What Is Legalism?

by Richard Phillips

Last Sunday I taught a lesson in the New Members’ Class on Law and Gospel in the Christian life. This is an important subject for all of us, and it has been made more important in recent years because of the large amount of erroneous teaching on it within Christian and even Reformed circles. It occurred to me this week that it would be good to review these matters with the entire congregation. I therefore intend to cover several topics, starting this week with the question, “What is legalism?”

The question of legalism is important for two reasons. First, there is such a thing as legalism and we need to know how to avoid it. Second, there are many false accusations of legalism that are hurled against the Bible’s actual teaching, and these too are to be avoided. So, what is legalism? I would define legalism in three categories: 1) seeking to be justified before God by our own works; 2) adding human laws to the actual laws of the Bible; and 3) an approach to sanctification that is excessively reliant on human effort and forgetful of God’s grace.

The first, and classic, form of legalism is to seek justification before God by your own works. This is the universal approach to salvation apart from Jesus Christ. Most people think they just have to be “good enough” and they will be accepted by God into heaven. Their problem is an ignorance of God in his holiness and perfect justice, coupled with a denial of their true sinful condition and a false conception of sin’s offense before God. The true situation is that God is perfectly holy and his standard is nothing less than perfect holiness in the creature. He says, “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). Not only are we not perfectly holy but we are thoroughly corrupted by sin. Romans 3:10 says, “None is righteous, no, not one.” This is true both with respect to our guilt – we have actually violated God’s holy law and are guilty of it – and of the condition in which we were born as part of a fallen race: “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked… and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:1-3). Moreover, whereas we tend to downplay sin, God says, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). When you add this up, there is not one single person, apart from Jesus Christ, who is able to be justified before God on the basis of his works. As Paul explained in Romans 3:20, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”

This is why the very heart of the gospel is justification not by works but through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul explained: “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16). Christians are justified not by their own works but by Christ’s work, which we receive in faith. Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and Christ lived a perfect life before God that fulfilled on our behalf the demands of God’s law. The Bible therefore teaches an “imputed righteousness.” This means that through faith we are justified because Christ’s perfect righteousness is imputed, or credited, to us before God. 2 Corinthians 5:21 states this classically: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

All of us must struggle against this kind of legalism. We have an inborn tendency to base our acceptance with God on our performance as Christians. In theological terms, we tend to base our justification with God on our sanctification (holiness) before God. But our acceptance with God is based not on our performance but on Jesus’ perfect performance in fulfilling God’s law and dying for our sins. Justification through faith alone does not merely mean that when I die I will be accepted into heaven (though praise the Lord it does mean that). Justification also means that I am accepted by God right now, despite my sin and failure. Paul said, “Having been justified through faith, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1). Legalism causes Christians to cringe in fear before their loving God, when in fact they are accepted as “dearly beloved children” (Eph. 5:1) through union with Christ in faith.

It is possible, however, to teach justification accurately and still have legalistic tendencies. One way of doing this is to add man’s rules to God’s law when it comes to practical obedience before the Lord. As I will make clear in a following letter, justified Christians are required to press on to sanctification, that is, to a life of increasing holiness. Knowing this, some zealous Christians make their own laws that are supposed to promote holiness, naming as sins things that are not considered sins in God’s Word. Typical examples today would be to say that it is a sin to drink any alcohol, to enter a restaurant that sells alcohol, or to enter a movie theatre and see a film. These man-made laws have good intentions, noting in these cases the way that alcohol can lead to sin and that ungodly movies can corrupt our morals. But the problem is that God’s Word does not forbid alcohol or cultural events like movies. Alcohol is an example of something made by God for good (Ps. 104:15), made use of by Jesus Christ (Jn. 2:6-10, and endorsed in its proper use by the apostles (1 Tim. 5:23). Paul wrote, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4). The true problem with man-made laws is that we tend to think that by keeping them we are righteous before God. By not drinking alcohol, avoiding movies, and not wearing certain kinds of clothes, Christians are made to believe they are better than others and righteous before God, when in fact that they are sinners like everyone else in need of saving grace through faith alone.

A third kind of legalism, a sort of “soft legalism,” is seen in some Christians who would never think of themselves as legalists. They know they are justified before God through faith in Christ alone and would not think of adding to God’s law or inventing their own sins. Nonetheless, and usually in reaction to the sinfulness they see around them in the culture and in some churches, they approach the Christian life with such a severity and an emphasis on human effort that they forget the all-important grace of God. This often comes through in the way that harsh parents treat their Christian children. There is no doubt that the Christian life requires much effort, but we must not forget the mercy of God for those who struggle in weakness and need compassion. We must not forget that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). Moreover, we must not forget that sanctification comes by God’s grace, through God’s Word and prayer. Let us make sure, therefore, that the manner in which we seek to be holy reflects the God who loved the world and sent his only Son to forgive us of our sins (Jn. 3:16).

Lastly, notice something that I did not say. I did not say that legalism is the belief that Christians must obey the Bible. That is because this is not legalism – it is Christianity! It is not legalistic to believe that we must and can obey God’s Word by the grace of Christ. It is not legalism to strive against sin and seek to remove sinful habits from our lives. It is not legalism to set the Ten Commandments before ourselves and, trusting Christ for our justification, seek by Christ’s grace to live in accordance with God’s law, in order to love God and our neighbor as we should. The only way to live as a Christian is by God’s grace in Christ, but living as Christians we must seek to honor God’s law as the true and only path of love. Paul said, “For the grace of God has appeared… training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (Tit. 2:11-12).

In Christ’s Love,
Pastor Rick Phillips


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