“But that’s legalism!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those words. A Christian friend suggests that it’s unwise to smoke marijuana, and they get blasted with: “But that’s legalism!” A pastor preaches on the importance of generosity, and he receives a terse note with three words on it (or four, if you count the contraction as two words): “But that’s legalism!” A blogger writes a post about the importance of daily Bible reading, and someone comments with—you guessed it—“But that’s legalism!” What makes it worse is that these days, getting accused of legalism is like being accused of sneaking radioactive waste into someone’s breakfast cereal.
In light of such accusations, it would seem warranted to try to understand what legalism actually is, especially since real legalism is truly dangerous.
So here is the simplest definition I can think of:
Legalism leads with law rather than with gospel. (I’ll unpack it below.)
So then, what is not legalism, but that often gets labeled as legalism?
It is not legalism to respond to the lavish gift of God’s grace by doing good deeds. Nor is instructing people to respond to God’s grace by doing God-honoring works in any way legalistic.
Let’s back up. There are two moments when it is crucial to think clearly about what legalism is: 1) When talking with someone about how to get into a right relationship with God in the first place, 2) When teaching a new believer how to live a life that pleases God. Let’s briefly look at each.
Legalism re: Salvation
If an unbeliever were to ask you, “How can I get into a right relationship with God?” and your answer was to offer up a list of do’s and don’t’s—go to church, abstain from evil, be generous with your money—that definitely would be legalism. But if those same works flowed out of a response to the gospel of God’s grace through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, such actions are not legalism.
So when Paul implies that some people think they can get saved by doing works that are generated “from themselves,” and that such deeds allow them grounds for boasting, that’s legalism for sure (Ephesians 2:8-9). Why is it legalism? Because works take the lead—and thereby swallow up a person’s capacity to receive the free gift of God’s grace through Christ Jesus.
But when James tells us that works must accompany faith in order to demonstrate that faith is real (James 2:14-26), that is not legalism.
Legalism re: Sanctification
But sometimes the teaching of legalism shows up after someone has embraced the gospel of grace by faith. The new believer asks, “What do I have to do to please God?” Then, instead of reminding the new believer that God is already fully pleased with him because God sees Jesus in him, he receives these instructions: “Go to church, abstain from evil, be generous with your money, etc.” That would be another variation of legalism. It isn’t legalism with the aim of attaining salvation; it’s legalism with the aim of moving forward in sanctification by doing good works.
Thus, when Jewish teachers who claimed to believe in Jesus showed up in places like Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, or Antioch of Pisidia after Paul and Barnabas had completed their first missionary journey, and told the new converts that they had to get circumcised, eat only kosher foods, celebrate Jewish festivals, etc. (Galatians 1-6)—that was legalism.
But when Paul told those same believers living in Southern Galatia that they needed to lovingly serve each other, stop arguing, crucify the passions of the flesh, and carry one another’s burdens—all within the context of the sort of life that should flow out of a true embrace of the gospel and reception of the Spirit by faith (Galatians 5-6)—that certainly was not legalism.
True faith manifests itself in good works—in “fruit,” as Jesus, and John the Baptist, and Paul were prone to call good works.
So we need to resist teaching coming both from legalists on the one hand and antinomians on the other (antinomian = a big word that refers to someone who thinks that obeying commands plays no part in a Christian’s life). Let’s think about each extreme for a moment.
Resisting legalists: We need to resist the teaching of those who lead with the law and thereby eclipse the good news of God’s free gift of grace. Their orientation to God is through what they do—and expect you to do. They might still include faith-language in their speech—whether in their gospel presentation to unbelievers, or in their training of new believers—but they are still leading with commands rather than with the gospel. The Bible teaches that God has done it all through Christ; we can add nothing to what Jesus did through his death and resurrection. We need to both rest and revel in the truth that Jesus has accomplished it all.
Resisting antinomians: But we also need to resist the teaching of those who prickle whenever anyone challenges other Christians to live a holy life that includes self-sacrificial service. True faith will necessarily reveal its genuine nature in good works, as both James and Paul agree (James 2:22-23; Ephesians 2:8-10)—so also John the Baptist (Matthew 3:8)…and John the son of Zebedee (1 John 2:1-11)…and, indeed, everyone else in the New Testament (Jude, Peter, the author of Hebrews, etc.). And, by all means, don’t forget that our Lord Jesus Christ emphasized the same (Matthew 7:13-27)!
We have received the most magnanimous gift anyone has ever received, the gift of God’s grace through the atonement of Jesus. The only appropriate response to receiving such a gift is wholehearted gratitude, not just coming from our lips, but also flowing out of lives transformed by the gospel. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.