We hear the word “legalism” a lot in Christian circles.
“I don’t want to be a legalist.” “Isn’t that legalistic?” “Jesus hates legalism.”
There are some things that seem common about its usage. It’s always negative. It’s always combative (it’s used to dismiss another person or party.) The person using it assumes that the other person knows what they mean.
I have noticed that different people mean different things by the term. So, I thought I would try to outline different uses of legalism that I have noticed. The first 4, I think, can be legitimate in proper perspective. The last 2 never are.
Legalism as seeking salvation by works: This was the primary concern of Luther in the Protestant Reformation and the thrust behind the reformational sola fide (“faith alone”) and sola gratia (“grace alone”). As Paul said in Romans 3, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” No one will earn favor apart from the atoning work of Christ (Eph. 1:7; 2:14). This seems to be the emphasis of much of Paul’s writings in Romans and Galatians. I heard John Piper once say, “works are the fruit, not the root of salvation.” I think that is a good axiom to go by.
Legalism as sanctification by works: This kind of legalism is often more subconscious. A common symptom is the person who feels un-blessed for the day because they have not had their daily devotions. This tendency is a two-sided danger. On one hand, we can live in anti-gospel fear that feels we cannot be loved by God because we are not good enough. That is discrediting the work that Jesus did. On the other hand, we can feel o.k. because we are doing this or that good works. That is also anti-gospel, and it discredits God’s holiness.
Legalism as adding to the law: As Christians we are called to use the Bible to be morally discerning, but we should never call a law what is not a law. This is often used against fundamentalists who think that things like drinking alcohol, smoking tabacco, or watching R-rated movies are always sin. Fundamentalists are not the only people who are susceptible to this though. We need to all be careful to not cross this boundary. I find that many of us, even if we would not verbally add to the law, we sometimes do so instinctually when judging others.
Legalism as sticking to the letter of the law: This can be seen in biblical interpretation or with rules in general. I have this tendency. I’m a rules guy. If the rules say “do not,” it means “never.” There is a fine line here between integrity and a lack of common sense. Sometime, greater laws supersede lesser ones in certain circumstances. We saw Jesus make this point when he critiqued the Pharisees for giving to the poor, but not taking care of their parents, or when he accused them of making man for the Sabbath and not the Sabbath for man.
Legalism as equivalent to law: There are many today who place such an emphasis on grace that they reject law altogether. The theological word for this is antinomianism (coming from the Greek word for law, nomos). There are many statements from Paul that seem, on the surface, to imply this (e.g. Rom. 6:14). A more thorough reading of Paul, however, shows that it is not the law that is the problem, it is us (See Romans 7). The law is good. We are bad.
There are two common misunderstandings here:
One is a failure to distinguish between laws that were distinctly for national Israel (cleanliness law, sacrificial laws, temple laws, ect.). These laws were abolished when Jesus fulfilled them. Other laws are moral, and are repeated as commandments in the Old Testament. A good example of this is the Ten Commandments (read Exodus 20).
Another is a failure to distinguish the different uses of the law. John Calvin pointed out that the law does three things: It convicts us of sin, sets moral standards for society, and commands us how to live.
Legalism as discipline in general: Some consider legalism as any attempt to do discipline ourselves for good works. Don’t let someone call you a legalist for disciplining yourself for righteousness. We must remember that Paul, in Romans 6, in the same passage that we are told that we are not under the law, but under grace, said that we are to present members as instruments for righteousness (Rom. 6:13).
The point here is that it’s never sufficient to dismiss another person’s thoughts or actions just by placing a term on them. We need to be careful about the language we use and discerning about how we interpret the language of others.