The Danger of Legalism in Reformed Circles

Bill Baldwin-9-25-97

I knew a pastor who was frequently accused of legalism. He laughed off the charge and offered a definition of legalism that didn't implicate him. What a tragedy. And yet how typical of the Reformed community today. Charged with legalism again and again, we fail to investigate the charge. "We're just being precise and serious about the call to good works," we say. And who but an antinomian-one who believes God's grace does away with any call to good works-would object to that?

This is a serious call to rethink that attitude and re-discover the Reformational truth, the Scriptural truth, that we can offer nothing to God but must by faith receive everything from his hand. In particular, this is a plea to Reformed preachers to understand that the gospel is the power of God to salvation. The Law is impotent. And that doesn't just mean impotent with regard to justification. Paul died to the Law that he might live by faith in the Son of God. So must we. So must our congregations.

When Paul wants the Galatians to understand the sinfulness of legalism, he takes them to the Law so they may understand its nature and their freedom from it. When he wants the Corinthians to understand the sinfulness of antinomianism, he doesn't take them to the Law. That's what a legalist (like one of the Galatians) would do. That's also what too many in the Reformed church would do. Paul does something entirely different: He takes them to Christ, the power and wisdom of God, and to the message of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5). He pleads with them on the basis of their new identity in Christ to purge out the old leaven of sin (5:1-8) and to flee adultery and fornication since that would join Christ to a harlot (6:15ff.). And he over and over encourages them not to abuse their freedom by sinning or causing one another to stumble (6:12-14; 8:1-13; 10:23-32). He urges them to love one another (ch. 13) and to believe and hope in the resurrection at the last day (ch. 15).

What modern Reformed theologian would pursue an antinomian this way? Would we not rather beat him into submission with the Law and shape him up by that method? Even now, thinking about this, we are squeamish and reluctant to go "too far" in understanding our freedom from the Law. To say we are "no longer slaves" to the Law makes us uncomfortable, even though the sentiment is taken directly from Paul (Galatians 4:7). "What if we take that concept too far?" we whimper. And so we take it not nearly far enough. It is well and good for Paul to use such radical language; we must be more prudent.

If we actually followed that radical language, and preached it with the sort of fervor that attends Paul's mighty words, what would happen? Wouldn't the people of God overreact and sin that grace may increase? Thus we cheat one another of the full declaration of God's grace for the same reason the Catholic church denied justification by faith alone and suggested that assurance of salvation wasn't a good thing either: If you already know you're saved-and that apart from your effort-what incentive is there to work? We deny this reasoning with respect to justification and smuggle it in the back door as a goad to sanctification. We might as well go back to Rome.

To compound the problem, legalism is a sin almost no one admits to committing. I have observed this truth, at times with amazement. Remember the pastor mentioned in the first paragraph. He was so used to being accused of legalism that he had a definition of legalism always ready. As soon as he was accused, he recited his definition. Needless to say, by his definition he was not a legalist. It never occurred to him to ask whether the constant accusations had merit. In a similar vein I once watched two pastors agreeing that legalism was a common accusation from those who heard their sermons. The shared assumption was that they weren't legalistic, so it mystified them that this charge should so frequently arise.

And when a pastor preaches against legalism, he will almost certainly ruffle feathers in a Reformed congregation. "It sounds as though you're accusing us of legalism," is the common, wounded reply. Indeed. Yet the pastor also accuses his congregation of antinomianism, pleading with them not to exploit the grace of God by relaxing their vigilance against sin. This directive is always warmly received. And it is genuinely received. The Reformed hearer is not saying, "Preach it brother! The person sitting next to me needs to hear it!" No, he sits there realizing he needs to hear this. He is convicted of his sin and seeks afresh the power of God's Spirit to turn him from it. It's as though we're always willing to admit we've broken the Law, but never that we've become re-enslaved to it.

And this is particularly troublesome. In the light of Paul's teaching, legalism is the worse sin. Compare his reaction to the Galatians (legalists) and the Corinthians (antinomians). With the Corinthians he is quite upset, sarcastic even. But still, he calls them "saints" and thanks God for them in his first breath (1 Corinthians 1:1-6). To the Galatians he wishes grace and peace and then immediately takes them to task in the strongest possible language: "I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel" (Galatians 1:6). He believes the Galatians are in much graver danger and therefore in need of the stronger rebuke.

We wrongly think the answer lies in some sort of "balance." But balance between what-antinomianism and legalism? God forbid! Surely we can arrive at a better solution than becoming antinomians with legalist tendencies or legalists with hidden antinomianisms. A balance between grace and works, perhaps? If we emphasize works too much, people won't realize the importance of grace. But if we over-emphasize grace, there'll be no incentive to work. Again, surely we can find a better solution.

Bear with me in a little foolishness when I say that perhaps the first step is admitting there's a problem. 12-step programs and support groups are far from my cup of tea. But it might be worth your while to look in the mirror and take a deep breath and actually say it. My name is Bill and I have a problem with legalism. If you can't admit this, the problem is deeply rooted. Think about it: Which is more likely? 1) Of the two major categories of sin, legalism and antinomianism, your sins are only in one? 2) Your problem with legalism is demonstrated by your inability to see you have a problem. If this ruffles your feathers, ask yourself why. Have you been vigilant against legalism? Have you been rooting it out by faith and the gospel at every opportunity? When was the last time you confessed your legalism to God? When was the last time you thought of yourself as "free from the Law" without adding an entire list of things that phrase doesn't mean (with the result that you spend almost no time thinking about what it does)? What biblical steps have you taken to rid yourself of legalism (and how do you know they're biblical)? If you've never given much attention to these questions and this problem, is it because you're really not very legalistic? Think sanely for a moment: how likely is that? How likely is it that in an area where you haven't been vigilant, sin has nevertheless failed to seize the opportunity and creep in?

A Reformed article I read a year ago spoke, in passing, of the great errors of our time, mentioning Arminianism, Dispensationalism, and antinomianism by name. It didn't mention legalism. Is it even possible that this is because there isn't much of a problem with legalism today? On the contrary, I believe this omission represents a dangerous blind spot shared by the majority of Reformed Christians. The Reformed church today barely talks about legalism. All of our efforts are directed toward stamping out antinomianism. Again, is it even possible that with such a posture on our part, legalism has failed to creep in? I think not. Wake up and smell the Galatian danger! Identify where the legalism has come in. And act quickly and decisively against it by promoting a right understanding of the gospel and thus proclaiming our freedom from the Law. When we can do this without squeamishness but rather with the vigor and boldness of Paul, then we will by grace have cast off our shackles and become God's freemen again.

I say all this as a Pastor, almost by way of apology, knowing I have not been as bold as I should be in declaring my congregation's freedom from the Law. My heart thrills to read Paul's radical language. But I fear that if I use such language I will be accused of antinomianism. Too often I chicken out. I also need to repent of legalism and to root it out at its first appearance. To that end I have provided a definition of legalism below that will, I hope, make it easier to identify the danger. But beware! Do not become legalistic in your rooting out of legalism. Merely identifying legalism gives you no power to combat it. That comes from faith alone, and, hence, from the preaching of Christ, the use of the sacraments, and prayer.


A Definition of Legalism

  1. Using the Mosaic covenant as though it is the covenant between you and God.
  2. Attempting to be justified by one's own works.
  3. Attempting to be sanctified by one's own works
  4. Suggesting that our worth or worthlessness, our self-esteem and self-satisfaction or lack thereof, rest on our own works.
  5. Any attempt to please God judicially, or any supposition that our sin as believers has resulted in his judicial displeasure.
  6. Teaching that we conform ourselves to our judicial standing in Christ (righteous and perfect) by our own works.
  7. Attempting to attain godliness by a systematic change of behavior
  8. Obedience that does not spring from a renewed heart
    1. As of an unbeliever who has no renewed heart
    2. As of a believer who has a renewed heart but whose righteous behavior does not spring therefrom.
  9. Any supposition that externally righteous acts have any value on their own, even as conduct that prepares the way for either
    1. A renewed heart (preparationism as regards justification),
    2. The softening or further renewing of an already renewed heart (preparationism as regards sanctification. Note Romans 12:2-Transformation occurs through the renewing of the mind), or
    3. Any other work of the Spirit.
  10. Suggesting that faith is irrelevant in the accomplishment of some (or all) good works.
  11. Trying to be justified by works that are created and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
  12. Attempting to gain assurance of salvation solely or primarily on the basis of the sign of outward works


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