by Nathan Purdy
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.
When used in this way, it’s easy to diagnose a person or church as legalistic. All you have to do is glance atwhat 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
Is someone “more strict than me?” He must be 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
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 (properly so called), the keeping of God’s laws is seen as a necessary contribution to one’s justification or acceptance with God.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
A Sensitive Balance
When we speak of the law, it should always be with reference to Christ’s saving work. 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).
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.
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
About the Author
Nathan Purdy is a husband to Charity, dad to Hannah, Cherith, and Caleb, and pastor of the Bible Mission Church in Lock Haven, PA. He enjoys dialogue on anything he has written! He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org