Legalism: A Lethal Enemy of Gospel-Freedom

As Christians who live between the D-Day and V-Day of Christ’s first and second coming, there are certain enemies that we have to be on the lookout for. Enemies that, though they are in one sense defeated in Christ, still exert a toxic influence. At my local church I have been preaching through the book of Galatians and one enemy in particular that Paul constantly warns against is legalism. And he warns that it’s not just an enemy to our justification (God’s act of declaring us righteous), it’s also an enemy to our sanctification (God’s work of making us righteous). In Galatians 2:16 Paul declares legalism to be an enemy of justification when he says, “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Later in Galatians 3:3, Paul declares legalism to be an enemy of sanctification when he says, “having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

Paul, throughout the book of Galatians, is clearly passionate about preserving the purity of the Gospel and upholding the sole sufficiency of the work of the Savior. One of the ways this is clearly demonstrated is in his all out assault on legalism, one of the greatest enemies of Gospel. But what exactly is legalism? This is a word that is tossed around frequently and like much “Christianese” it has been overused, abused, misused and under-defined. So, I want to attempt to move toward a clearer understanding of what legalism is in hopes that this will help us detect it more easily, repent of it more specifically, and embrace its remedy more wholeheartedly.

The Craftiness of Legalism

Before I give a definition of Legalism, it is important to note that legalism shares a lot of similarities to a Deer Tick that carries Lyme Disease. Like a Deer Tick, legalism is sometimes undetectable (a Deer Tick is almost microscopic). It can easily be mistaken as completely harmless (a Deer Tick looks like a cute baby ladybug). If it bites, it can be hard to diagnose (early stages of Lyme Disease mimic the flu). And if it is allowed to go untreated, it’s effects can be devastating (untreated Lyme Disease can have chronic effects). This is what, in part, makes legalism so dangerous.

The Spectrum of Legalism

Furthermore, legalism does not come in one shape and size, as if it were one very specific thing that you could point to. Legalism comes in a variety of flavors and exists on a spectrum. For example, on one end of the spectrum you have forms of legalism that are heretical. These are the extreme cases of legalism that distort the truth of the Gospel so much that to believe them or teach them is damnable (Paul seems to deal with this kind in Gal 1:6-9). On the other end of the spectrum, you have less extreme cases of legalism that though not heretical, are still harmful (Paul seems to deal with this kind in 2:11-14).

Defining Legalism

Now without further interruption, here is my attempt to define legalism:

Legalism is any misappropriation of or man-made addition to salvation or Scripture’s commands which we use to earn, maintain, or improve our standing before God and which we impose upon and judge others by.

That’s more than a mouthful so let me take that apart piece by piece to show you why I constructed this definition the way I did. As I break down the definition I also want to show you why legalism is such a serious and lethal enemy of Gospel-Freedom.

1. Legalism Mishandles the Word of God

Legalism is “any misappropriation of” God’s Law. In our modern context legalism is usually only talked about as “adding to” Scripture. But legalism can also take Scripture as it is and misappropriate it. We are called to be those who rightly handle the Word of truth. Bad exegesis is harmful for the soul. In Galatians this shows up in the form of misappropriating the dietary laws of the Old Testament. God instituted the dietary laws to serve a temporary prophetic purpose. All the aspects of the dietary laws of the Old Covenant cannot be unfolded here but suffice it to say that part of its function was to point to the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and the person and work of the Savior, the truly Holy One. The false teachers in Galatia missed the temporary and prophetic nature of these dietary laws and were trying to enforce them on the Gentiles, even though God had repealed them (cf. Acts 10).

2. Legalism Usurps the Authority of God

Legalism makes “man-made additions” to things that only God has the authority to speak on. In a sense, legalism is “fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.” Scripture has one ultimate author and it is not us. Only God has the prerogative to say “thus saith the Lord.” Legalism tries to say “thus saith the Lord” without asking permission.

3. Legalism Undermines the Sufficiency of Christ

Legalism makes “man-made additions to salvation.” By adding any criteria to salvation other than “believe on the Lord Jesus,” legalism says Jesus isn’t enough, His work isn’t fully sufficient, more is required. This comes not only in formal ways, where one declares “you must be circumcised if you would be saved.” It also comes in functional ways, no one makes a declaration or writes a position paper on it, but people treat voting republican or homeschooling or pacifism as necessary criteria of being a Christian. This cuts at the heart of the Gospel, which is when legalism starts (and often ends up) moving from being just harmful to being full-blown heresy.

4. Legalism Contests the Wisdom of God

Legalism makes “man-made additions to…Scripture’s commands.” By adding anything to Scripture’s commands, Legalism acts as if it were wiser than God. There are many areas of life to which God, in his wisdom, does not say “thus saith the Lord, do this and do not do that.” These are areas of Christian Freedom, or as it has sometimes been called cases of conscience. Legalism seeks to remove freedom in these areas and bind consciences captive. In effect, this says if God were as wise as me he would have said “don’t do ________.”

One clarification here: Obedience is not in question. When God makes commands, we as Christians must “serve the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:2). But we are not obligated in any way to submit to man-made additions to God’s commands. That is the difference between obeying God and legalism. (see the Westminster Confession Chapter 20)

5. Legalism Breaks the Greatest Commandment

Legalism uses obedience to “earn, maintain, or improve our standing with God.” When we do this we break what Jesus called the “greatest commandment:” to LOVE the Lord your God. Instead of fueling love for God, legalism becomes a way of trying to manipulate God and put him in our debt. This is why you will never see joy in a legalistic environment. Legalist aren’t gazing properly at God to derive the joy that comes from truly knowing him. Instead, legalism takes our eyes off of the greatness of God and tries to get God to look at our perceived greatness.

6. Legalism Breaks the Second Greatest Commandment

Finally, Legalism “imposes itself on others and judges others” by its non-biblical standard. Thus, legalism not only affects things on a vertical level, it also affects things on a horizontal level by breaking the seconds greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor.” Legalism makes us think we are superior to our neighbor because we have reached heights of holiness that they can only dream about. In this state of mind, instead of coming underneath our neighbor and serving them, we stand over our neighbor and judge them for not being like us. That is why you will never see genuine community in a legalistic environment. The only “community” will be cliques that are formed by groups who share the same legalistic tendencies.

“For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1). Legalism is the lethal enemy that wants to put a stop to that. The more we know what it is, the more equipped we are to shoot it on sight.

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