May 24, 2014

Shooing Away the Legalism Boogeyman: What Graceless Legalism Isn’t (Reprise)

by Eric Davis

Robust discussion has resurfaced these past few weeks regarding the law-gospel issue and the relationship of sanctification with justification, being fueled, in part, by Tullian Tchividjian’s removal from TGC’s blogdom. In light of that, the Cripplegate is reposting an article from last year on identifying common legalism misconceptions.

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.

Looking Under BedHere are 5 all-too-common legalism boogeymen we need to shoo away:

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.

helpHow 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.”

Guilt sensorIt 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.”

born to growWe 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).

blueprintOn 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.”

secureGod 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.

Eric Davis

Posts Twitter

Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • tovlogos

    Solid piece Brother Eric — A genuine take-up-your-cross spirituality is every bit as important as study.
    Skewed exegesis or outlook shows a gap between the Bible student and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is a two-edged sword — without the Spirit, i.e., salvation, reading the Bible can be a disaster.


  • 4Commencefiring4

    Doesn’t this all boil down to one’s sense of what constitutes “obedience” and therefore what another decides to call out as “sin”? For instance, I like crime shows (both scripted and real ones), “ghost” programs, and some comedies–not many of which feature things we normally discuss in Sunday school. Someone else may think taking any time to watch such programs (or even owning a TV at all) is a violation of the Scriptural call to “…think on these [good, lovely, etc] things…” and would tell me I’m not being obedient to the Lord’s will in that regard.

    How we spend our money is another area where believers may differ. One spends as little as possible on creature comforts, preferring to give as much as possible to the Kingdom. Another buys the finest he can afford and doesn’t see anything wrong with having the best, considering it wasteful to buy cheap things and having to always replace them with more cheap things. And both can cite Scripture to defend their own practice.

    Would you call someone who is particularly cautious about his choices and steers as far away from anything questionable to be a “strong” christian, or a “weak” one? I’m not sure I can say.

    Sure, there are some things that are not debatable. But the christian life largely consists of a things that fall somewhere outside of that. I’ve sometimes asked believers if they would like to have a “christian government”, and they mostly say Yes. But when the question is further defined, things get a bit more tricky: Would you like a Baptist one, a Lutheran one, a Catholic one, a Pentecostal one, a Quaker one? Hmmm…not so easy now.

    • Yes, some of life is lived in the gray area, and no one should elevate their preferences to law but the gray areas are not as broad as many would like to make them. Is there crude jesting in the comedies, or obscenity, or foolish talk? Then there are Ephesians 5:4 implications. Are the crime/ghost programs about what is true, lovely, pure and commendable? If not there are Philippians 4:8-9 implications. Debatable is just not a biblical category, Christian liberty is the biblical category, and flaunting liberty is sinful (Rom 14:21) and the Christian life is not to be marked with the unrestrained exercise of liberty, but by lovingly laying it aside for the good of our brothers and sisters (1 Cor 8:13).

      • 4Commencefiring4

        You make my point for me: “Liberty” is recognized, but at what point am I “flaunting” it? I may say one thing, you another. I feel no conviction about the fact that I don’t have any CCM in my music library; it’s almost all jazz. But others might consider that being “worldly” and hence “flaunting” my liberty. Some would never shop on a Sunday, even for milk or bread, while another heads to Home Depot right after church to pick up a paint brush.

        If we “lay aside” all possible acts that anyone might have a problem with, we end up living by the preferences of the most sensitive among us–even while not being convicted personally over any of it. I dare say not a single one of us would live that way, as it’s a given that something I do or you do would give offense to someone.

        You’re a pastor. Take a look around your congregation tomorrow. How many men are wearing a suit and tie? Are even the ushers? I’m willing to bet precious few are. But in prior generations, such casual attire would have been thought inexcusable. Men went to the ball park in suits, for goodness sake. Today, we don’t take attire very seriously–unfortunately, in my view. But is that “liberty” or “license”? Or just laziness?

        Not easy answers.

        • Garth Madden

          4commencefiring4 – this article is focused on how we respond to clear violations of Scripture. I think you raise very legitimate questions, but they are probably better handled on a different post. The issue Eric is addressing has to do with how we should respond, preach/speak, or act after we have violated God’s word and/or our own conscience. Should we grieve over our sin? Should we resist it in an active way, or should we simply meditate and “hear” the Gospel of grace in these situations? Furthermore, should we warn ourselves and one another when we have repeatedly violated God’s Word and Law?

        • Eric Davis


          Thanks for chiming in. You definitely bring up some good questions. Many of the questions you are asking pertain more to matters of conscience, not clear violations of Scripture, as you know. You are asking, “Is it wrong or worldly or flaunting liberty to wear a suit or drink scotch or watch the Bourne movies?” We have to be careful, as you noted, about giving a firm “yes.” If we say it’s wrong, we better have clear biblical credence. “But people in generations thought it was wrong and could have shown it from Scripture…” Again, we better have clear biblical credence from sound exegesis. Whole generations can have mis-informed consciences. Or, they can simply have preferences (suits, classical, juice) which they would not have claimed were inherently righteous (or the absence thereof as sin). Rather, they simply preferred that and would not claim that they were more righteous or acceptable God b/c of those preferences. Now, if those kinds of things violate their conscience, then obviously they should refrain, not b/c the action is wrong so much as violation conscience is. And we cannot know if someone is “flaunting” something unless we know their motives, for the most part. To “flaunt” is an action from the motives, so we have to be careful about that one. But again, this is another can of worms to open.

          What I’m addressing is what constitutes legalism? What actions, by definition, fall under “attempting to earn standing with God”? If I’m understanding you correctly, you are addressing how should one act in 1 Cor 8-9 issues. I’m proposing that an individual acting/living along the lines of the 5 above issues is not inherently legalistic or committing the sin of legalism.

      • Ken Miller

        What about those Christians who love to say that others shouldn’t drink alcohol, because it “might” offend a brother. They can’t point to any actual brothers or sisters in their congregation that believe drinking alcohol is a sin, but there are “some Christians” out there who believe drinking alcohol is a sin.

        Now they tell you, “well, you might offend a brother by drinking alcohol, so you shouldn’t do it.” They even establish rules in the church prohibiting members from serving in certain areas of ministry if they drink alcohol (I know of a church that does this). All the while, they affirm that drinking alcohol isn’t inherently sinful.

        The church is now divided between those who drink alcohol and those who don’t. The ones who refrain can serve and minister and the ones who don’t are second class members.
        They’re doing exactly what the Pharisees did. They’re establishing their adendum to the law of God and then judging others who do not live up to their additional requirements. While they’re passing it off as protecting weaker brothers in Christ, they’re doing precisely what Romans 14:3 prohibits (people who consistently bring up Romans 14:21 usually ignore Romans 14:3).
        One of the biggest problems is that those who protect the liberties of hypothetical brothers and sisters do not do it consistently. I’ve met Christians who believe it’s a sin for a woman to wear jeans, since woman are prohibited from wearing male clothing in the OT. I’ve also met Christians who forbid dancing. There are brothers and sisters in Christ who believe Saturday is still the Sabbath, and others who believe the Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ. People that want to protect weaker brothers and sisters don’t apply that principel to every issue that could cause a hypothetical brother to be offended, because that would be impossible. I’ve even had Christians tell me that they think eating ice cream is a sin because our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit!

        You can’t avoid every possible “offense,” because you can’t outlaw EVERYTHING!
        The real question should be, “will my partaking in this action cause or encourage a brother or sister in my church to violate their conscience and likewise partake?” Not everthing we do has to meet with approval from every Christian in every corner of the world. That would be impossible and that’s not what the Bible requires. That’s why weaker brothers who abstain are not allowed to judge stronger brothers who partake.

        • Thanks for the replying. I am sorry that you seem to have been so bruised by those who would make the OT law binding on Christians. My point was that often times the “gray areas” are expanded far beyond what they actually are, and that christian liberty is not about what we can get away with, but about no longer being enslaved to sin, and that the more sanctified and mature we are as beleivers, the more we should be willing to lay aside what we enjoy or prefer for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of others.

  • temsmail

    Law vs. Grace is the conundrum of the Gospel. If we are saved by Grace alone, the Law is worse than meaningless; it destroys Christ’s work on the cross – God could have simply passed over our transgressions without the substitutionary expiation of His Son. If, on the other hand, we are saved by keeping the Law we then empty the Cross of any meaning. Without the cross, we could be saved by some other administration of Grace, say — baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Once again we face the Gospel riddle of “Yes, already; but No, not yet.” Are we members of the Kingdom of God now (yes, already), or is the Kingdom of God to come at the Parousia (No, not yet)? Yes and no. While we “work out our salvation,” we also depend on the Holy Spirit entirely for our sanctification: we can’t do it. While we “work like it all depends on us,” we also “pray like it all depends on God.” Both have merit, but not to the exclusion of the other, because while we have salvation, we work through our sanctification and we look forward with great anticipation to our glorification.

  • Pingback: Things That Don’t Make You A Legalist » All Things Expounded()

  • Ken Miller

    I agree that charges of legalism can be thrown around too carelessly, but I also believe there are some subtle ways that legalism creeps into our lives and into our churches that are often left out of such discussions. While we don’t want to level charges of legalism where it does not exist, we don’t want to overlook the subtle creep of legalism into our lives that can show up every day. Natural man loves legalism, because it feeds his pride and I believe mature Christians often become more tempted toward legalism as they put other sins to death.
    I also believe legalism shows up in the following ways:

    1. Establishing extra-biblical rules in the church that are used as a standard to judge the “spirituality” of any given Christian. Christians who do x,y,z are spiritual, and Christians that don’t have not yet arrived. After a while, the whole church is focused on who can do more of x,y,z to prove that they’re part of the really spiritual crowd. Those who don’t do x,y,z are not as committed and at the very least are not as valuable to God, if they’re even saved. Sure, no one will be disciplined by the church for not doing x,y,z, but their certainly thought of as lesser Christians. The biggest problem is that x,y,z is usually something the Bible never commands in the first place.

    2. Focusing on ourselves and our works to the point that we forget grace. We certainly need to pursue holiness, but to focus on ourselves at the expense of looking to Christ for righteousness can be maddening. I know from personal experience. As a young believer, I analyzed my every thought, my every action to determine whether there was some sin present in it. After a while, I began to loose focus on the cross and was continually depressed about my own sin. Doctrinally, I never embraced legalism, but practically I lived like the gospel did not make me righteous in the eyes of God. I was always failing and always focused on my failures.

    3. Looking down on a lost world because they do not embrace the moral standards of God. Of course, we must call sin what it is, but how often can we look at the heathens around us and believe ourselves to be better than them – and by extension, more deserving of salvation – because of the righteousness Christ has wrought within us. We forget that all that we have is only what we’ve received. We act as if we are more righteous because we’re not as bad as the homosexuals, liberals, and jihadists, or…charismatics, emergents, and Weslyans.

  • Pingback: Today in Blogworld 05.30.14 - Borrowed Light()