“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2, ESV)
There are few theological conversations that give me more heartburn than those in which the word “legalism” is tossed around with great liberality. Within the context of a discussion on obedience to God’s law, an objector may claim legalism on the part of the one asserting the need for obedience. It is certainly possible that the person calling for obedience is engaged in legalism, but it is not necessarily so. I’m convinced a right understanding of the meaning of this word will keep me from reaching for my bottle of chewy Tums.
Assuming that in the scenario describe above, the word “legalism” is being used to describe meticulous obedience to God’s law, it is important to begin by saying that meticulous obedience is not legalism. Meticulous obedience can be legalism, but it can also be a glorious expression of love to God for the work of Christ on behalf of the sinner. Jesus himself calls for meticulous obedience to the Lord in His Sermon on the Mount:
“Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)
Even the least of the commandments should not be relaxed, according the Jesus. That principle is seen in action in many places in the Bible. For example, Adam plunges the whole human race into sin and misery by something as simple as eating a piece of fruit. In Num. 15:32-36, a man is stoned to death for the harmless act of collecting sticks on the Sabbath. Why? Because taking these actions was in direct opposition to the explicit commandment and instruction from God. So a narrow assessment of the duties of a law is not sufficient to indicate legalism. Laws and commandments are by definition narrow, also the ones given by the Lord. So what is legalism?
Using the word “legalism” is valid in one of two scenarios. First, it is when something, anything is added to the doctrine of justification by faith. That was the sin of the Galatian Judaizers. Their claim was that you were saved by faith in Jesus plus observance of the ceremonial laws. Derek Thomas has referred to this addition as the “damnable plus.” This distortion of the gospel adds a human element to the innocence of the Christian. Law keeping plays a contributing role in salvation. But as it says in Gal. 3:11 (above), man is not justified in such a way. Christ’s perfect obedience to all of God’s commandments and His righteousness only, are credited to the believer through faith. Anyone who changes that gospel is a legalist and, according to Paul, should be accursed (Gal. 1:8,9).
Second, it is to assert that an application of God’s word that you find particularly helpful is binding on everyone else. In a sense you are elevating your preference to the same status as God’s Law and in so doing practice idolatry. The bedtime for young Gleason children is 7 p.m., rain or shine, and therefore all others must do the same. Or, perhaps a more contemporary example would be around mask wearing. I think wearing masks is a good idea, so therefore everyone must wear a mask. Or I think mask wearing is a bad idea, therefore no one should wear them. Anyone who differs from me in practice is either sinning (worst case) or lacks the wisdom that I have (still not good). That also is the work of the legalist.
To recognize the right use of the word “legalism” helps give the Christian balance in his use of the word. Law keeping, even detailed law keeping, is not an indication of legalism. As Paul says, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Rom. 2:13). Or James says, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” The point is not that law keeping makes you righteous. Rather, when you have been made righteous through Christ, you will desire and be careful to keep His commandments. When charges of legalism are flippantly used to silence calls for obedience, God’s authority is denied and the Christian’s expression of love to his Savior is silenced. If a Christian finds keeping God’s specific commandments a burden, then something has gone wrong. In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” That is not legalism. Legalism is rule keeping with the hope of earning salvation. It is to load a burden on a brother that God never set on him. But if God has given a commandment, it is incumbent on the Christian to obey it totally, carefully, and perfectly. That is not a burden to the redeemed Christian. In fact it is his delight.