November 25, 2020

The Gospel-Believing Christian In The Midst of Legalism

I’ve wanted to write an encouragement for many of my readers whom I know seek to live out the Gospel in the midst of a legalistic time and place. I pray this is a gift for you if you find yourself in such a place.

Galatians 3:1 Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. 2 Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. 3 How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own a human effort? 4 Have you experienced so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it? 5 I ask you again, does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard about Christ. 6 In the same way, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” 7 The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God.

I am not a legalist. I am a New Covenant Christian. This is a crucial distinction for me, one on which I pray I never compromise.

As a Christian, I am staking my all on the Gospel. I am staking nothing on the law. As a minister, I am called and ordained by the church to proclaim the Gospel, not the law. When I can no longer speak, I pray that all I have spoken will be Gospel, Gospel and again, Gospel.

I respect and appreciate the law of God, but as one who embraces the Good News of being embraced by the Gospel of God’s gracious embrace of sinners in his Son, I believe the primary purpose of the law of God is to lead us to Jesus Christ. The law shows us God, it shows us his righteousness, and it shows us that we need a savior. Under the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the law of God has useful work to do in the life of the Christian, but the new birth and the life we have in Christ is not a life empowered by the law. The law can be a guide, but it can never produce in our lives or in the lives of any other person the work of the Holy Spirit.

Legalism, however, goes beyond the wrong use of the law as revealed in scripture. Legalism as I observe it in the lives and thinking of my fellow Christians consists primarily of using legal means as a way to produce immediate results, particularly in the restraint of evil and the creation of external obedience. These legal means are traditions, religious and cultural expectations, human-created rules, uses of power to produce conformity to some external standard and well-intentioned, but ultimately powerless, crusades of moral enforcement.

This kind of legalism is everywhere in conservative evangelicalism. Fundamentalism is drowning in it. My Baptist tradition is deeply involved in it. Many well-meaning persons in evangelical ministry are far more committed to legalism than to the Gospel, despite their nods and amens when the Gospel is proclaimed. Again and again, legalistic “Christians” go back to the law and its power to make a dent in the flesh. For the Gospel-believing Christian, this is as wrong a road as one can be on, and it must be avoided and clearly marked out as the way that must be avoided.

The kind of legalism that is eating away at the very soul of evangelicalism comes from several sources.

First, legalism is often a manifestation of being deprived of preaching and teaching that clearly explains the Gospel. Millions of evangelicals sit under largely Gospel-less preaching, and hear thousands of sermons on legalism and moralism in their lifetimes. As a result, they have an actual aversion to the Gospel, and are offended when the Bible’s actual teaching about legalism is proclaimed. As scripture says, these persons stumble in offense at the preaching of Christ, but eagerly embrace the categories and works of law. Law is simply easier to understand and makes sense when you have not been taught that the Gospel is for all of life and is the engine of everything Christians do. Preachers who starve a flock from eating the feast of the Gospel, but feed them the gruel of legalism, are particularly to be avoided. Pity the starving flocks, and fear for the shepherds who would not feed them.

(This is true, by the way, even if the legalism is delivered by the coolest, most successful and attractive pastor you’ve ever heard, or from a beloved old pastor at your home church or the rip-snorting young evangelist that just blew through town. A diet of legalism is a desertion of a minister’s calling. Where is Christ and the Gospel? Front and center and constant? Or buried under a mountain of lessons, principles and moralism?)

Secondly, legalism is embraced by those who have rejected the Great Commission (“Go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name….”) and have embraced the culture war in America as their primary agenda. Legalism is the standard response of those who believe the Christian mission is to fight against bad people and bad things in society, to win elections, to pass laws, work for the appointments of judges and protect children and families from any exposure to the sinful world. Legalists misuse scripture, such as being the “salt of the earth,” to say that the Dobson agenda is the primary mission of Christians. In fact, the Bible could not be clearer that we are called to proclaim and bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom, not moralize the pagan cultures we live in. We are not involved in the political and moral renovation of this world apart from placing the Gospel at the center of our lives. We are not seeking to protect or promote America, conservatism or Dobson’s views on legislatively enacting moral values. Christians are discipling those they are evangelizing. Christians are not trying to enforce Christian morality on unbelieving society.

(Christians can and should work for justice and righteousness in society, but that is not our Great Commission from Jesus. It is being just and merciful people and good citizens as God commands us to be. This adorns the Gospel, but it is not the Gospel.)

Thirdly, legalism is appealing in situations where power and control must be, in some way, exercised as part of Christian stewardship. Parents and pastors, for example, have responsibilities in their spheres to exert a certain amount of power. There is no avoiding the use of the law in situations where some conformity is necessary for order and peace. But those exercising power and control must be the first to know the limits of the law and the limits of legalism. Power and external control can shape external behavior. They cannot produce spiritual fruit. They cannot convert. They cannot bring a person to faith in Christ. Legalism cannot produce love. Legalism fits in well when power and control are exercised apart from the priority of the Gospel, because more immediate results are possible. But legal results, whether in a person, group or culture, will never bring about faith in Jesus that is real, love and obedience that are real or genuine discipleship.

Legalism is always attractive to those who cling to what THEY are doing to be “good Christians” for assurance. The Gospel offers spiritual means, God’s promised power to accomplish his ends and the assurance that God is more glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

When legalism dominates, and the Gospel is neglected, the results will be obvious almost as soon as the legal controls are removed. Of course, legalists usually learn that they must ignore the actual results of legal means as compared to Gospel means. If legalism’s results are ever compared to the genuine work of the Spirit, the difference will be obvious, but by that time, the legalist will be blaming someone else for not using enough legalism, and they will be contemplating how to use even more tomorrow.

What is a Gospel-centered, Gospel-believing person to do when legalism prevails all around them?

First of all, return to the scriptures and renew your personal vision of the Gospel. Read the mercy of God in Genesis. Read the gracious deliverance of God in Exodus. Read the many examples of God’s love for sinners in the old covenant Bible. Then read the glories of the Gospel in the new covenant scriptures. Luke. Galatians. Ephesians. Romans. Saturate yourself in the grace of God. Rejoice in it. Breath it in. Go with the Shepherds and kneel before your salvation. Go with the prodigal and weep. Then stay there. Do not follow the siren song of legalistic righteousness. Your righteousness is a gift entire, from that infant, from that father.

Secondly, prepare to be told you are not concerned with morality, righteousness and the battle for the culture. It will not be easy to be faithful to the Gospel when you are accused of being absent from the fight to save our country, etc. But we are clearly told by scripture what we are here to do: We proclaim not ourselves, not the law, not legalism, but Jesus and the Good News of his kingdom. We evangelize and plant churches. We preach, teach, pray and serve. We are to make disciples. We are to be ambassadors of reconciliation, seeking to persuade others not to be moral, but to repent, be reconciled and believe. We are never called to promote or establish legalism.

Third, root out legalism in your own life. Where you have proclaimed Jesus, then go with Jesus all the way. Determine that no one will ever hear from you that Jesus is the mediator and the one who provides a perfect salvation, yet see in you a heart that is filled with legal righteousness and a life of external obedience. Have no compartments where legalism is allowed because it gets results. Be a Gospel Christian, a good news bearer, a witness of the Gospel invitation, a servant of others for Jesus’ sake.

Fourth, be kind to legalists. Teach them the Good News. Give them books like The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges. Don’t legalistically condemn legalists. No, let the Gospel condemn legalism by the joy and true obedience it produces, and start with how you treat the legalist who is accusing you of being soft on….whatever. Thank God that your journey has not taken you to the empty cisterns, but to the over-flowing streams. Pray that the Gospel will be seen, heard, loved, believed and honored among those who name Jesus Christ as Lord.

Finally, boldly announce the message that Christ is the end of the law to all who believe. Announce that God does his transforming work through hearing the message of faith, not by associating himself with well-intentioned legal means. Be an obnoxious Protestant. Let the Reformation bells ring. If you err, err on the side of grace and Gospel, and not on the side of law and legalism. If you are to suffer or be rejected, may it be because you tenaciously refused to know anything but Christ and him crucified in the midst of a generation that prefers the works of the law to the perfect work of the cross.

Be prepared, in this culture war obsessed, legalism addicted, Gospel ignorant time, to be told you are everything but a Christian when you stand on the one thing that makes you one.

Honor the Gospel and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. Enjoy the kind of life that legalists can’t enjoy. Read, celebrate, embrace, seek peace, be reconciled and above all live the joyous Christmas Gospel! Thanks be to God for his incredible GIFT.


  1. “Secondly, prepare to be told you are not concerned with morality, righteousness and the battle for the culture.”

    This was the message I needed to hear this morning, Michael. I’ve been immersed in John the Baptist out in the desert telling people to “Prepare the way of the Lord”, and trying to figure out what the simple message of Christ means in my life and the life of others.

    I read a modern day parable this week about the CEOs of a large company meeting and discussing all of their issues and problems at great length, until finally one little peon says “What about the shirts?” The important pillars of industry said, “What do you mean, what about the shirts?”, and he said, “We’re a company that manufactures shirts. Yet, we never talk about the shirts.”

    I think this story should slap us up side of the head about the church: What about Christ? After we spew all our great theological opinions about the church and Bible interpretation, it all comes back to “What about Christ?”

  2. You can preach at my church anytime. “What about Christ?” Can I have a Change-a-lujah? as Rev. Billy says.

  3. Thanks for the encouragement, iMonk! Sometimes in today’s more-often-than-not legalistic Christianity, us Gospel folk feel like Elijah claiming to be the only one left. But every time I feel like that, God shows me that it’s not true; there are plenty of Christians who embrace, believe, and live the Gospel, despite what the loud voices around us may say.

    I gotta say that for me, the fourth point is often the hardest. I have to constantly remind myself not to (as Steve Brown puts it) be a Pharisee about Phariseeism.

    I’ve got so much I could say about my own experiences in this area, but I’ll save that for another place and time.

  4. “Don’t legalistically condemn legalists.”

    Could you explain what you think the difference between this and railing at them like Jesus or wishing that they would slip with their knives during self circumcision like Paul?

    I’m not being ironic or anything just curious what you think.

  5. I’ve thought a lot about this. Some people won’t like my answer.

    1) Paul was writing in a letter to those effected by legalism and he makes an extreme hyperbole. He isn’t speaking to them. Small difference.

    2) I believe this might have been a sin. Yeah…I do. That’s a simple answer that raises questions for some people about inspiration. Well….Job’s friends were all condemned by God for what they spoke, and there it is. We have to do some interpretation and if I spoke that way about someone, even a false teacher, I’d be convicted on the level of being unkind. I can’t speak for anyone else, and I am not so sure of my motives that I would ever claim to have the heart of Paul or Jesus and therefore it’s ok to speak like that. For me, 98% of the time I would speak that way of the PERSONS- not the doctrine- I’d be wrong. But I can see that some people wouldn’t be.

    3) Jesus has purity of motives when he speaks that I don’t have. I can rail against Phariseeism, but when I start calling people names, I usually start sinning. Not automatically, but usually.

  6. “Honor the Gospel and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.”
    Boy, that’s something to chew on all day! How easy it is to think I have to do something about ______.
    Nowhere are Christians given a mandate to save the world. We are commanded to go into it and preach the Gospel. How often don’t we meddle with the work of the Holy Spirit and fail to do the work He has given us?

  7. Thanks again & again iMonk. This is an ongoing theme in my life. One of my current peeves is hearing things along the lines of “Follow these steps. Don’t follow them legalistically, but if you want results you need to follow them.” Makes my eyes cross.

  8. Where would Christian publishers be without legalism? No more of those 12-Step, self-help books.
    A lot of authors and motivational speakers would be out of business, too. It’s sad that we would rather rely on a formula than on Christ’s Spirit in us.

  9. I struggled with heavy legalism for about a decade. I found myself trying to fight legalism with a legalistic attitude that I shouldn’t be a legalist! Finally I had to surrender my legalism, my easy answers and straight forward guides to God. I had to do it consistently, and only then did I learn to live in love.

  10. Thanks iMonk.

    Many times I have felt like giving up the Christian walk but I always end up back at the Gospel message which rings so true in my heart that I can’t possibly deny it.

    I still remember reading Brennan Mannings’ Ragamuffin Gospel for the first time. While reading that book I saw Christianity as beautiful for the first time. I honestly found it hard to believe that God actually knew I was screwed up but he loved me anyways!

    Thanks also for introducing me to Steve Brown. As with the Ragamuffin Gospel, Brown’s message feels like a breath of fresh air.

  11. I’ve noticed that when preachers get legalistic, there are always apt to get heads nodding in agreement. They get the ‘amens’ of those who want it stuck to the people that bug them. It can sound so right. But, this kind of emphasis leaves you feeling negative and empty. As you have presented, Michael, the truth of the gospel brings such a feeling of hope. We could never, through legalism, ever improve ourselves enough to enter heaven.

  12. It seems to me like “legalism” rarely gets defined. In some circles I used to run in that were effectively antinomian, ‘legalism’ meant anyone who said anything was wrong and used a verse to prove it. The term gets thrown around so much. Does it mean Pharisees? Magesterial Reformed? “Works-salvation”? Just what does it mean?

  13. Legalism is refusing the Gospel’s offer of righteousness as the gift of God and substituting any other means of righteousness as establishing our standing with God.

  14. “Jesus has purity of motives when he speaks that I don’t have. I can rail against Phariseeism, but when I start calling people names, I usually start sinning. Not automatically, but usually.”

    And yet … gosh this is a tough one … there has to be a time for calling a spade a spade because of what John D says above. Legalism is not just something practiced by individuals, it becomes a culture of oppression. And none of the biblical figures or writers seem to shy away from attacking such a culture and those who have taken part in prepetuating it – the prophets on Israel’s leaders, John the Baptist and Jesus on the scribes, Pharisees and Saducees, Paul and Peter on the super-Apostles and those of the Circumcision. The judgment is never without a call to repentance, but that doesn’t make the judgment any less real.

    We may be able to avoid naming names, but not dealing in specifics that make the names all to clear.

    Besides, I think the sin is far from clear here, though I do know what you mean. For instance, is it wrong to be angry with false shepherds? Really angry?

  15. If I said I wish that harm would come to Osteen for the sake of the Kingdom, I’d be sinning.

    I can’t speak for David or Paul, and I’m not Jesus. I just know myself. I think those who quickly run to that language because its in the Bible underestimate their own depravity.

  16. It is interesting that Jerry Bridges wrote such a book. I’m looking forward to reading it. I spent 5 years in a Navigator staff training center, prior to going as a missionary with them. I heard Jerry speak many times (in the 70s-80s). The training center was extremely legalistic and at that time we used some of Jerry Birdges’ books about Holiness as a basis for our legalism (and personal piety).

    I’ve heard that there has been a reformation within the Navs and a purging of the sects that were so legalistic like ours was. Maybe we didn’t really understand Jerry back then because of our legalistic-tainted glasses . . . or, on the other hand, he too has had a personal reformation in his thinking.

  17. Like a lot of people who admire the Puritans, Bridges can play both sides of the field. There is definitely, however, a major reformation with Bridges when he wrote Transformed by Grace. I find him a dependable and articulate expounder of the Gospel, but I don’t read those early books on Holiness. TRs love them. I like his books on the Gospel.

  18. Thank you, this comes at a very tiring and somewhat time of my life, just thank you.

  19. sad that should read

  20. Being raised in a traditional conservative church, I’ve concluded that it will probably take all of my life for God to weed out of me the legalism that is so ingrained in me. I appreciate you and your God given ability to cut to the heart of the matter. It’s refreshing and confirming of what God keeps saying in my heart.

  21. I really appreciate the comprehensive nature of this post, including legalism’s causes. Those in the midst of it will be better armed for defending attacks on the Gospel, even from “the coolest, most successful and attractive pastor you’ve ever heard.” Heh, it must be ok if the cool young guy with frosted tips is saying it, right?

  22. Rob Lofland says

    1. I am still struggling with some left over nonsense from the Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts. (Or as I I like to call it, God’s three step plan for all things).
    2. The more deadly and pernicious forms of legalism hiding in the forms of principals for living, or how to live godly lives form Obed 1:23-26 and so on.

    The megachurches, in general, are not teaching the gospel.

    They are teaching how to live your life in the 21st century. Good advice but not the Good News.

    The gospel is Christ crucified and that is offensive. It does not attract the demographic tithers of the megas.

  23. Michael,

    Thank you for this post. I needed to hear this tonight. Weird, isn’t it? People should hear this from their pastors, but instead they have to turn to a blog (no offense intended). As Eugene Peterson puts it, “Pastors have abandoned their posts.”

    Thank you, brother. I hope you are having a blessed Advent.

  24. one legalistic tendency i’ve discovered in my life is confusing hiding sin (or avoiding it because people will find out) with actual spiritual growth.

    i don’t know what to do with myself when the only reason I don’t do certain sins, is because I wouldn’t want people to know i did them. for example, i’m pretty sure that if i didn’t have accountability software, i would spiral into a cycle of complete self-destruction, and it wouldn’t take very long.

    what do you do with a heart that only keeps away from sin because it wants to keep up appearances?

  25. I think this is the danger of a good man like John Piper. With the constant emphasis on the command to delight in God, the law becomes the primary expression of faith, and of course we become hypocrites. When you hear over and over the constant demand to love and delight in God/hate and forsake sin, with the Gospel as a secondary message, it’s going to produce despair.

    The Gospel is what Christ has done perfectly in our place. What we are commanded to do will never be perfect, and we can’t place hope of assurance in anything we do.

  26. I frequently wonder about the relationship between what C.S. Lewis said about God being close to us in the midst of a hard moral struggle (even when we don’t realize it) and the concept that our actions won’t improve until we learn to trust God’s grace.

    The concepts seem contradictory at first, but I’m not sure if they are. I think the Christian life may at times include both things without devolving into legalism.

    iMonk, what do you think about those two concepts? While seeking “right standing with God” is obviously not the proper motivation for doing the right thing, is it realistic to say that we will (rightly) need to force ourselves to do the right thing sometimes because it is right? I think sometimes the “need” for doing good solely out of love of God or because of the freedom of the gospel can itself turn into a sort of legalism. But I think that might be what you’re talking about in your Piper comment above.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that we forget that all we have from God is a gift–including the gift of strength in the midst of struggle?

  27. Legalism is a poison that has very long lasting effects. Once you’ve bought into, you think of yourself as holier than others. Once God breaks down that delusion and you realize how deprave you are, the blow is like an atomic bomb in your soul.

    Grace has been so hard for me to grasp because of the legalism that I bought into (while I was paying lip service to Sola Fide). If I can come under God’s grace, it is truly amazing because I have been the legalistic zealous hypocrite. I will probably wrestle with grace for the rest of my life because passages like Matthew 23 could have been written right to me.

    It’s good to be free of my chains and to be a new creation.

  28. “Once you’ve bought into it” is how that second sentence should read.

  29. Wow……this is a good topic. Good post iMonk. I’ve been thinking about and have been trying to understand what legalism is and how it affects churches and what it ‘feels’ like to be in a church that is legalistic.
    Although I have already heard some descriptions given by others iMonk I was wondering what you would say are some of the characteristics or signs that one is a legalist or goes to a legalistic church or has a legalistic view of God and the Christian life.
    Let me give my two cents. Dr. James Emery White gave a message at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary’s chapel ( it can be found at their website) on legalism. He made the difference between what he the called the 1.) Lie of Legalism and 2.) the Lure of Legalism. The Lie of Legalism is basically works salvation. It’s when one thinks they can earn God’s favor. The Lure of Legalism pertains to believers. It’s when we believers come to faith in Christ by grace through faith and then fall back into a works orientated life. It’s basically when we start to ‘Micromanage’ the christian life. This type of legalism makes the Christian life all about rules, regulations and rituals.
    Another definition of legalism I heard is “when rules become more important than the relationship”……… ” Rules are good. Rules provide a context for relationship (ex:marriage). Legalism is when we make rules more important than relationship “. People like legalism because they want to be right and they want to be in control and it keeps life predictable. Legalism turns ones relationship with God into ‘rule-book religion’
    One of my friends has an interesting definition of legalism. The christian life should have both the objective and the subjective. The objective is the bible, God’s word. The subjective is experiencing God and knowing Him through the Holy Spirit. Legalism is when you cut out the subjective part out of the christian life and all you’re left with is the objective (rules,law, regulations). I think he has a good point. The Bible talks about how God wants us to experience him (paul’s prayer for the ephesians as well as being filled with the Spirit). What are your thoughts on this definition of legalism?

    I was part of an institution that others told me was legalistic. This institution knew that they had that reputation. They addressed it and said they weren’t legalistic, although some within this institution did say they were somewhat legalistic. But people on the outside of this institution did share with me that the institution and it’s ethos was legalistic. Here are some things I noticed about the institution.1.) I felt I was being judged or examined.2.) There was a tightness about the enviornment.3.) These people knew their bibles. They emphasized God’s word and it almost seemed like they worshipped the bible instead of worshipping God.4.) Experience was looked down on and made fun of.5.) These people talked about ‘deception’ and not being deceitful or being deceived alot. 6.) When I was in this enviornment it felt like I needed to perform or live up to some kind of standard. I knew others who also felt this same kind of pressure to ‘bear fruit’.
    What are your thoughts on these things?

  30. Two thousand years ago there were the Pharisees and teachers of the law. In Luther’s day there was the church. We have much to say about their errors. But are we much different?

    Is today’s church not a half-breed – sort of Christian mixed with a lot of other stuff? Are we not past due for a real Reformation?

    Michael, thank you for the post. You are spot on. The things you have identified here have been substituted for the Gospel, and the result is some sort of strange religion. No one can live up to its demands. Some try, while many just walk away.

    I grew up in a very legalistic church. Looking back, all but a handful of those people eventually turned their back on church and God. That is the fruit of legalism, not a reformed nation and a holy people (it does not work).

    Nail those theses to the church door! It will make the legalistic religionists mad, but hopefully stir a revolution and reformation.

  31. iMonk…..I was wondering if you could unpack your statement that you made on how legalistics look down on others and label others as being ‘soft’. What’s the relationship between being a christian legalist and looking down on others and saying other are ‘soft’? Is it because legalists tend to be serious and tend to have a serious outlook on the christian life and God?

    And by the way while we’re on the topic of legalism do you guys have any recommendations on books one can read that unpack christian legalism and the attitudes or characteristics and the mindset that comes with it?

    I had a question for all and for anyone to answer ……….Do legalists enjoy studying the bible to basically control others with their bible knowledge?

    Another question. How is legalism oppressive? What’s the difference between preaching ‘with authority’ as some would say and oppressive preaching that in a way tries to purposefully offend people in the name of not wanting to ‘water down’ the bible?

    I want to really understand the mindset and the outlook of christians who are legalistic. How do they view God? How do they look at others? How do they look at nonbelievers? What are their motives for preaching? Is it to offend people and get a reaction? Do legalists experience true joy that comes from the Spirit? Or is their ‘joy’ situational and circumstantial, based on how much bible knowledge or books they’ve read? Why doesn’t someone write a book that disects and exposits legalis…..that totally breaks it down and exposes how legalism effects everything and everyone around it?

  32. Wow, I read you every other day or so and enjoy it, but this post is well above par Micheal.

    I especially love your 4th point… avoiding calling out other legalism by being one ourselves, and instead letting the joy of the Gospel and obedience show through to them.

    In my experience, a LOT of evangelicals fall into the trap a previous poster called the “lure of legalism”. They don’t actually believe their works save them, but the importance of striving toward a standard of holiness rather than letting joy rule their lives and produce obedience in RESPONSE to the Gospel.

    Tim Keller makes the point often that by knowing you are more wicked than you ever thought, and more loved than you ever dared hope…… you can be confident but humble. Legalism puffs you up. You have confidence (misplaced) and boldness, but no humility.

  33. Whoa: Steve Brown and Robert Capon and especially Tim Keller’s latest little book. Also most Lutheran soteriology gets this right. Forde, for example.

  34. BlaineFabin says

    Too often legalist is a term used to describe someone that doesn’t agree with how “we” do church. In my experience the worst legalists were of the antinomian camp who were so concerned about rules, taboos, and things to do and not do that they failed to realize their whole gospel was perverted to a taboo on taboos, and rules about no rules…

    This is right up there with the pharisee label in my opinion. They both get used way too much and rarely are an accurate label.

  35. Monk, you wrote:

    “Legalism is refusing the Gospel’s offer of righteousness as the gift of God and substituting any other means of righteousness as establishing our standing with God.”

    Good enough in terms of ‘getting in.’ But when you start talking sanctification it seems that is where the conflict is. I don’t know many people in this age who would actually says that they stand by their works. Even Mormons emphasize grace a lot more now.

    But like Blaine’s post said, this word is way overused. When I was in a crazy charismatic non-denom church, we called all denominational churches ‘legalists’ because they…well because they were in a denomination (gasp). I think the word is used imprecisely and is often a cover for antinomianism in our day.

  36. Dr., Rev., Brother, Mr. Monk,
    Another great post. I would add after your “finally” that we should do our best to unconditionally love…everybody. The ultimate in being a follower of Jesus. The New Law? LOVE!!!

  37. It just occurred to me that well intended legalism, the kind I often find in Reformed circles, is something like building watershed containment structures. We begin by recognizing and valuing the gospel (the water), and through our desire to “honor” it and not “waste” it, we begin devising various strategies to contain and direct it. Michael mentioned the danger of John Piper in this context. I fully concur. We erect massive doctrinal dikes to protect and safeguard the priceless treasure we’ve been given. With good intention, we neuter, nullify, and drain the living water of its life. If we were to truly honor and trust the Spirit, we would leave Him to go where and as He pleases.

    Legalism, even the well intended variety, is a scourge and requires constant vigilance. Those of us that enjoy building containment structures should use their talents to contain legalism wherever it shows itself. Leave the water to run where it will.

  38. Thank you, Michael. Do you ever think of this blog as a ministry? You should; it has certainly ministered to my wife and me over the years. After our church of long-standing was “Warren-ized” and we fled into the “post-evangelical wilderness”, we ended up in what turned out to be a ferociously legalistic church. Fortunately, we were evicted after a time because of our antinomian tendencies.

    To quote noted evangelist Jerry Garcia: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

    But your site has been a resource and a refuge throughout the last several years and I am very grateful for it. I suspect there are more refugees out here than you and I would guess.
    God bless.

  39. Whoa,

    You asked how legalism is oppressive. Jesus encounter with the woman at the well comes to mind. Jesus “judged” the woman when he asked her a question that revealed the sin in her life but did not reject her. His judgment in effect freed her of the burden and shamefulness of the sin she had carried with her through her waking and sleeping hours. The judgment of the legalist adds more weight to the burden a person already carries. It does not free them to walk upright and live for Christ.

  40. Michael,
    Great post, I really appreciated it.
    Legalism crops its head in many guises and distorts the gospel.
    Ever wonder why the shift from Testament to Covenant. When I was growing up we talked of the old and New Testament. The New Testament being primarily a fulfillment of the Old Covenant by Christ, making them both Testaments more or less. There is a distinction to be made between a Testament and a Covenant, even if technically a Testament is a type of covenant. I can’t help but to think it is legalism that stands behind that shift. You inherit by a Testament. Covenants make you work.

  41. iMonk wrote:

    Whoa: Steve Brown and Robert Capon and especially Tim Keller’s latest little book. Also most Lutheran soteriology gets this right. Forde, for example.

    I wrote my major paper for a Psychology of Religion course on Steve Brown’s book A Scandalous Freedom. The oral presentation was supposed to be a 5 minute summary with a few follow-up questions/discussion. The follow-up ended up taking about 20 minutes! On the one hand it was very difficult for many folks in this class of ministers-to-be to hear some of the anti-legalism from the book. On the other hand, there was something undeniably attractive about a God whose love isn’t based on our performance.

  42. I’ll tell you a great book on Grace: The Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll. Really a fine book. And of course, What’s So Amazing About Grace by Michael Horton.

  43. I’d like to second Steve. This blog is a ministry (a true ministry of the New Covenant, and not a ministry of condemnation).

    MDS mentioned the woman at the well. This post put me in mind of the woman caught in adultery. Her sin was exposed to everyone, and she was condemned by the law. God’s people were about to stone her, she was brought to God’s temple, and Moses was quoted against her. Yet Christ lowered Himself and wrote in the dust. I always loved that image. Christ was perfectly righteous and holy, yet He lowered Himself beneath this sinful woman. Eventually all the legalists were gone, and this sinful woman remained with Him. What a wonderful portrait of the law bringing us to Christ, who can reach us in our greatest shame.

    I guess the conflict that I have, as with other commenters, is “now what?” after you believe. Of course we know from Galatians that we should continue in the Spirit. But what about all of the “New Testament commands”? (Are they commands?) For example, the Lord said “Do this in remembrance of me” concerning the Lord’s Table. The book of Hebrews says “Forsake not the assembling.” Paul tells us to “Pray unceasingly.” I’m not trying to complicate things, but I’ve never quite understood how grace works alongside such statements in the Word. It’s easy to become passive, and wait for the Lord to tell you to do something or not do something. But sometimes it seems that our lives (energized by grace) should issue in more than what we see in our own lives.

    End of ramble. But thank you, Mike, and all the other commenters. Even if questions like this aren’t answered, the very wrestling with them is an affirmation of grace, and the mystery of Christ.

    Maybe the Internet is the modern equivalent of the Wittenburg door.

  44. I struggle with this topic and appreciate hearing other people discuss it.

    I have spent time in what I would call a legalistic church. They stressed not smoking, not drinking, not listening to secular music, men need to have short hair, women long, wearing a suit to church over a lot of other things. It’s not that they didn’t do the other things, just that wearing s suit showed you were closer to God then say feeding the hungry.

    Conversely, there are outward signs of a relationship with Christ. If you never read your bible, there may be an issue. Reading your bible doesn’t automatically punch your ticket either. I’ve also experienced the folks who say that requiring your people to not have extra marital sex or asking them to leave if they refuse to repent is legalism.

    I struggle with finding the middle ground. Certainly what you wear to church is, for the most part, not indicative of your salvation. Nor is jewelery, hair style, the beer you had with dinner last night, etc. There are, however, some very real things that we need to address. Drunkeness, sexual sin, thievery, gossip need to be called out.

    It seems now days, in America, if you make any sort of a stand against sin (things specifically called sin in the Bible or are taught there as things to not do) someone steps up and throws the “legalism” charge around because you don’t understand grace and are just being judgmental.

    This is one of my main struggles.


  45. Someone asked a question about the attraction of legalism.

    One answer, that I see, is that it is easy. It’s easy to draw nice neat lines to divide people, such as drinking (not to excess). On your side, everyone is good, saved and on the other bad, and unsaved.

    One cure, and it is very hard and costly, is getting to know people. Knowing them will make it harder to draw lines that exclude them.

  46. what’s ironic about law-living is that not only does it not achieve positively what it seeks (being justified in God’s sight), and isn’t simply a merely neutral place of not being justified, but instead negatively does the complete opposite. “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse” So instead of placating the Judge, it incurs his wrath.

  47. I’m not trying to complicate things, but I’ve never quite understood how grace works alongside such statements in the Word. It’s easy to become passive, and wait for the Lord to tell you to do something or not do something. But sometimes it seems that our lives (energized by grace) should issue in more than what we see in our own lives. treebeard

    This is a really good question. Having come out of a legalistic upbringing, I wouldn’t have an answer except for the fact that my current pastor is doing his job in teaching the true gospel. He has a diagram to explain how grace and works go together. It’s basically a circular diagram. If one starts out on the wrong part of the circle, we see how legalism works. But if one starts out on the right part of it, we see how it all works together.

    Imagine a compass and the four cardinal directions. North is “God”, East is “Grace”, South is “Love” and West is “Perform”. In between are arrows pointing clockwise between the cardinal points.

    The Legalist understanding of the relationship of grace and works starts out on the Westpoint with “Perform”. Thus, we try to “Do” or demonstrate our righteousness to curry God’s favor. This is self-righteousness.

    The gospel understanding starts at North with “God”. He declared us righteous through Christ (as the arrow pointing from North to East “Grace” shows us that the act of justification is “Done” and we have “passive righteousness” From Grace, an arrow points to South “Love”. Here we understand what Paul says that faith is by grace alone. But, we get to the Southpoint and we see that Christ’s love for us compels us to perform for him. And as we follow the arrow from south to west we understand what James says about faith without works being dead. And so any righteous works we do are not to curry God’s favor, but instead are a response to the great grace we have received. I guess the bottom line is motivation. God is repulsed by the motivation of actions when they are self-righteous rather than motivations that are expressions of our love for the God who loved us first.

  48. My pastor read this verse today at church:

    ” For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:20

    So, the super-duper legalists that had attained the tippytop pinnacle of ‘righteousness’ as defined by the tippytop legalist righteousness police were, according to Jesus, not able to make the grade to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

    That would certainly mean that I am hooped! (Unless someone were able to get me righteous some other way…)

  49. I think the best explanation of the relation of faith and works is in that verse in Galatians 3: Whoever RELIES on the works of the law is under a curse.

    Rely, rely, rely.

    That’s the deal, right there. Relying on WHATEVER it is to create standing with God. In evangelicalism, that’s usually called “being a good Christian,” or “being a good witness” or “being obedient.”

    The commands of God are always there, and the Spirit tells us they are good. Love God. Love neighbor. etc.

    But you can’t RELY on them. You do them, but you do them so imperfectly that to RELY on them is a curse.

    RELY on the Gospel, the God of the Gospel, the grace of God in the Gospel.

    In that reliance, there is blessing.

    So works always follow and evidence a vital faith, but we don’t RELY on them.

  50. Divine Grace is just beautiful. To many people, Unconditional Love is incomprehensible because they have never experienced it. God’s love is


    Read the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus healed and blessed people without demanding anything in return. The Beatitudes describe blessings given to people, without them doing anything at all. The gracious way of the Spirit of Life sets us free from the laws of sin and death. Amen.