What is a biblical understanding of legalism?

The article was originally published on ACBC

You have probably experienced what you thought was legalism in your walk as a Christian. You may have even been told by others that something you said was “legalistic.” You doubtless, have on more than one occasion asked yourself, “Am I being legalistic about this matter?”

Indeed, there are different kinds of legalism. I have recently written a booklet that I trust will help those who struggle with certain forms of this problem. Here are some of the ways this term is commonly used in the form of working definitions.

Legalism is believing that salvation can be earned by obedience.

The mindset is “justification is not obtained through faith alone, but rather by obedience to certain commandments.” This form of legalism wants to establish our standing before God by our own achievements. It argues that spirituality is based on Christ plus human works. It makes conformity to man-made rules the measure of spirituality. But, as John Calvin poignantly remarks, “We shall never be clothed with the righteousness of Christ except we first know assuredly that we have no righteousness of our own.”. Until we see that we are dead in our transgressions (Ephesians 2:1-3), we will not see that salvation is solely a gift and accomplished by our Triune God, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Believing that one can obey the Bible through his own will and power for the purpose of gaining a greater measure of God’s approval and favor.

Legalism is attempting to live the Christian life in one’s own strength instead of relying on the supernatural grace God gives us through the Holy Spirit.

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God [the Holy Spirit] who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Philippians. 2:12-13, emphasis added)

The salvation we are commanded to work out in these verses is obviously not the destination of our soul after death. God has already worked that out for us through Christ’s work on the cross. The directive to work out our salvation, (or to bring it to completion) addresses our responsibility to actively participate in the work of progressive sanctification. So, to cooperate with the Spirit and let Him lead you, you must (by faith) do what the Bible says is necessary to grow as a Christian (Galatians 3:3).

There is another snare into which Christians sometimes step that may arguably be placed on the spectrum of legalism. It is more often referred to as moralism. This form of legalism has to do with trying to follow the injunctions of Scripture without remembering that God has positionally accomplished the realities of salvation through the Holy Spirit by creating the person to be a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). In so doing, their attempts to do what the Bible says, are often tainted with an “I’ve got to do this in order to earn more favor with God” mindset. Rather than having a “righteousness consciousness” (living all of their life in the full assurance that all of their sins—past, present, and future—have been covered by the blood of Christ), they walk around carrying the burden of doing everything they can to ensure that God will somehow accept them.

Legalism elevates man-made rules above the Scripture.

This third form of legalism elevates man-made rules, especially prohibitions, to the same level of authority as God-given commands and the belief that following these rules will aid you in your spiritual growth. This often extends to strict adherence to non-essential doctrinal positions as well as unconventional interpretations of certain passages of Scriptures. It is also the most common form of legalism that I encounter in my counselees.

It is sometimes helpful to categorize this form of legalism into two manifestations, namely doctrinal legalism, and applied legalism. Doctrinal legalism is an elitist attitude toward those who don’t cross every theological “t” and dot every theological “i” as precisely as they should. And applied legalism requires the individual and others to conform to human precepts and teachings (Colossians 2:16-23).

So, what does it take to dislodge and displace legalism? The short answer is, only a deep-rooted understanding of the Gospel of the grace of God. It is the gospel alone that exposes our total depravity and complete inability to be made right with our Holy God (Romans 3:9-23). It is on the basis of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ that God declares us righteous. “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith” (Romans 3:27). In fact, pride (a high view of self) lies at the heart of a legalist. This is why an accurate view of self (evaluating one’s self through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus Christ) is so essential to battling legalism. If you are united with Christ, you have become a son or daughter of God. Before you were in Christ, you related to the Divine Being as your Judge. Now, you relate to him as your Heavenly Father, indeed Abba Father. When you begin to see that God is your heavenly Father, obedience should and will flow out of a love for Him, not to earn His love.

As Kevin DeYoung aptly sums up the relationship between law and faith, “Our obedience must be grounded in the gospel. Sanctification is empowered by faith in the promises of God. We need to be reminded of our justification often and throughout our Christian lives. Our pursuit of personal righteousness will not go anywhere without a conviction that we are already reckoned positionally righteous in Christ.” May we constantly look to Christ and rest in His finished work as our righteousness!


Helpful Resources:

Letting Go of Legalism by Lou Priolo

Find additional resources and training at Competent to Counsel International

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