What Legalism Is and Is Not

Jason Dulle

There are different aspects to, or different manifestations of legalism. The following are the most notable:

1. A reliance on one's own performance to merit favor before God, rather than relying on Christ's performance at Calvary on their behalf
2. Relating to God on the basis of works rather than on the basis of faith (an extension of the former)
3. Confusing personal convictions/persuasions with Biblical mandates, ascribing equal authority to both categories
4. Enforcing extra-Biblical moral standards on other Christians (an extension of point 3).

The difference between the 3rd and 4th form of legalism could be summed up as "private vs. public." The 3rd form of legalism is when one is personally confused, not able to distinguish the difference between the Biblical commands and personal convictions/ persuasions. The 4th form of legalism is an extension of the 3rd, manifested when the individual suffering from the 3rd form turns his personal confusion into a public mandate, requiring all saints within his authority/influence to abide by his extra-Biblical standards.

Examples of legalism

Most of us are familiar with the famous comic, Jeff Foxworthy. While he has his famous redneck test ("you might be a redneck if…"), I have my not so famous legalist test ("you might be a legalist if…"). Here are some illustrations of the four types of legalism named above.

1. If you think you must become good enough, or do a certain number of good works in order to be saved and/or maintain your salvation status with God…you might be a legalist. If, when you sin you feel as though you cannot come before God until you have met some sort of probationary period to regain your worthiness…you might be a legalist.
2. If, when you think about the way God sees you you can only think of your good or bad works, rather than thinking about your acceptance before God in Jesus Christ…you might be a legalist.
3. If you elevate Christian traditions (particularly moral traditions) to a status on par with the teaching of Scripture itself…you might be a legalist.
4. If you require others to live in the same manner as you do, and yet you cannot find the behavior you are prescribing or prohibiting in Scripture…you might be a legalist.

Legalism is a Universal Tendency of Mankind

Legalism is common to us all In one degree or another because it is consistent with man's nature. We want to do everything on our own; i.e. we are self-sufficient. This is even evident in toddlers who commonly say "I do it!!!, I do it!!!" with great anger and vigor when mom or dad try to do something for them. Human beings like being in control. That's why we rebelled against God to begin with. We didn't want God to hold that place of authority over us. So when it comes to good works we look at them as the way in which we can control our salvation. If we are bad, we forfeit salvation; if we are good, we earn it.

That is why the message of salvation by faith in Christ apart from good works is so difficult for us to accept. We want to be able to have some control over our salvation, to make some sort of contribution as it were, and yet the Gospel says "Christ did it all, and there's nothing more you can add to it. You must accept what Christ did for you on your behalf, or you will die in your sins." That's why Paul noted in Galatians 5:3-4 that if you trust in your works (circumcision in the case of the Galatians) Christ will profit you nothing. He said that those who trusted in their works (circumcision) had fallen from grace. How? It was because they were trusting in what they could do, working for a reward (salvation) rather than trusting in what God did for them and accepting salvation as the unmerited free gift of God that it is. Those with a legalistic mentality forget that God justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5:), thinking rather that they must become godly before God will accept them.

Works (in the sense of doing good things with the idea that by doing such you will earn your favor before God, not in the sense of obedience to God's commands out of a love for Him and in appreciation of His act of salvation on our behalf) are opposed to faith/grace. They are antithetical. It is like hot and cold water. You can get both out of the same faucet, but not at the same time. If you are using cold water, you cannot get hot water. If you are using hot water, you cannot get cold water. Likewise if you are relating to God on the basis of your works, you cannot receive grace. But if you are relating to God on the basis of your faith, there is no room for works. Works require a reward. Grace does not. We cannot be saved by our works because that is not the way salvation comes to man. It comes as a free gift only. But you cannot give a gift to someone who has earned it (Rom 4:1-8). So when one works for their salvation, God cannot give them salvation because His salvation is free, not a reward for good behavior. That is why there can be no grace in the presence of works. To rely on one's own performance for their justification before God is to fall from grace.

Obedience is Not a Work

Building on my disclaimer in the above paragraph concerning works, many people misunderstand the Biblical meaning of "works." Too often in Evangelical circles it is interpreted to mean "anything we (have to) do." This is not true. A more precise definition would be "anything we (have to) do to earn our salvation." The key word is "earn." This misunderstanding can result in some pretty messed up teachings. For example, the Bible seems pretty clear that baptism is part of salvation (Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16; I Pet 3:21) because it involves the remission of sins and death to sin's dominion over our lives (Romans 6). It accomplishes a spiritual reality, and is not just a public confession of faith in Christ. Yet some theologians will do some fancy exegetical gymnastics to get around the clear teaching of Scripture in this regard because they reason that if baptism is necessary for salvation, to be baptized is to do something that affects our salvation, making baptism a work. Since Scripture is clear that we are not saved by works they conclude that baptism is not part of salvation. That is what happens when a work is defined as anything we do. But using this unbiblical definition of works would not only make baptism a work, but would make repentance a work as well because it is something that we have to do as well. But if repentance is a work, salvation becomes impossible.

Put pointedly, some Evangelicals have confused works with obedience. We need only ask ourselves "Who is doing the work in repentance and baptism? It is us, or is it God?" Clearly it is God. What do we do? We just make a decision to turn our lives around and confess our sins, and a decision to get in a tub of water. We are simply being obedient to His word. We are not contributing anything to our salvation. We are merely putting ourselves in the place where God can give us His salvation freely. That is why Paul spoke of the "obedience of faith" (Rom 1, 16) True faith leads to obedience, but that obedience is not a work because the obedience itself does not earn us anything. Clearly when we repent and get baptized we are contributing nothing to our salvation. There is no work involved, only obedience. God is the one performing the spiritual work. Using the common definition of "works" and applying it consistently would lead us to conclude that we don't have to repent, be baptized, or obey any commandment found in Scripture. Clearly such is not the case. When we repent God is the one forgiving us. When we are baptized God is the one performing the spiritual work. When we live right we do so only because God gives us the grace to do so, and out of love for the God who saved us. It is only if we are being obedient with the idea that our obedience demands that God reward us with salvation are our works "works" in the Biblical sense of the word.

Conservatism is not Legalism

Another thing Christians often confuse is conservatism for legalism. This is unfortunate. There is a difference between a morally conservative individual and a legalistic individual, although to most Christians they are one and the same. The difference is not in their actions per se, but in how they think about their actions (mentality). The legalist thinks his right behavior grants him favor before God that He otherwise would not have had, or he thinks his right behavior can keep him saved. A morally conservative individual understands that no amount of good works can earn one favor with God and that no one can do good works without the grace of God, but also understands that we are to do good works because we have been saved (Eph 2:9-10). For this individual good works are an act of love toward a gracious God because we have been saved by Him, not personal achievements that we must meet in order to be saved.

There is no question that we must be holy, and that holiness applies to every area of our lives. Too many Christians, however, fail to apply Biblical holiness principles to their lives consistently. They do not apply them when it comes to where they go, what they say, what they watch, what they listen to, what they do, how they look, etc. When they encounter other Christians who are concerned about those areas and are applying Biblical principles to the same it is easy to label them as legalists, or simply as conservatives, and have sort of a disdain for them as though they are too radical. I do not think these people are all that conservative, or too radical. I think the majority of us are simply too laxed when it comes to being holy. Those we often look at as conservatives or ultra-conservatives are simply being consistent in their holiness, not relegating it to certain parts of their lives while ignoring the application of holiness to others. But when you are on the far left, those on the right look like they are far far away, even if they are only moderately to the right!

I do not think we can be too conservative when it comes to Biblical morality and applying Biblical principles to every part of our lives. I am not opposed to ultra-conservatives in the least. What I am opposed to are conservatives turned legalists, damning and condemning everyone who does not do as they do. That is when it turns ugly, and when the title of "legalist" is justified.

As long as what we are doing is unto the Lord is a good thing. Even if something is not technically a sin in God's eyes, what matters is that the person who refrains from doing whatever it is that they think is wrong is refraining from doing it as unto the Lord. That's what matters-not whether they are right or wrong per se (see Romans 14; I Cor 8, 10). They are doing it for His sake, trying to please Him, and such an attitude is pleasing to God. Conservatism, or ultra-conservatism only becomes bad when we think that our works can bring us salvation, or when we impose our extra-Biblical persuasions on others, or judge those who do not line up with our own personal moral standards.

See also "Legalism"

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