Correctly Defining Legalism

As the aim of Lamb’s Harbinger is to provide apologetics for the Gospel, I must expose legalism. I am very often grieved that there are churches and theologians who, amid denouncing legalism in a spirit of fear toward moral license, redefine the terms and principles surrounding legalism. As a result, these sort cannot see that they themselves are still involved in legalism; and in the name of denouncing license, their teachings lead to battling external matters of culture and behaviors instead of the weightier matters of the heart from which all corruption proceeds. Their system of sanctification looks like a list of do’s and do not’s–admittedly “not something you can give your whole life to,” says  Thomas J. Oord of Northwest Nazarene University. That is why one who is involved in legalism, (as I have been, before awakening to Grace), finds himself as it were ‘fanning the flames’ in an ironically desperate attempt to blow them out, instead of putting out the source of the fire. As Colossians 2:23 reads, will worship is of “no value against fleshly indulgence.”

So, let’s define our terms with accurate and precise definitions. Admittedly, legalism is a term coined by theologians to describe a certain way of religion that stands diametrically opposed to “grace alone” by “faith alone.” Please refer to previous articles titled “Grace” and “Faith” for better context to the following discourse.

The only true way to define legalism is “law-dependence”… or, “works of the law as a pathway to righteousness (positional and practical).” [*see fuller definition below] It is meritorious, law-based living or externalism, and one employs it for the purpose of using the Law to prove one’s self right and/or accepted with God (justification, Gal. 1, or sanctification Gal. 2:11-21, 3:3). The only difference between the Judaism of Paul’s day and today’s legalism is that modern legalists utilize man-made philosophies, methodologies, traditions and “standards” which are stretched and extrapolated from the principles found in the Old and New a Testaments. Legalism is often associated with the “weak conscience” debate and misunderstandings of biblical definitions for holiness and worldliness. The legalist will define these topics with man-made conjectures and measures of conservatism in lifestyle. Holiness–even the “old-time” kind–is not about mere conservatism and moral standards, nor is it solely about the motivation of self-righteous merit found in such. Biblical holiness is one’s sharing in the nature of God–period (2 Pet. 1:4; Heb. 12:10). The only proper motivation is loving relationship to God. The motive which betrays legalism is “attempting to please God by righteous deeds.” Instead of properly identifying what it means to be weak in faith, legalists confuse a spiritually mature deference for living by others’ consciences (1 Cor. 10:29; Gal. 6:12) and “will worship” (Colossians 2:8, 16-23). Paul’s response is that one who accepts such outward works as the way to be ‘right with God’ “is obligated to keep the whole law” for his chance at right standing with God (whether positional or practical) and has fallen away from grace (Gal. 5:1-6).

While one’s adherence to the Law for “righteousness” is technically a work of the flesh, and therefore, “flesh-dependence,” it is important to distinguish between flesh-dependence and law-dependence in as much as the Bible differentiates between “the works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19-21) and “the works of the law” (Gal. 3:10) in contrast to “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5). Dependence upon the law for proving one’s self righteousness is far different than reliance upon the flesh (“mind, will and emotions given over to sin”) as a “source for living” (John 15). This was Paul’s point of argument in Romans 7, where the Apostle proves that the only part which the Law plays is highlighting one’s flesh, or sin nature. [Until one realizes this, he feels fine to go through life based on what is right in his own skewed judgment.] Furthermore, not all meritorious thinking is Law-based; it can also be comparisons made with others (2 Cor. 10:12) and especially done by disbelievers who do not possess the Law (Rom. 1&2). So, while flesh-dependence can happen apart from the law, legalism is its own special brand of flesh-dependence better termed law-dependence.

That being said, it is not fully accurate to assert that a meritorious mindset is the determining factor of legalism, because Paul the Apostle wanted to “attain unto (be worthy of) the resurrection” (Phil. 3:11) and commanded that Christians ought to walk worthy of their calling (Eph. 4:1), also teaching that God will give rewards (1 Cor. 3; 2 Tim. 4:8), and that, one must run the Christian race in a fashion so as to win (1 Cor. 9:24). Most of these passages, especially Phillipians 3, warn of both legalism (those who mutilate the flesh) and license (dogs) and counter it with sayings such things as “we worship by the Spirit of God” (Phil. 3:3), “faith works by love” (Gal. 5:6) and that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6), and that “whatever is done without faith (assurance) is sin” (Rom. 14:23). So, it is not only the “what” and the “why” that determines legalism, but the measure for full accuracy in determining legalism also lies in the “how” of living out the Christian life. How are you living out the grace of God? Are you living out a life of grace by walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16)? Or, having begun in the Spirit, do you now seek to make yourself perfect (mature) by the flesh (Galatians 3:3)? More precisely, in a faith that functions through God’s love, or are you living it out by some other means? Why are you “living holy?” Are you living it out in order to acquire God’s pleasure or blessing (e.g. goodness, power) on your life? Are you “living holy” to bring attention to yourself and your brand of Christianity, because you think that your “look” of holiness is what will attract a fallen world or make you pleasing to God? What do you actually think is holy and worthy as opposed to sinful and worldly? Does your answer contain only a list of forbidden actions and unwritten social rules that preserve your reputation? If any of the answers to these questions deviate from biblical definitions of a life of grace in the Spirit, then your answer reveals either legalism or license. Only after this set of questions is answered honestly and in keeping with grace can one go on to say as Paul,

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:19-23 ESV)

Hence, the only true way to define grace in relationship to the Law is as Paul does… by saying one is “not under the law (but not as without the law)… outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ).” When talking about law and grace, it is “either/or,” not “both/and.” While some are scared to think of this, others rejoice in the assurance of Christ and what it means to share in his nature, which is beyond the Law and is itself living and free in the heart, not written on tablets of stone.



*”Legalism and the Teaching of Paul. … [The Law] is powerless to deliver from sin ( Rom 8:3 ;  Gal 3:21b-22 ) and was a temporary measure until the coming of Christ ( Gal 3:19 ). Moreover, continued attachment to it is not only fruitless, but dangerous since the law demands total obedience of which none is capable ( Gal 3:10-12 ). Law observance is thus both futile and fatal. As a substitute for or supplement to faith in Christ it ministers to legalism. Acceptance by God is possible only through faith in Christ crucified ( Rom 8:3 ;  Gal 2:16 ;  3:13-14 ). [Paul urges the believer to continue in the Christian life the same way it was begun–by faith and in the Spirit, not seeking to be “perfected” by deeds of the Law (Col. 2:6; Gal. 3:3); but this must also be tempered by the truth that faith which does not result in good deeds is dead (James 2:14-16), in regards to the sanctification (preservation, “salvation”) of the redeemed.] This picture of the law as occasioning legalism has been hotly contested. However, there is evidence of a vein of Judaism in which “the works of the law” were seen as a pathway to righteousness (e.g., the Qumran text 4QMMT). There is likewise evidence in the literature of the Second Temple period that sin was defined in terms of the law, and divine intervention in the eschaton was seen as the only cure.”

(, Brackets Mine)

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