Legalism. Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s bad. And in a world where Christians seem to disagree over basically everything, that’s saying something.
Even so, if you asked the average Christian to define legalism, the answers may not come so quickly. What exactly counts as legalism? How do we know it when we see it? The confusion is exacerbated by the fact that the term can be used in different ways. People can use the same word but infuse it with very different meanings.
In hopes of dissipating a little of the fogginess, here’s a breakdown of different ways to understand legalism.
Legalism and Salvation
Let’s begin with the most obvious meaning of legalism. At its core, legalism is when we base our justification on our own law-keeping rather than on the finished work of Christ. If we depend on our own merits, our own efforts, even our own rituals, to make us acceptable before a holy God, then we have become legalists.
In short, legalism is salvation by works. We will call this salvation-legalism.
It is precisely this sort of legalism that Paul was fighting in the letter to the Galatians. Indeed, Paul was clear that the Galatians, having been deceived by the “Judaizers,” had embraced another gospel altogether: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ are are turning to a different gospel” (1:6).
Of course, this is why the real gospel—that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—is such good news. In this gospel, we are freed from the heavy yoke of works-righteousness.
Legalism and Rules
But there are other ways to define legalism. Another form of legalism is also common in Scripture, namely when believers are told they must follow man-made rules rather than (or alongside) God’s rules. Our fallen human natures not only tend to resist God’s law, but we have a propensity to make our own laws.
In short, legalism is when you add to God’s word. We will call this rules-legalism.
Paul was also very aware this form of legalism. In Romans 14, he wanted to make sure that Christians were not judging each other over “disputable matters.” Some Christians ate meat, other didn’t (v. 2). Some Christians followed certain holy days, others didn’t (v.5). Some Christians drank wine, others didn’t (v. 21).
And Paul is very plain that we should not “pass judgment” (v.3) on our fellow believer over such matters. Our conscience is bound only to God’s word, not to man’s private opinion.
Of course, this is exactly the kind of legalism that defined the ministry of the Pharisees. They were masters of adding to God’s word. So much so, that Jesus rebukes them: “You hypocrites . . . you leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6-8).
It’s important to distinguish this kind of legalism from the one above. Many Christians are quick to add man-made rules to their faith, though far fewer would think they must keep them to be saved. That means a person can reject salvation-legalism but still be holding to rules-legalism.
Why would a person do this? Why are people so prone to rules-legalism? Because it gives us a way to feel better about ourselves. Notice that whenever we add a rule to the Christian faith, it just happens to be the rule we prefer and the rule we are keeping. And this allows us to be part of the “in” group, and to view others as part of the “out” group.
And that is the definition of sinful judging. There’s a right form of “judging” where we distinguish between right and wrong (contrary to what the world thinks). But, biblically speaking, sinful judging is when we tell someone their behavior is wrong, when it is not really wrong (Rom 14:3).
We should also observe that some leaders prefer rules-legalism for another reason: it’s a form of control. It’s a way to manage the behavior of others, by accusing them of breaking rules (even if they didn’t know they were rules) and shaming them for doing so. Such behavior puts the average church member on edge, making them more compliant and more willing to follow that leader in the future.
Here is where we see the importance of doctrines like sola Scriptura. In effect, that doctrine protects our Christian liberty. Only God’s word can bind our conscience, not man-made laws.
J. Gresham Machen put it well, “Dependence upon a word of man would be slavish, but dependence upon God’s Word is life…The Bible to the Christian is not a burdensome law, but the very Magna Carta of Christian liberty.”
Legalism and Tone
The final kind of legalism I will mention here (and there are others), is more difficult to pin down, but still very real. It is a legalism of spirit, rather than a legalism of doctrine.
We have all encountered pastors, leaders, and ministries that plainly affirm salvation by grace and plainly reject man-made laws. On paper, they are orthodox. And yet, their ministries are marked by a heavy-handed, crushing, and even oppressive focus on law-keeping. They lead through fault-finding.
People in such churches often feel watched, criticized, picked apart, and even fearful of stepping out of line.
In short, this sort of legalism is an imbalanced focus on the Law. It is legalism in tone. So, we can call this tone-legalism.
Needless to say, tone-legalism is the most difficult type of legalism to identify. Often those who engage in this sort of legalism will defend their ministries on the grounds that, “I am just pointing out people’s sin.” It is legalism cloaked in orthodoxy.
Of course, it is true that there’s a place for pointing out people’s sin. And it is also true that God cares very much about Christian obedience. But the people in these churches know there’s something amiss, even if they may not be able to fully articulate it.
Sadly, some Christians don’t even realize how distorted their experience is until they leave and join a church that has a balanced and joyful focus on the gospel. Looking back, all they might be able to say is, “That church was legalistic,” not realizing that they are dealing with tone-legalism.
Concern over tone-legalism might explain why we have so many exhortations for pastors to be gentle with their flocks and not domineering (1 Tim 3:3; 1 Pet 5:3; Matt 20:25). Our ministries should not be defined by our “cracking the whip,” but by patient, gentle shepherding.
In sum, legalism is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. And understanding the nuances of the term can help us navigate conversations and theological discussions. The next time a person says, “That’s legalism,” you can begin by asking them which definition they are using.