Updated: Nov 18, 2022
An Antidote to the Contemporary Cry, “You Are a Legalist!”
Many leaders of Christian colleges, camps and churches are regularly charged with the accusation of being a "legalist.” If a Christian organization has rules that an individual doesn’t like or understand, the appointed representative of that organization may hear, “You are a legalist!” or, “Your institution is a legalistic institution.” Hurling the accusation of legalism at a Christian institution has become an in-vogue method for discrediting or basically rebelling against the standards of that institution. Essentially, this allows the accuser to make himself the determiner of the validity of an institution's standards/rules.
This accusation is often hurled by the “Monday-morning-quarterback” type of person. He is not actually in the football game feeling the pressure of the opposition, but if he were, he would know better how to play the game.
Another way of illustrating this mindset is that the accuser puts himself in the metaphorical executive chair, as if he is qualified to make the executive’s decisions; yet the accuser has no sense of the liability and institutional vulnerabilities that the actual executive experiences on a daily basis. It also allows the accuser to become LAW unto himself. He is the self-appointed arbiter of the validity of rules, quickly dismissing anything he doesn't like as “legalism.”
The accusation “you are a legalist” reveals a spiritually unhealthy mindset often rooted in a self-aggrandizing sinful arrogance coupled with a lack of understanding of the actual meaning of legalism. Theological legalism is one of the most conflated and confused topics in all of Christianity.
In this article I'll explain what legalism is and what it is not as well as why this topic is so important.
First, what is legalism?
In a basic sense, theological legalism is adding works to salvation. Any preacher or religious institution that suggests that a person must keep the law or do good works in order to earn heaven is a legalist and should be identified as such. Today legalism is commonly seen in the Catholic and Jewish religions as well as most every religion other than Biblical Christianity.
As Christians, we understand that salvation is "by grace through faith." (Ephesians 2:8-10) God's grace shows us that we don't work for our salvation, but that Christ did the work for us and that through faith in Him, we have eternal life.
Nicodemus was a legalist and in John chapter 3, Jesus tells him, "Ye must be born again." The point of John 3 is that law keeping doesn't save a person's soul. John 3:16 famously explains God's gracious gift of true salvation.
So, legalism is man, by his good works, trying to earn salvation.
Secondly, consider what legalism is not.
Legalism is not to be confused with institutional standards, nor should it be conflated with the importance of pursuing obedience to Christ.
A) Institutional Standards
Institutions, whether secular or sacred, are entitled to have standards without being called legalistic.
Post offices, airports, and grocery stores, (the ten-items or less line) all have rules or institutional standards. If you do not obey their rules, you may not get your mail delivered, or be able to fly on a plane, or purchase your groceries.
The same thing is true with local churches, Christian colleges, camp ministries, or any Christian organization. They may require a certain dress code or expect boys to use a separate elevator from the girls or have a separate swim time, etc. Whatever the institutional standard is, it only becomes legalism if they say you must do this in order to earn heaven.
As long as they are not attaching their institutional standards to their gospel presentation, they are not legalists and it would be incorrect and unfair to label them as such.
In America, if you don't like the standards of an institution, you have the right to pursue those services elsewhere.
B) Obedience to Christ
Further, it is not legalism when Christians preach and pursue obedience to Christ. After all, grace is not an allowance to do anything we want and presume upon God's forgiveness. In response to that idea, the apostle Paul cried, “God forbid!” Paul plainly rejected antinomianism. (Romans 6:1, 2a)
Antinomianism is the idea of being “anti-law.” It is the belief that the gospel of grace frees Christians from required obedience to the law, whether Scriptural or not. Those who hold to antinomianism believe that a Christian can live any way he wants because, after all, God’s grace will cover his sin.
This idea presumes upon the grace of God and reveals a lack of understanding of the concept of grace. Actually, the Bible explains that grace teaches grateful Christians to live "soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world." (Titus 2)
The Bible is full of commands for Christians. For example, we are commanded to obey the God ordained authorities in Romans 13; to dress modestly in 1 Timothy 2:9, to love your neighbor in Matthew 22:39.
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12 exhorts Christians to conduct themselves in a way that pleases God in the specific area of sexual sins. Paul tells the Thessalonian believers to obey the “commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus.” He explains that fornication is outside of God’s will, that they should pursue holiness; and that they should stop acting godlessly. (vs. 3-5)
1 John 2:6 generalizes God’s commands by telling Christians to walk as Christ walked. However, when Christians fail to walk as Christ walked in obedience to the Scripture, our spiritual joy and relationship with God is hindered.
1 John 1 explains how to have "full joy" and that full joy is in direct correlation with obedience to Christ.
Luke 11:28 says that the happy or "blessed" Christian is the one that hears the word of God and keeps it.
There is no doubt, from a Scriptural standpoint, that when Christians disobey His instruction, we forfeit, NOT OUR SALVATION, but the JOY of our salvation. After deep sin, David confesses in Psalm 51 and prays, "restore unto me," not his salvation, but the joy of his salvation.
Just as when a husband and wife may have an argument, their closeness to each other is temporarily hindered, yet they're still married during the disagreement. So it is when disobedient Christians in the bride of Christ disobey the bridegroom, they temporarily forfeit much of the joy of the relationship until confession is made.
Expecting people to submit to institutional standards is not legalism and encouraging people to obey the clear teaching of Scripture is also not legalism.
Thirdly, why is this topic so important?
The reason that this topic is so important is because true legalism is sending people to an eternal hell. And something so serious should not be confused with things so basic as institutional standards, and obedience to Christ.
If the apostle Paul were alive today, after spending much of his ministry refuting actual legalism in Galatia, he would probably rebuke every whiny freshman Bible college student who calls neck ties and curfews, legalism.
Further, those Christian leaders who try to suggest that you should not feel guilty when you disobey Christ, are leading people astray.
Guilt or conviction in your heart can be the impetus for a renewed fellowship with God. Sin is not your friend but the guilt that comes from sin can be.
In conclusion, beware of legalism because it can damn your soul to an eternal hell. Beware of allowing your heart to become the self-appointed validity assessor of other people’s organizational rules and regulations. Beware of becoming a LAW unto yourself, thinking you’re the only one who knows how things should be. Instead, be humble and submissive to institutional standards and passionately pursue complete obedience to Christ. All the while be rejoicing in the things that His grace teaches us. (Titus 2:11-15)
The above article was written by Pastor James C. Johnson. If you'd like to receive this content in booklet form, please email SFL at email@example.com.