Legalism’s Place in Christianity

In response to another post, Jared said:

Regarding legalism- What some Evangelicals don’t seem to get is that, Legalism, per se, is not bad for spirituality, it absolutely can foster it and keep people in a life that will allow for it. A pre-occupation with legalism may damage it, but so will a pre-occupation against legalism.

There is plenty in the New Testament supporting a lifestyle guided by strict rules. Denying this seems like over-reading Paul and under-reading Matthew and James. Wilder rejoices in the freedom from the “chains” of legalism while others rejoice in the structure and freedom they get from having “standards” that press them into being better people. It strikes me as naive and self-serving to attack either position because you didn’t like the way it worked in your life.

These comments immediately caused a reaction in me.  I knew I wanted to respond but I also knew that I wanted to give a quality response and not shoot from the hip.  The reason: I think Jared is wrong about the usefulness of legalism in Christianity.

Christianity certainly holds its disciples to a set of lifestyle standards.  There is no doubt about that.  One such list of practices Christians are to have nothing to do with is found in Romans 1:29-31. Christians are contrasted against people who are “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless“.  Paul (who Jared thinks may not say enough about Christian behavior) tells the Christians in Corinth to expel an immoral brother and not even eat with him (I Corinthians 5).

While disciples of Christ have the character of Jesus to emulate and live up to, and this requires discipline.  It doesn’t happen automatically.  The question is how to make it happen.

I think Jared is right that legalism is pragmatically useful in getting people to conform to a strict social order.  It works wherever it is tried as long as the participants are willing and/or motivated by the right level of fear.  But I don’t believe it is what Jesus calls his followers to practice.  It delivers a similarly styled product but fails to produce the authentic version which offers freedom and a “light-yoke” which Jesus promises for his followers.  Legalism works in religion, but it fails in cleaning the inside of th cup and getting to know the true heart of God.  For this reason I think it is the absolute worst thing for spirituality.

Jesus’ harshest words were for the Pharisees, religious and righteous men.  Jesus said in Matthew 5: 20 “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  In speaking these words, he was not saying the Pharisees were not righteously following the law.  Instead he was piggy-backing off of their well-known righteousness to explain that legalism had taken them as far as it could and it still left them short.  If that’s all Jesus had said on the matter, it’s quite a hopeless message.  It says “despite the Pharisees notoriety for following the law, you have no hope unless you can do better”.  No one could do better than the Pharisees and his audience knew it.

But Jesus didn’t just stop at legalisms inadequacies.  He took it further and showed that it produced something quite ugly.  Check out Matthew 23.  Jesus calls the legalists blind, vipers, whitewashed tombs full of bones, hypocrites, greedy, self-indulgent and accuses them of tying up heavy loads and placing them on other men’s shoulders. (Someone really needs to get a hold of Jesus and tell him not to be so critical, it’s really not the way a Christian should behave).   I have a history as a Christian legalist and they’re exactly as Jesus describes. If anything, from reading the life of Jesus, I get the idea that he was against religious legalism, so it makes no sense to me to hear his adherents proposing a new form of legalism.

Galatians 6:1 says this: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. I highlighted the words “restore” and “gently” because I don’t think legalism can accomplish either of them. So how do we go about generating the kind of character in Christians that they are called to?

I recently finished reading Dallas Willard’s latest, Knowing Christ Today.  In it he posits that Judaism uniquely offered the world justice and Christianity uniquely offered the world agape, love that unselfishly seeks the best for others.  Only through agape and grace can we gently restore other people.

I think the books of Galatians has so much more to say about this.  I can’t recommend reading the whole thing in one sitting highly enough.  Try reading it in a different translation to give yourself fresh eyes. Here’s a small sampling:

Galatians 3:1-5
You foolish Galatians! . . . Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? . . . are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? . . . Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

Galatians 5:1
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:13
You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.

How we take on the character of Christ individually is to give up our list of rules and instead focus on our heart.  Through discipline and prayer, we develop a heart for others that genuninely seeks their good.  Without a list for ourselves, we can’t impose one on other people.  Instead all we have left to give is a heart full of agape.

47 thoughts on “Legalism’s Place in Christianity

  1. Okay, I will shoot from the hip 😉

    Just a couple of thoughts:

    First: the people rejoiced when God gave the law to Moses, which was in a sense the first step of “legalism.” The commentary on this would be that the people were happy because they knew what God expected.

    Second: true that Jesus did not stop at legalism’s inadequacies, in fact he went miles past it. He basically tells us in Matthew 5 that we are all essentially murderers and adulterers because it is more important to be concerned about the condition of a person’s heart.

    Excellent thoughts. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Tim –

    “…for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

    Is it legalistic to acknowledge when I sin and seek to overcome those sins by not committing them anymore? (granted I’ll fail much of the time, but that’s my goal)

    I have trouble knowing where discipleship ends and legalism begins when people condemn legalism. Jesus specifically admonished the Jews to follow what the scribes and Pharisees told them to do (Matt. 23:3). Is that legalistic?

    Is any list of do’s and don’t’s legalistic? Why is or isn’t Romans 1:29-31 legalistic?

    Sorry for multiple questions but I really am confused about whether I should give any credence to anti-legalism arguments.

  3. I read Galatians through once last night (when I was supposed to be doing other things) and again this morning (when I could devote my full attention to it). Good stuff! I’m glad I read it. Among other things that aren’t relevant to the topic, I had forgotten how harshly Paul had spoken about Peter (basically calling him a hypocrite). I can’t accuse Paul of mincing words.

    I think it’s important to know a little bit about the context here. There were two huge factions within Christianity at the time: those (such as Peter) who believed that to become a Christian you first had to become a Jew, which included being circumcised if you were a male (and some people think the requirements for entry into the LDS church are painful); and those (such as Paul) who didn’t believe one had to first become a Jew. So when Paul is talking about “the law” throughout this letter, he’s talking about Jewish law, Old Testament law. He isn’t saying there are no rules or advocating antinomianism.

    While I don’t see Galatians as focusing much on legalism per se outside the context of Old Testament law, certainly the principles Paul taught about what has power to save us remain applicable. Probably the key verses to this letter can be found in chapter 5:

    … the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

    And lest anyone assume that Paul’s emphasis on freedom suggests that it’s OK to sin, that there is nothing that is prohibited, Paul has a warning:

    Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

    Neither is Paul suggesting that what we do doesn’t matter:

    Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.

    (All Biblical quotations from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

    I agree pretty much with what Tim said above: Paul in this letter is calling us to a life of freedom, not bondage. Freedom isn’t licentiousness, but the God-given ability to follow the Spirit, to do what is right and to seek good for all people. Paul’s words are powerful stuff.

  4. Tomchik — I think it would be helpful if Tim defines what he means by legalism. I’m pretty sure I know what he means, partly because I grew up in a church with similarities to the one he grew up in, but not quite that bad. It’s a word that is used much more in evangelicalism than in Mormonism, so I don’t think you’re understanding it correctly.

  5. Second: true that Jesus did not stop at legalism’s inadequacies, in fact he went miles past it. He basically tells us in Matthew 5 that we are all essentially murderers and adulterers because it is more important to be concerned about the condition of a person’s heart.

    I’d like to cut something off at the pass (which Aaron probably wasn’t saying).

    Jesus wasn’t ADDING thought-crimes to the law (and thus making the law even harder to follow). He was pointing out that the law, even if it is perfectly followed can’t stop thought-crimes. There has to be something different in the person’s heart that can accomplish cleaning the inside and the outside.

  6. Here are the definitions

    1. strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, esp. to the letter rather than the spirit.
    2. Theology.
    a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
    b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.

    The letter rather than the spirit is a good phrase to key in on.

    How I see it played out is through oppressive people who have more concern for the law being followed than for the person breaking the law. Highly judgemental over minor infractions, a lack of grace and reconciliation, greater emotion in forbidding law-breaking than in joy for repentance, an attitude that people were made for the law rather than the law being made for people, strict conformity to outward appearance, concern for the outside of the cup rather than the inside.

    And less anyone thing I’m drawing from observations of Mormonism, I’m drawing from my own past. I specifically saw this in where and why a person would shop or work on Sunday, what was worn to church, how worship was conducted, prohibition on cards, tobacco, secular music or alcohol being used for any reason, church attendance, Saturday night activity in preparation for church attendance, movement that may be construed as dance, length of sleeve, and absolutely no movie theater attendance. (I worked at Blockbuster for a while and there was concern about what type of people I was encountering there).

  7. Eric,

    If the dispute in Antioch that Paul is referring to in Gal 2:11-14 is the same as the one Luke referred to in Acts 15:1 and 2 then it occurred after Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-26 and his meeting with Cornelius in Acts 10:34 and his understanding of the universal nature of the call to Christ in Acts 10:47ff.

    I only mention this because I do not think that the text supports the conclusion that Peter was a member of the circumcision party after his encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10 and that his (Peter’s) drawing back and separating himself (Gal 2:12, 13) was an act of hypocrisy precisely because of the presence of other Jews and not because of a belief in the necessity of the ritual requirements of the Mosaic Law.

  8. Jack — I’ve had too much of my writing ripped off (and therefore a certain amount of my income stolen) by those who ignore the copyright law (or are too stupid to know what it is) to not be sensitive to the rights of copyright holders. So if I use more than a verse or two of a non-public-domain translation (which I can do freely under the “fair use” provision provided I give credit), I have no problem complying with the copyright holder’s requirements, no matter how dorky they may appear.

    For what it’s worth, I was going to use the the public-domain WEB. But it uses noninclusive language (“whatever a man sows, that he will also reap”), and I figured you wouldn’t appreciate it.

    Now back to the topic …

  9. Gundek — You may be right about the timing issue. Some commentaries I’ve read say that Paul is referring to the Council at Jerusam of A.D. 50, and others don’t. There also could be some conflation at play. I don’t really know. It probably doesn’t matter for the purposes of my comments on the letter as a whole.

  10. Tim, I’m still confused. My understanding is that to follow the spirit of the law one must also follow the letter of the law.

    Is Romans 1:29-31 legalistic?
    Is Jesus’ command in Matt. 23:3 legalistic?
    Am I imposing legalism on myself if the Spirit convicts me that a certain behavior is evil and I strive to abandon that behavior (keep in mind that in my attempts I would be praying for Christ’s grace and forgiveness)?
    Can encouraging discipleship become legalism?

  11. Tom,

    What I am saying is that legalism and grace-infused discipleship MAY both produce the same exact behaviors from people.

    What I am getting at is that there is something much deeper than behavior that we are to strive for. Legalism not only fails to hit the mark, it produces bad fruit.

    YES absolutely, Christians have moral standards to live up to. But Christianity is much more profound than the moral standards it espouses. Christians are not to be know for how they avoid sin, but rather for how they agape.

  12. Eric ~ Dorky isn’t the word I was thinking of. More like quirky. I don’t see anything wrong with taking copyright seriously, it’s just unusual—and kind of an ironic aside for a thread about legalism. 🙂

    I’m delighted that you went out of your way to use a gender-inclusive translation just for me, but you don’t have to worry about it too much if you don’t want to. The most popular translations out there aren’t gender-inclusive, and I’ve long used the NIV and ESV myself, so I’m used to them. Though I think the ESV and I are heading for a break-up (future blog post title, “Dear ESV: It’s Not Me, It’s You”).

  13. I think its kindof funny, and very ironic that I have become the posterboy for legalism in this post.

    Trust me, if I was banking on my adherence to the rules for my salvation I would be much more pessimistic than I am.

    I think my original comment was a reaction to the idea seemingly posed by McCraney and Wilder that our own efforts to adhere to guidelines, rules and laws are not considered or part of the process. I think there is a balance, there is something that can discipline you when you are immersed in rules and there are things that crush you. I know, I spent my first two years of college at West Point. I think that the issue is knowing what the rules are for rather than focusing on the rules. The rules are a crutch, but sometimes a very useful one, Especially for our children and the child in us. Pharisaic proliferation of rules is contagious, but sometimes its good to have guidelines and practices to hold on to.

    I agree with Tim though that Christianity holds the promise of purification without focus on rules, but simply focusing on the Spirit of God.

  14. Better put, If you have Love, the rules will be kept without you trying to keep them, and many rules will become hollow. I think this is what Jesus taught in many instances.

    All you need is Love and God will give you the love you need if you want it.

    Moroni 7.

  15. Legalism for righteousness sake=bad

    Legalism for good order in the church, and for civil obedience = good

    Theologically, the law always demands, always accusses.It kills.

    The gospel always forgives. Always makes ‘new’. It gives life.

  16. Eric,

    I have read views that Galations is dated well past the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council but I don’t recall reading the view that Paul may have been referring directly to it in Gal 2. Can you point me to writers who hold this position? I am intrigued.

    I think that it matters in why Paul would refer to Peter in this context. Is he condemning Peter for keeping the ceremonial law for righteousness or is he condemning Peter for a hypocritical keeping up of appearances in front of the Jews from James. I also think that this passage goes far in showing us that Paul is not only looking at the ceremonial law when he refers to works of the law but to any work of the law that would earn righteousness.

    I hesitate to comment further because I am not sure how everybody is using the term legalism but we should never for get that the law serves the purposes of driving us to Christ and showing us what is pleasing to God.

  17. Gundek — I’ll see what I can find out, but it’ll probably be tomorrow. There’s also the possibility that I’m way off base here and am getting my facts all twisted by relying on mixed-up memories, so if I conclude that I’ll let you know too.

  18. Eric,

    Take your time,

    I am always interested in New Testament time lines. It comes from reading history I am always trying to place a date on things in order to see what else is going on at the same time.

    To be honest it was reading on the 30 years war and Gustavus Adolphus in particular that got me reading theology, trying to better understand that conflict.

  19. I think its kindof funny, and very ironic that I have become the posterboy for legalism in this post.

    It’s not ironic or funny at all. You’re a Mormon in conversation with Evangelicals. You may be relatively non-legalistic for a Mormon, but that’s not saying much.

  20. Seriously, how in the world do you guys know anything about how “legalistic” I am. . . . Unbelievably presumptuous.

  21. We just know something about Mormon theology and the legalism within that religious system.

    You can’t really be free and be a Mormon in good standing.

    You can’t drink alcohol, smoke, drink caffinated drinks.

    You might not be a legalist at heart, but you are part of a legalistic religion…hence the ‘that’s not saying much’ remark and affirmation by me.

  22. OldAdam – Sure some Mormons are keen on focusing on rules, but Joseph Smith was, in some ways, the opposite of legalistic. So don’t presume you know so much about the Mormon faith as a whole.

  23. Theoldadam said:

    You can’t really be free and be a Mormon in good standing.


    The more you write, the more you lose any credibility you had as someone who knows anything about the Church.

    Like Jared C said, you’re being awfully presumptuous.

    He also said:

    You can’t drink alcohol, smoke, drink caffinated drinks.

    Who is there to stop me? I’m a legal adult by quite a few years.

    And, for what it’s worth, I am sipping a caffeinated drink as I write this. It’s true that I do choose not to drink alcohol or use tobacco. I’m free to do otherwise if I wish.

  24. You can’t really be free and be a Mormon in good standing.

    You can’t drink alcohol, smoke, drink caffinated drinks.

    Can you murder, blaspheme, or fornicate?

  25. “Can you murder, blaspheme, or fornicate?”

    If the Spirit directs. . . sure.

    Nephi Murdered

    Joseph, for all intents and purposes, “fornicated”

    Don’t have an example of Spirit-directed blasphemy yet.

  26. If the Spirit directs. . . sure.

    I think he was asking theoldadam.

    And for the record I prefer pure liquefied caffeine on an IV drip.

  27. To the point of the original post.

    I think my post on the “new life” addresses some of Tim’s concern over legalism in Mormonism-

    The “New Life” as described by LDS scripture is not achieved through adherence to rules, it comes spiritually from without.

    Given Tim’s experience with legalism within “traditional” Christianity, its hard to say that “legalism” is any more a part of Mormonism than it is a part of “orthodox” religion. Its hard to say that the percentage of legalistic Mormons is higher than the percentage of legalistic Protestants.

    There are whole sects of devout Lutherans that have more extreme “rules” than Mormons do, its the same in many other denominations.


    If you are interested in understanding where Mormons are coming from, and not just trying to tell us where they are wrong its probably worth paying less attention to stereotypes and caricatures. (I was a bit surprised at Kullervo for arguing based on them.) You generally come across as somebody who thinks he has it all figured out, but you are rarely convincing to the rest of us. If you don’t see any value in understanding where Mormons are coming from, and understanding the religion from the perspective of a believer I can’t see others are going to return the favor.

  28. Mephibosheth,

    I get that. I just took the opportunity to point out the extreme anti-legalistic strain within Mormonism.

  29. I was a bit surprised at Kullervo for arguing based on them.

    Really? I’m pretty open about being the official peanut gallery here.

  30. Jared C said:

    Given Tim’s experience with legalism within “traditional” Christianity, its hard to say that “legalism” is any more a part of Mormonism than it is a part of “orthodox” religion. Its hard to say that the percentage of legalistic Mormons is higher than the percentage of legalistic Protestants.

    Within evangelicalism, it varies quite a bit from denomination, and even from church to church (or pastor to pastor).

    Judged on my personal experience, though, I’d say that legalism is much less of a problem today in evangelicalism than it was a generation ago (when I was immersed in it). And in my opinion, there are many things going on in the LDS church that encourage legalism; from what I’ve seen, there’s less of that going on in many (but not all) strains of evangelicalism.

    In might even be argued that some types of evangelicalism have gone too far in the other direction. When I read about evangelical youth groups sponsoring parties where they play extremely violent video games, for example, I have to wonder if some evangelical attempts to “speak to the culture” have led to a watered-down message about what it means to be a follower of Christ.

    It seems like a good share of the discussions going on in the bloggernacle have to do with legalistic tendencies in the LDS church. I think we’re kidding ourselves if we say it’s not a serious problem in at least parts of the church. I don’t think the fact that few/some/many/most/whatever evangelicals have problems with legalism make it any more excusable.

  31. I don’t think the fact that few/some/many/most/whatever evangelicals have problems with legalism make it any more excusable.

    Exactly, I don’t think the “…but you guys do it too!” argument is particularly useful.

  32. Katie,
    Haven’t you ever heard the proverb, “Physician heal thyself?”
    Or the one, “S/He that is without sin, cast the first stone”

    Once they’ve come to a unity on the faith on this, maybe it’ll be easier to listenn to them.

  33. I’m pretty sure that legalism also entails believing that you can attain some higher position (in Heaven, or planets, or whatever) by ‘being better than others’.

    Some Christians believe in that theology (I guess they don’t account for motives).

    Not saying that anyone here believes that.

    But I’d bet that more than a few Mormons think that way, too.

  34. There is nothing I know of in Mormon thought that says God rewards being “better than others”

    Only that you reap what you sow, that obedience brings blessings, that God rewards us according to our works

    As the Bible says:

    Matt 16:27 For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.

    (I am going to avoid the temptation to go all Rick Hurd and quote a dozen other scriptures in the NT that say the same thing)

    This has nothing to with relative goodness as you suggest. God could care less if you are better than somebody else, but there are natural consequences for disobedience to the law and natural rewards for obedience. This is the core of Mormon idea about obedience to the law. God’s law is given to show us the way to becoming like Him. The key is, God will both forgive us of our breaches AND give us the strength to keep it, if we only ask.

    I am told that most Protestants believe in some differentiation in reward in heaven, if you do, what is this differentiation based on?

  35. PM,

    And, to be fair, Tim is not addressing his post to Mormonism specifically, just as a response to my comment. It seems he is speaking against legalism in protestantism as much or more than Mormonism.

    My take is that over attention to the rules is going to be inevitable anywhere where there are rules.

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