the real thing and not boogeymen.