What Is Legalism?
Joe writes in to ask, “Pastor John, what is legalism?”
The thing that makes this tricky is that there is no Hebrew word in the Old Testament and no Greek word in the New Testament for legalism. So whenever anyone uses the word, you have to do two things: you have to find out what they mean by it, and then you have to find out if their meaning corresponds to something in the Bible, or if they are making use of the Bible in a way that is inappropriate.
That makes it a little trickier. When the Bible uses a word like love, say, you can go to a given text and say, “What does love mean there?” But the Bible doesn’t have any word for legalism, so we can’t go to any particular place and say, “There it is right there.”
So I will tell you what I would mean by using it and what in the Bible I think would warrant that kind of use. Then you can decide whether you think it should be used that way or not. But mainly check out the way people use it, and measure it by things in the Bible to see if this is so.
Legalism is the conviction that law-keeping is now, after the fall, the ground of our acceptance with God. I will say that again: legalism is the conviction that law-keeping is the ground of our acceptance with God, the ground of God being for us and not against us.
“Legalism is the conviction that law-keeping is the ground of our acceptance with God.”
So if you ask, “How can I get God to be for me and not against me?” the legalist answer is “Keep the law. Perform the law.” Now that is wrong, and the reason we call that legalism is because it is renounced. It is denounced in the New Testament. Romans 3:20: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Romans 3:28: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Galatians 2:16: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”
So we call it legalism if one says we are justified by works of the law: “We get God to be for us, God becomes our friend, when we measure up by keeping the law.” And the biblical gospel is the good news that this is impossible.
God knows it is impossible, and he has provided another way — namely, the way of faith in Jesus Christ, who himself bore our punishment for not keeping the law and himself fulfilled our requirement that we do keep the law, so that in Christ we have a punishment and we have a perfection that is complete. Therefore, God is for us because we are in Christ, not because we have gone the way of law-keeping.
The Spirit of Legalism
Now that leads us to a derivative meaning, I think, of legalism that may be even more common: it is the spirit and the life that flow from a failure to be humbled, broken, amazed, and satisfied by the grace of God in Christ. There are all kinds of attitudes, right — pride, demandingness, lack of mercy, lack of compassion, unkindness, impatience — and these have their root, don’t they, in a heart that is not stunned by grace, not broken and humbled by grace, not joyfully filled with grace? That creates a legal spirit.
So legalism is not just this conviction that we get right with God by keeping the law. Legalism is used rightly — I think biblically — if we say it is an attitude, a spirit, a disposition of all kinds of behaviors and feelings that are rooted in a failure to be amazed that I am saved by grace. A failure to be amazed that I am accepted by God freely — to be melted, broken, humbled, and filled with joy because of what God has done.
“The legalist is not broken. He is not stunned. He is not blown away by the fact that he is saved by grace.”
That flavors all we do, and the opposite of it is right there in Luke 18 in the Pharisee standing by himself. He prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). That is the spirit of a man who says right words. He says, “Thank you,” right? He says, “Thank you, God.” That is a right thing to say, but he is not broken. He is not stunned. He is not blown away by the fact that he is saved by grace, not according to his works.
So what we want, what I want in my life, is not just to be free from a principled legalism — you know, a theological legalism that says you get to heaven, or you please God, or you win his favor by keeping the law. I want to have a gracious spirit, a gospel spirit, not a legal spirit that comes from a failure to be amazed at my being saved by grace.