Legalism: What It Is And What It Is Not

What is legalism? The charge of legalism is so carelessly flung around today that people have no idea what the term means. It’s become a catch phrase to write off any teaching of God’s moral law.

There are three ways this term is being misapplied and abused to attack churches that have remained confessionally Protestant.fEli

First, churches that are serious today are characterized as legalistic. In fact, any church that is serious or formal anymore will “stand out like an organ stop” (quoting David Wells) and be labeled as those who are joyless and legalistic. People are equating legalism with formality, as if freedom means casualness before God. I’m reminded of the Lord’s complaint against Israel,

For My people are foolish, They have not known Me. They are silly children, And they have no understanding. They are wise to do evil, But to do good they have no knowledge.” (Jer 4:22)

Just before israel’s impending judgment for apostasy, the Lord tells us that the worship became full of sheer “siliness.” No word could better capture the feel of today’s worship than siliness. We have forgotten the Lord’s warning, “By those who come near to me, I must be regarded as holy.”

Second, legalism is being carelessly used to attack people’s liberty. I have noticed the reverse problem of striking at a brother’s liberty because he wants to, for example, offer his first-fruits in the way that he dresses or looks. “They make all their people dress a certain way at that church.” Broad characterizations and generalizations are made this way and lumped together as a “legalistic” when, in fact, practices of people are often birthed out of genuine gratitude for the grace given. In other words, marketing mega-churches keep kicking the traditional churches as legalistic in matters of Christian liberty—they wear ties, they sing out of a song book, etc.

Third, and most dangerous, the charge of legalism is made against those who are sincerely trying to honor the law of God out of gratitude. Now none of these people would advocate that Christians should murder, steal, commit adultery, etc; but when a Christian wants to, for instance, keep the second commandment and not make images or have icons for worship, since it is expressly condemned in that commandment, well, that is now said to be legalistic. If someone says, “I want to honor the fourth commandment and keep the Sabbath day holy” this is the kind of stuff being labeled as legalistic, when in fact, it is a law of God. See what we do? We redefine “freedom” is on “our” terms. Christians are to honor the expressed law of God not as a way to earn anything, but as a way of demonstrating gratitude for so great a gospel.

There is much antinomianism in the modern evangelical church. By antinomianism I mean the rejection of a fixed moral law and specifically to the rejection of God’s moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments and applied in the New Testament to the New Testament church. Too often when people critique confessional Protestants, who affirm the abiding validity of the Ten Commandments, as “legalistic,” they are really advocating antinomianism, rejection of God’s moral law. What they are saying is this: we won’t require anything of you if you come to us. This is all an escape tactic for people who are running. God’s law is totally disregarded, and the consequences of this are evidenced in the way people approach him in worship.

The paradoxical thing here, however, is that to disregard the law of God this way, for instance, in how we are commanded to worship, actually forces church leaders to create their own inventions and impose their own ideas on the people (i.e. conversations with God, videos, dramas, liturgical dancing—the list is really endless here). We think of Isaiah’s words, “Who has required this from your hand, to trample my courts.” So the one making the charge of legalism needs to look at the plank in his own eye for attacking people who are sincerely trying to honor the Lord’s expressed will. Disregarding the law of God, and imposing ones own inventions upon people in worship is de facto doing what Jesus condemned in Matthew 15, “in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

The real freedom that we have is freedom within the bounds of the law of God to honor it as a way of gratitude. People today are making the assumption that freedom is freedom to live outside the law of God. Simply put, “If you come to us, we won’t require anything of you.” We need to properly define legalism as putting a yoke over people for their justification before God, in addition to faith in Christ. Yes, it’s a problem, and wrong but this doesn’t rule out a life of obedience to God’s law as a way of gratitude for the grace given. Therefore, we should always ask people what they mean when they charge a church as being legalistic.

So if honoring the law of God earns us the charge of being legalistic, I respond by saying, “you are in error not knowing the Scriptures.” If antinomians call confessional Protestants “legalists,” I humbly respond by saying that we are in good company. Elijah was called a “troubler in Israel” and Jesus himself was “hated and despised by men.” The sad thing is, however, that in both cases, those men who attacked Elijah and Christ for speaking the truth, were the shepherds of Israel.

God’s moral law was not temporary. It reflects his character. It is was revealed in creation to Adam. It was known by the Patriarchs. It was summarized by Moses and again by our Lord himself in Matthew 22:37–40. The Apostles repeated the very same moral law as the norm of the Christian life. We are not justified or saved through keeping it nor because we kept it but we seek to keep it because we have been saved and justified. We seek to keep it gratefully, humbly, thankfully, in union with the Christ who kept it for us, because of his free grace to us.

Chris Gordon, Escondido.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article was published in 2010.


  1. Legalism is also a form of self- or group-exalting behavior that has not much to do with the doctrine of justification. For example, Paul mentions that Peter was compelling the Gentiles to “live like Jews (Gal 2:14)” and that he began to “hold himself aloof” or “separated himself,” Gal 2:12, which is behavioral.

    • Larry,

      Paul accused Peter of denying the gospel. Look at the context:

      But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal 2:11-15; ESV).

      Paul explicitly tied Peter’s behavior to his denial of the gospel. He turned his back on the Gentiles because he momentarily accepted the Judaizing doctrine of justification. After Paul’s rebuke, he repented. We see the fruit of that encounter at the Jerusalem synod in Acts 15.

      That said, I agree that legalism in the Christian life is also a form of legalism. I’m not sure what you mean by “group exalting” behavior is. Can you elaborate?

  2. Thank you for defining the term ‘legalism’, identifying the misuse of this word, and presenting useful questions and responses to people who are held captive to shortsightedness. It’s becoming more clear that I need to engage people who oppose the confessional Reformed Church, calling it legalistic (even within the confessional Reformed Church) with Paul’s witness in Romans 1:1-7. Lay people have also received Grace to believe God’s justification through Christ alone and to live in the Law of God with gratitude and reverence for His Glory.

    Since He is bringing about this obedience of faith for the sake of His Name, among all those who are called in Jesus Christ, these questions arise. How do we know if we are loved by God? What have we been called to be? Who identifies and defines us? How do we understand what Paul is saying?

    • Catherine, there are certain markers in Scripture that you can look to for assurance. ” The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.” Have you come to see your own sinfulness, how it offends God, and how it is impossible to be accepted before God on your own merit. Have you come to see that only by Christ’s merit, credited to you (imputation of Christ’s death and perfect righteousness) you can be right with God. Have you come to love God above all else, for the love and mercy He has shown you by giving His Son for you, and does that move you to live by His commandments, and to love them, as a demonstration of love to Him who obeyed them perfectly for you for your righteousness before God, and died to pay for your sins? Then the Scripture says it is the gift of God! Only the Holy Spirit can work this faith in you, and He will never leave you!

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