A British tourist checks into his hotel in Pittsburgh. He asks the hotel receptionist, “Do you have a chip shop nearby?” “Sure,” the local responds, “that gas station across the road sells chips.” They are both using the word “chips,” but their meanings differ. The receptionist has a bag of chips (Lay’s or Middleswarth) in mind, while the visitor is thinking of something akin to steak fries.
The bewildered Brit returns and says, “I couldn’t find any!” The confused hotel worker responds, “You’re talking about the things you eat that are made out of potatoes, right?” “Yes!” This confusion will continue until they are both referring to exactly the same thing. This scenario serves as a metaphor for a lot of conversations about legalism – confusion reigns because the word means different things to different people.
A Bible search for the word will have zero results. While not negating its value, this may help explain the lack of a single and obvious definition.
I notice the word being used as a synonym for being very strict, overly careful, or excessively conservative. Often, what people tend to mean by “very,” “overly,” and “excessively” is “more than me.” Is someone “more strict than me?” He must be a legalist!
When used in this way, it’s easy to diagnose a person or church as legalistic. All you have to do is glance at what they do. If members of one church know of a more conservative-looking church in town, they can brand it “legalistic.” While this is a popular use of the word legalism, it’s also cheap, careless, and potentially dangerous. Ironically, the brander may be guilty of legalism, while the branded may be blameless
In cases where the branded are Christians who obey God out of love, but are stigmatized for doing so, this branding can become a badge of honor. “If you call careful living legalism, I’ll take it!” Or, “If taking God’s Word seriously is legalism, I’m a legalist!”
John Fletcher, one of early Methodism’s greatest theologians, wrote, “In our Antinomian days, it is [a] great … honour to be called legal by fashionable professors.”
At one point, Wesley spoke of legalism as “a silly, meaningless word.” In acknowledging the lack of a single meaning, he advised Methodists not to use it at all.
It’s easy to see where Wesley is coming from here and to share his antipathy for the word, so used. It’s tiring to rehash a defense of careful and holy living, when the commands for such sit so close to the surface of so much of the Bible.
Legalism Properly So Called
However, legalism is a fitting word to describe a subtle error that is vehemently refuted in the New Testament. Legalism, “properly so called,” is a real spiritual problem with a deep-rooted scriptural basis. It takes a scalpel to the Gospel, removes its heart, and leaves us with an empty shell, missing any saving power.
The similarity that this use of word legalism has with the previous abuse of the term is that it relates to the keeping of God’s law. That is where the confusion arises.
A diagnosis of this error cannot always be made from a glance at the surface. Seeing what a person does is often insufficient evidence for a diagnosis. The disease lurks in the thinking of the mind and hides all the way down in the motives of the heart. To diagnose this form of legalism, we need to biopsy the why behind the behavior.
In legalism, the keeping of God’s laws is seen as a necessary contribution to one’s justification or acceptance with God.
In this legalism properly so called, the keeping of God’s laws is seen as a necessary contribution to one’s justification or acceptance with God. God has given us His law, and if I do my best at keeping it — the idea goes — then He will accept me.
The law becomes an obligation I must dutifully perform. Life is a never-ending driver’s test. God is the Tester. Each day ends with a palpitating heart — did I pass or fail today? We never truly know for sure. We know the Tester is watching our every move, but we don’t know Him. At the end of life, this person looks in part to his works and hopes the Tester can “pass” him. If you put the why of this law-keeping under the microscope, the motive is seen in sharp focus: I have to obey, so that God will accept (pass) me.
Symptoms of Legalism
This disease has symptoms—traits growing directly out of this line of thinking.
In talking to such a person, you may notice that he is the lead actor in his own play. Since he plays a vital role in his own salvation, he’s worthy of some credit, right? He likes the limelight of front and center stage so others can see how well he plays his part at law-keeping. He’s easily slighted, even if people point out a minor fault in public; it doesn’t look good! Testimonies veer into humble-brags. Other people are servants, either as an audience to applaud him or foils to show him in a better light.
A legalist’s obedience is formed more by his religious sub-culture’s applause than Divine applause.
He finds pleasure in wagging his finger at others with one hand, because it feels like a pat on the back with the other hand. Often, in private he takes off part of his costume and lives a different life. His obedience is selective, formed more by his religious sub-culture’s applause than Divine applause. He majors on externals while minoring on the deep issues of the heart. When others fall, his heart might rise at little. When others fail, his voice rises in judgment.
If he’s a preacher, his sermons will emphasize law-keeping as “must do, so God will accept you.” Noses are looked down and fingers are pointed at those who don’t comply to personal interpretations. Illustrations reflect kindly on him. If you listen carefully, the energy required for law-keeping will subtly come from a form of self-love: “If you do this,” the thinking goes, “it will be well for you.” Go, in other words, and try hard, work hard: be the star in your own play.
In having just read the previous paragraphs, did anything seem amiss? Where’s Jesus?
If the absence of Jesus didn’t strike you — even if He was assumed — it’s important to ponder why. Salvation is, after all, explicitly taught to be by God’s grace alone. It’s a gift offered to the hell-deserving sinner. It’s given to the spiritually dead — those incapable of adding a grain of their own goodness to the balances of merit (Ephesians 2:5, 8).
Paul echoes a Bible-long argument: justification is by faith alone, apart from the law (Galatian 2:16, 3:2; Romans 3:20, 28). He’s very clear that this faith is placed entirely in Christ, for He alone died as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. These are the truths that must explode in a person’s heart for him to truly grasp the goodness of the Good News! Once they have exploded, it is blindingly obvious, as it was to Paul, that a believer has nothing to boast of (Ephesians 2:9, Romans 3:27). Nothing at all.
When a believer ends each day, his heart is at rest — in Jesus.
As a result, a believer’s instinct, implanted by the Holy Spirit, is to flee the limelight and leave it all for Jesus. To decrease so He might increase. To make sure that all of the glory goes where it all belongs — to Jesus. The person who sees God’s heart displayed on the cross realizes that God’s laws flow from the exact same place and are of the exact same nature. His laws are brilliantly good, infinitely wise, perfectly holy, and indescribably loving. God’s law becomes a well-studied guide on how to please God, delight in God, and glorify God. Obedience is necessary, not as a contribution to his justification, but as a confirmation of it. Obedience is taken far more seriously by this person than the legalist.
The absence of obedient and holy living proves the absence of saving faith, which “works by love” (Galatians 5:6). The order here is crucial: obedience isn’t done to bribe God to accept him. Obedience is done because of God’s gracious acceptance of him in Christ. When a believer ends each day, his heart is at rest—in Jesus. Of course, there is chastening and correction along the way
(Hebrews 12:6); but when responded to with repentance and faith, peace prevails. When analyzing the why behind this obedience, the motive is clear: I want to, because God has accepted me in Christ.
Evidence of Gospel Health
Again, just as there are symptoms of legalism, there is evidence to this Gospel health!
A Christian’s focus is on Christ crucified. How could it not be? Jesus is his boast—the heart of the testimonies, thoughts, songs, prayers, sermons, works, and conversations. The Bible is cherished, with a sensitive longing to obey even a hint of what pleases God—not an unknown Tester, but a known Father!
Here, Christianity isn’t a stage persona but an embodied reality. This is no fake, imitation costume. This is the genuine clothing of good works, enabled by the Spirit and motivated by love. Lived in public and private. Externals matter a great deal, but not more than the deep issues of the heart and mind. Obedience isn’t tailored to a particular tradition nearly so much as an honest, openhearted study of God’s Word.
Externals matter a great deal, but not more than the deep issues of the heart and mind.
Men’s applause, even that of his church, is nothing compared to God’s. Here, when someone else falls, tears fall. Grace is extended to the fallen; of course they don’t deserve anything! Who does? When someone fails, tender mercy is extended. When preaching, the whole counsel of God is preached in light of Christ’s saving work. Truth is spoken, urged with tears, and thundered…in love. There is a warmth to this heart.
A Sensitive Balance
Wesley may have grown weary of the abuse of the word legalism. However, he clearly worried about the danger of this actual legalism. He stresses that Christian obedience is “not the cause, but the fruit” of acceptance with God. “We are still forgiven and accepted, only for the sake of what he hath done and suffered for us.” He continues to say, “All true obedience springs from love for him, grounded on his first having loved us.”
The law drives a believer to Christ (we need Him) and when we’ve seen Christ afresh we are driven back to the law (to find how to please Him).
When we speak of the law, he stresses that it should always be in a “Gospel light” — always with reference to Christ’s saving work. He counsels preachers “in preaching any part of the law, to keep the love of Christ continually before their [listener’s] eyes; that thence they might draw fresh life, vigor, and strength, to run the way of his commandments.”
He counsels that the law drives a believer to Christ (we need Him) and when we’ve seen Christ afresh we are driven back to the law (to find how to please Him). This is both brilliantly simple and wonderfully practical counsel on how to avoid legalism.
When it comes to addressing questions about legalism, I always want to be careful. I fear a misdiagnosis. We should fear the slightest sneer at a genuine faith responding with genuine love to a genuine understanding of God’s word (Romans 14:3). Even worse, I fear passing the all-clear where a fatal kind of legalism is at play. If strict means that a church takes God’s Word very seriously and preaches it faithfully and carefully, urging obedience as loving devotion to Jesus when it’s out of step with every other church in town, this is how it should be done! If people know only the fear of the Tester, but not the love of the Father, this is legalism. If a false Gospel of works is proclaimed (even if the true Gospel of grace is assumed), that is legalism.
John Fletcher, Five Checks to Antinomianism. https://www.gospeltruth.net/fletcher/5cks-check2.htm
Letter to Ebenezer Blackwell. www.wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-letters-of-john-wesley/wesleys-letters-1751/
Wesley’s sermon “A blow at the root: Or, Christ stabbed, in the house of his friends.”
Wesley’s letter to Mary Bishop. www.wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-letters-of-john-wesley/wesleys-letters-1771