Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Joe writes in to ask: “What is legalism?”

The thing that make this tricky is that there is no Hebrew word in the Old Testament, no Greek work 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 are they making use of the Bible in a way that is inappropriate. And 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 par-ticular 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 and 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. So if you ask: How can I get God to be fore 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, by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, because through the law comes the knowledge of sin. Or Romans 3:28. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or Galatians 2:16. We know that a person is not justified by works of the law.

So we call it Legalism if one says we are justified by works of the law. We do 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 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 and therefore God is for us because we are in Christ, not because we have gone the way of law keeping.

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 and broken and amazed and satisfied by the grace of God in Christ. There are all kinds of attitudes, right, of 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. And that creates a legal spirit. So Legalism is not just this conviction that we get right with God by keeping the law. Legal-ism is used rightly, I think, biblically, if we say it is an attitude, a spirit, a disposition of all kinds of be-haviors and feelings that are rooted in a failure to be amazed that I am saved by grace. Amazed that I am accepted by God freely, melted and broken and humbled and filled with joy because of what God has done. Because that flavors all we do and the opposite of it is right there in Luke 18 in the Pharisee stand-ing by himself. He prayed: God, I thank you that I am not like these other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, even like this tax collector. 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, 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.

Thank you Pastor John. For more on legalism, see the new edition of the book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry, and particularly chapter 26, titled: “BROTHERS, DON’T FIGHT FLESH TANKS WITH PEASHOOTER REGULATIONS.” There’s a similar sermon available, titled, “Flesh Tank and Peashooter Regulations,” preached on January 17, 1982. Both the chapter and the sermon are available through desiringgod.org along with thousands of free books, articles, sermons, and other resources from John Piper. … I’m your host, Tony Reinke. Thanks for listening.