A couple of different listeners in the past month have written in to ask, essentially, “Is it possible to become legalistic about not being legalistic?” Pastor John, what would you say?
My short answer would be simply yes, but that won’t have much meaning until we provide some definitions and biblical content for the word “legalism.”
“There is no word for ‘legalism’ in New Testament Greek.”
Here’s the startling fact that more people need to take into account, and they need to become more careful in their use of the language: there is no word for “legalism” in New Testament Greek. The English word “legalism” never occurs in any modern translation of all the Bible. It’s not in the ESV, NIV, NASB, NKJV. What this means is that the incredible frequency and confidence with which we use the word today in a negative way to criticize other people stands on very shaky ground. Not shaky because such a thing may not exist, but shaky because we may not know what we’re talking about.
If we do know what we’re talking about, it may not be in the Bible. It may not be a biblical idea. But everybody just slings this word around — it’s unbelievably common — and with such amazing confidence. So, we need to look at the Scriptures and decide what the English word “legalism” might refer to in the Bible. Let’s mention four things that are often called “legalism,” which the New Testament does not condemn but in fact encourages. I am using the word “legalistic” here to refer to something bad just because that’s the way it’s universally used, but in the New Testament they are good.
1. It is not legalistic to believe that a changed life of love and holiness are necessary for final salvation. Hebrews 12:14, “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Ephesians 5:5, “For may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”
The biblical truth is that Christ’s blood and righteousness are the sole ground of our full acceptance into God’s favor, but the new life of love and holiness pursued with all our might, ready to cut off our hands if we must, is necessary as the fruit which demonstrates that we are truly in Christ and born again. It is not legalistic to be that serious about holiness.
“It is not legalistic to believe that a changed life of love and holiness are necessary for final salvation.”
2. It is not legalistic to think of the Christian life as a life of obedience guided by commands, commandments of Jesus. Those two words, “obedience” and “commandments” are not legalistic words in the New Testament. Philippians 2:12, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” First John 2:3, “By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”
3. It is not legalistic for a Christian to make it his aim to please God by the way he lives. Justification by faith alone does not exclude this; it empowers it. Second Corinthians 5:9, “Whether we are at home or away” — meaning in heaven or on earth — “we make it our aim to please him [the Lord].”
4. It is not legalistic to use warnings and threatenings toward professing Christians to stir them up to be vigilant in their pursuit of holiness in heaven. Colossians 3:5–6, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these” — he’s addressing Christians — “the wrath of God is coming.” So, don’t do them.
Matthew 5:30, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you” — you disciples: Peter, James, John, it’s better for you to — “lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” It’s not wrong, it’s not legalistic to use that kind of Jesus- and apostolic-language to warn professing Christians to get about the business of putting sin to death in their life.
So then, what would be the meaning of legalism if that’s what it isn’t, and yet many consider it to be? What would it be? What would the New Testament really condemn that we sometimes and should call “legalistic”? Here are three meanings of legalism that I hear used today that I think ought to be used, but they should be carefully explained which one’s being used and when.
“Our condemnation is over because Christ did on the cross what we could never do by law-keeping.”
1. We might call someone “legalistic” if they are overly scrupulous about behaviors that are not prohibited or commanded in the New Testament. This is what Romans 14 is mainly about. It goes like this: “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats” (Romans 14:3). That despising and that judging would be legalistic on this definition.
2. We might call someone “legalistic” if they fail to see that the Mosaic system of sacrifices and priestly ceremonies and rites of purification and food laws and rituals that distinguish Israel from the nations are not binding any longer on the Christian. Hebrews 8:13, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete.” Or Romans 7:6, “We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (see also Romans 7:4).
3. Finally, we might call someone “legalistic” if they treat the law or any moral behavior as the ground of our full acceptance with God instead of seeing Christ’s blood and righteousness as the only ground of our acceptance, and faith in him as the only means of having what he died to obtain. Romans 8:3, “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” What? “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh . . . he condemned sin.” Our condemnation is over because he did in the cross what we could never do by law-keeping.
Galatians 5:2–3 is even clearer, I think: “If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” Which means, if you’re going to use circumcision as part of the ground of your acceptance with God, you have to go all the way and be a perfect person in law-keeping. So, you just better get rid of that notion and bank everything on Jesus Christ for your acceptance with God.
Now, my answer is yes, a person can be legalistic about legalism. Yes, you can. Here’s the easiest way to see it, I think. It’s what I see anyway, in our day. Watch a person who thinks another Christian is being overly scrupulous about behaviors that are not prohibited or commanded in the New Testament: perhaps praying at meals, having personal devotions every day, having family devotions in the evening, abstaining from alcohol, refusing to watch movies with nudity, etc. None of those is mentioned in the New Testament.
“A legalism-rejecting person can become overly scrupulous about doing the very behaviors others avoided.”
Then, you see this legalism-rejecting so-called free person become overly scrupulous himself about doing the very behaviors that the overly scrupulous Christian avoided. You see him turn those very behaviors into necessities in order to show that he’s not legalistic. He’s free. He’s just got to do those things that this other generation didn’t do or not do what they did, when in fact the freedom may be just as much a bondage to be different, just as the so-called legalism they are rejecting may be a bondage to tradition.
Yes, it is possible to be legalistic about legalism, but the big challenge as I see it is to know what we’re talking about when we use the word “legalism” and that we measure it by the Scriptures.