A Subtle Enslavement

It has not been uncommon, when disagreements among Christians arise, to hear someone accuse someone else of legalism. Of course, no one thinks that they’re a legalist; and, when the charge of legalism is leveled it is rarely accurate. However, legalism is a significant problem to be identified, avoided, and repented of when it is a reality in our lives. So what is legalism? And why is it so destructive?

In Galatians 2:15-21, the Apostle Paul began to deal with the legalistic teaching that was terrorizing the church at Galatia. A group of false brethren called "Judaizers" traveled from Jerusalem to tell new Christian converts that in order to be fully accepted by God they had to not only have faith in Christ, they also had to practice circumcision and the Old Covenant Law. It was a denial of justification by faith alone and Paul recognized it as a denial of the one true Gospel for all men. He wrote:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

Paul went on in chapter 3 to further repudiate the false teaching of the Judaizers when he reminded the Galatians that if they wanted their standing before God to be marked by personal obedience to works of the Law, the requirement is perfection. If they fail to measure up to that requirement they are under a curse (Galatians 3:10). Later Paul makes his point even stronger: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (Galatians 5:1-2). Grace does not accompany us on a walk down the path of legalism (Galatians 5:4). The gospel is at stake, and a right use of the law is denigrated.

At the heart of legalism is an attempt to win God’s favor apart from the finished and sufficient work of Christ on behalf of sinners. When Christians fall into legalistic practices the intentions are usually genuine and the desire admirable; however, the end result is the rotten fruit of self-justification. I have yet to met a Christian who has consciously assumed they were seeking to earn God’s favor or who thought they were attempting to keep their salvation through works of the law; yet it’s in the way they speak of God and in the way they go about supposedly serving Christ. A legal heart continuously produces bad fruit that is the antithesis of the fruit of the Spirit. A legal heart is easily aroused to anger, is bitter when others do not conform, and is always discontent and restless. A legal heart never has assurance of God’s love. A legal heart constantly compares itself with others: “As long as I am better than…”

The grossest, most blatant forms of legalism are usually easily identified. Blatant legalism not only implies but most often clearly states that grace will not save a person from the just penalty of their sin; it insists that, at best, grace will help someone get over the final hump after they’ve done all they can do for God. Do as much as you can, work as hard as you can work, go as fast as you can go, and then grace will carry you over the top. In other words, those wonderful words of Jesus, “It is finished!” don’t really mean finished in the realm of redemption to a legalist; they understand it to mean that Jesus did his part and now it’s your turn. Such blatant forms of legalism spring up from the hearts of those who are most like the Pharisees and are not only wrong, but damning and heretical (Galatians 1:9).

More properly, it is subtle forms of legalism that plague genuine Christians. Surely a right understanding of the third use of the law is imperative if Christians are to live in a way that pleases God. His law is necessary for us to know what obedience He requires of us, and by what means we are being made holy in our sanctification. The answer to legalism is never Antinomianism. However, the battle with legalism enters the fray when we, in an attempt to rightly use God’s law, go beyond the bounds of it to ensure we are keeping it as a means to earn God’s favor and secure or sustain our salvation. We can easily slide into a "legal sanctification." In fact, this is what Paul seems to intimate happened in Galatia when he said, "having begun in the Spirit are you now being made perfect in the flesh" (Gal. 3:4). If God has become your ever-disappointed taskmaster, it is very likely that salvation, in your mind, is up to you. Do not abandon the law of God, but make sure you understand it and know how to rightly apply it. After all, it’s not as if a Christian can obey God too much, nevertheless we must assure we’re actually obeying God and not man.

Evaluating Our Hearts

1. On what ground will you stand before God the Father on the Day of Judgment?

Your good will not outweigh your bad, nor will your aisle walking, baptism, or church membership stand for much. The truth is, we are saved by works, but not our own. Are you truly resting in the finished work of Jesus Christ on your behalf as sufficient and final for your salvation, or are you seeing justification in your own efforts? Francis Turretin summed this all up by drawing out the difference between resting in the righteousness we have from Christ by imputation in justification with resting in the righteousness we have from Christ by impartation in sanctification when he wrote:

I truly think it to be said piously and religiously that we ought to rest as upon a stable thing, which can certainly sustain us, upon the righteousness of Christ bestowed upon us, and not upon the holiness and grace inherent in us. For this, our righteousness, is inchoate and imperfect which cannot keep us from offending and from constantly sinning in many things. Therefore we cannot in the sight of God on account of this our righteousness be esteemed righteous and good as it becomes the sons of God to be good and holy. But the righteousness of Christ given to us is a true and perfect righteousness. It is altogether pleasing in the sight of God. In it there if nothing that offends Him; that does not in the highest degree please Him. We must therefore rest upon this alone (sure and stable) and on account of it alone we must believe that we are justified before God, that is, counted righteous and called righteous. (Institutes 16.2.18)

2. What is the evidence of a life free of legalism?

When God saves sinners, He replaces old self-exalting, self-glorifying, self-justifying hearts with new hearts that love His law and seek to obey Him, not as a means of salvation, but as a thankful overflow of what has been accomplished on behalf of sinners in the law-fulfilling life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Christians who live free of legalism will put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice and will be “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

3. What is the cure for legalism?

Rediscover the amazing grace of God. Turn to God’s Word and be reminded of your unworthiness, that while you were still a sinner, Christ died for you (Romans 5:1-11). All the inclinations of your heart were set against God, and yet He saw fit in Christ, to make you His own and set you free from the bondage of sin and death. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). 


Further Resources

John Colquhoun A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel

Walter Marshall The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification 

Edward Fisher The Marrow of Modern Divinity (with Thomas Boston's Notes, and Intro by Phil Ryken)

Sinclair Ferguson "Slavery or Sonship"

Nick Batzig "6 Subtle Ways to Hold on to Self-Righteousness"


Nick Kennicott is the pastor of Ephesus Church, a Reformed Baptist Church, in Rincon, GA. He blogs at the Decablog. You can follow Nick on Twitter @kennicon.