What Is (and Isn’t) Legalism

Note: It’s been six months; I’m now a Master of Divinity, a title decidedly more underwhelming in fact than in pretense. Since I now possess some of that mythical resource called “free time”, and since my one-year-old daughter hasn’t proven the most stimulating conversation partner, I’ve decided to take up blogging once more. However, I continue to have my guilt-free policy; I feel no more compelled to post than you are to read. Enjoy (or don’t).

I often hear Christians accusing others of being legalistic. It seems to be the go-to slur of evangelicalism, much like “socialist” is for Republicans or “Yankee” for my friends from the South. Now, I have no love for real legalism. However, the word is often thrown around with little care or precision. This is problematic both because it can be used as an unfair pejorative and because it leaves us without a stronger label to apply to those who really are legalistic. With this in mind, let’s ask how we might legitimately apply the label and then look at a few examples of what it isn’t.

Defining legalism is actually a bit more complex than we’d like to admit. This is because, as we use it, it can cover two categories condemned in Scripture.

  1. First, legalism can be used to describe a theology that offers our obedience as the grounds upon which we’re saved. This is the classic Protestant definition; it’s the error of putting the fruit before the root, making the product of grace into that which procures it. Foundational to the biblical gospel is the truth that it is God’s grace that saves, not things we do (Ephesians 2:8, Titus 3:5). Any teaching that violates this foundational truth is properly attacked as legalistic.
  2. We can also use legalism to refer to “going beyond the law of God.” This seems to be a major sin of the Pharisees in the gospels. They fail to show justice or mercy, but make rules about tithing their spices (Matthew 23:23) They wash their hands before every meal, but have also washed them of their responsibility to honor their parents (Matthew 15:1-9). If the first sort of legalism puts works before grace, the second fails to put grace before works. It assumes the power to obey rests not in the Spirit but in stricter rules, in keeping men from sinning by keeping them from good things that might lead to sin. It decides on what we shouldn’t handle, taste or touch and assumes that if we forbid enough such things we can restrain the flesh (Colossians 2:20-23). These rules are destructive, however, both because they redefine holiness in ways God does not promise to support and often creates Christians who keep their self-made rules to the neglect of those given by God.

When either of these errors crop up, it is right for Christians to decry it as legalistic. One of the reasons a cavalier use of the accusation so troubles me is that, by blurring the lines of definition, these real problems aren’t seen as sufficiently grave. The blurring of the lines comes primarily when we apply the label of legalism to some other category altogether. Let me suggest a few non-legalisms which often get accused of being so.

  1. Legalism is not a high view of obedience in the Christian life. This is perhaps the most troubling error. Many Christians reject as legalistic moral commands given by the Bible itself. On virtually every page of Scripture there is an assumption that Christians will lead transformed lives. There are those who, in an effort to protect God’s graciousness, put themselves at odds with this reality. They get uncomfortable with the idea that Scripture has anything to say about how they should live their lives. Of course, it is God’s grace that enables our obedience. We don’t earn His favor through keeping the rules or obey Him by our strength alone. Yet precisely for this reason, we ought never pit grace and obedience against one another. The only way to understand the law is to recognize that it is already undergirded by grace; to make the law function some other way ends up giving us a legalistic God.
  2. Legalistic teaching is not the same as legalistic receiving. Many Christians, particularly those young in the faith, tend toward both types of real legalism. Other believers grew up in truly legalistic churches and are quick to reject anything with the faintest hint that it could be taken legalistically. Plenty of teaching in the church does not take account of the struggles these sorts of people feel. It simply levels the commands of God and assumes they will be received properly. We might argue it is imprudent to approach things this way, but this imprudence is not the same thing as legalism. At the same time, many young or wounded believers aren’t willing to show the grace and care necessary to hear such teaching well, rejecting it out of hand if it makes them feel guilty or uncomfortable. Ultimately, you are only being taught works righteousness if the speaker intends you to understand that your works are earning you right standing before God. If this isn’t the case, you’re not decrying legalism but simply showing that you have maturing to do.
  3. Legalism is not an imprudent heavy-handedness in the call to this obedience. There are many Christians who like to bring down the hammer on those in sin rather than “restoring them gently” (Galatians 6:1). They prefer a harsh rebuke to familial encouragement (1 Timothy 5:1-2). This is unquestionably a problem, but it isn’t one of legalism but rather of imprudence. There are many churches which could grow in charity and Christ-like mercy. However, to decry them as legalistic actually detracts from the rebuke they need to hear. If you go in claiming their call to obedience is wrong, they will correctly reject your claims. The answer is instead to seek to communicate that their call is wrongly articulated – a challenge that by God’s grace they might hear.

The above list is only partial. Often, people make the accusation on even thinner grounds than the above – legalism is simply “that which feels sort of legalistic.” This gets at the root issue of concern in the post. If Christians are going to challenge sin in others, it must always be with as much precision as possible. The goal of rebuke is correction, not just rejection. If we’re going to grow up together as Christ’s body, we have to be precise about what sin actually is lest we fight it where it doesn’t exist.

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1 Comment

Filed under Theologia

One response to “What Is (and Isn’t) Legalism

  1. Jeff Kerr

    Eric, this is excellent. I’ve been troubled by cavalier charges of legalism, too. This is very clear and well said. Especially the point about legalistic receiving.

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