Are You Legalistic?
Legalism, Grace, and the Motivation for Obedience
†By Dr. Robert G. Spinney
Note: This message was originally delivered as a sermon.
The oral style has been preserved.
I . Were the Puritans Legalistic?
For several years I served as a professor at a conservative Christian college in the
Chicago area. Perhaps ninety percent of my students had been reared in Christian
homes and went to what we would call conservative, evangelical, Bible-believing
churches. This always made for interesting classes. Although most of my classes
were in American history, if I was quick on my feet, I could get into meaty spiritual
issues, regardless of what subject I was teaching.
Indeed I recall one day in a U.S. history class where we were studying the Puritans.
My students had read Edmund Morgan's The Puritan Dilemma, a delightful
biography of John Winthrop that discussed the founding of the Massachusetts Bay
Colony in the 1620s. This book talked about the Puritans coming to America, their
first years in North America, and their attempt to establish a Christian
It was an amazing story. This collection of godly men and women, most of whom
were deeply committed to the Word of God, left families behind in Europe to come
to an unknown and undeveloped America. That meant that they arrived in a
wilderness with no politicians, no states, and no economy. They had to build a
community from scratch. For the Puritans, this errand into the wilderness was a
So my students read this book about the Puritans.
If nothing else, what the Puritans tried to do was admirable. They tried to be
serious about this holy experiment; they tried to apply the Word of God to every
aspect of life.
I could tell during our class discussion, however, that even though my students had
read this biography, and even though the book gave a favorable portrayal of the
Puritans, my students did not share my love for the Puritans. They didn't like these
guys. They wouldn't come out and say it, but you could tell that they weren't
regarding the Puritans as their spiritual heroes.
At some point in the discussion I stopped, and I asked my students, "Was there
something wrong with the Puritans? You all seem kind of reserved, as if you don't
like these guys." My students were silent. Finally one of my students, one of my
brightest students, said, "Well, you know, the Puritans were . . er, . . . they were
I said, "They were legalistic?"
He answered, "Yeah, they were legalistic."
I looked at my students and said, "Do you all agree with that? How many of the
rest of you think that the Puritans were legalistic?"
Almost every hand went up.
So I went to the chalkboard, and I wrote down the word legalistic. Then I asked my
class, "Would someone define that word for me, please."
So I waited. Finally I baited them. "Just give me an idea; just get us started. What
does that word mean; what does legalism mean?"
No one said a word.
I continued, "How many people have ever used the word legalism before?"
All the hands went up.
I asked, "Do you guys think the Puritans were legalistic?"
Again all the hands went up.
"Can you tell me what it means?"
No definitions were offered.
Finally my one student, my bright student, said with much hesitation, "Well, they
were just like, er, so concerned with obeying God all the time."
As he spoke, you could tell he realized that this wasn't a very good definition.
I asked, "Isn't it good to obey God all the time? What's wrong with obedience?"
Silence. Nobody said anything.
Pointing again to the word I had written on the blackboard, I again asked, "Can
anybody define this word?"
Let me tell you about my students. Even though this was a conservative Christian
college, the students never used the word eschatology, they never used the word
justification, and they rarely used the word sanctification. But they could deploy the
word legalism at the right moments; they knew that word.
Finally after a long period of silence, my good student, my bright student, said, "I
think you've convinced us that we really don't know what that word means."
I suspect that this situation is not unusual. Legalism and legalistic are words that
we Christians use with reckless abandon. Yet I'm not sure that we can define this
word accurately. In fact, I am fully confident that if I were to pass out index cards
and ask the men here in our church to define the word legalism, we would get at
least ten different definitions. But that doesn't stop us from using the word. We use
the word all the time, as if we knew what it meant, and as if we all meant the same
thing when we used it.
I think this is a bad assumption. I don't think the students in my classroom were
that unusual at all. I think they were a typical representation of conservative,
evangelical, Bible- believing Christians in America. We are not sure what legalism
is, despite our frequent use of the term.
II. How we Commonly Use the Word Legalism.
Let me give you some examples of some incorrect and unbiblical ways that I have
heard the word legalism used.
Example 1. We see a brother who is attempting to obey Christ, attempting to do
what he thinks is right, and attempting to apply the Bible to a real-life situation he
is facing. He's careful to obey God's commands. He tries to obey God's little laws.
And he ends up doing something that we don't do, or he refrains from something
that we do. He has unusual convictions or unusual practices. We would never say it,
but deep down inside we think, "He almost seems to obey God too much." We think
he is too picky about obeying God. We think that he takes obeying God too
seriously and that he should lighten up. And we look at that brother and we say,
Example 2. We see Christians discussing what it means to obey some
commandment. I'll take the fourth commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day to
keep it holy." We find a group of Christians discussing what it means to keep the
Sabbath day holy; how should we apply that commandment today; what should we
do; what should we avoid; what is right; what is the principle at work here.
Instead of joining in the discussion and contributing to the difficult task of applying
God's Word to our life, we simply remove ourselves from the discussion. We say, "I
don't even want to be a part of that discussion. I don't want to think about how to
obey that commandment. I don't want to get involved in this, because I don't want
to be legalistic. I don't want to be legalistic about things like that."
In doing this, we often make this word legalism an excuse for antinomianism, or an
excuse for lawlessness. When we don't want to think about obeying God's laws, we
deploy the word legalism.
Example 3. We are having a discussion with a brother, and that brother says that
we should do something. He tells us we should do this or that because there is an
Old Testament law that tells us to do it. We respond by saying, "Oh, but I am a
New Testament Christian. The Old Testament laws are abolished. I am not under
law." And we walk away thinking our brother who values the Old Testament law is
Example 4. We get elders and pastors, leaders who are ministering in the local
church, and they do what the Apostle Paul did: they press upon the flock biblical
duties and biblical obligations. These godly elders reprove, rebuke, correct, and
exhort. They actually apply God's Word to the everyday situations we face.
However, because that elder presses scriptural duties and scriptural obligations
upon Christians, church members go home and label him a legalistic elder.
Example 5. A local church attempts to govern itself according to the Word of God.
In order to do so, the church establishes biblical standards and makes biblical rules.
Maybe they write these biblical rules into their constitution. But for us, the very
appearance of rules and laws, regardless of how Scriptural they are -- the very
appearance of a law on the horizon -- makes us furious. We complain about
legalism in the church and legalistic church rules.
InPlainSite.org Note: However when the church establishes biblical standards and
makes biblical rules, they have to be very sure that there is an explicit Biblical
prohibition for every rule adopted. The danger that we take things that are not
actually commands, maybe general principles, and find an applicational rule, and
we make that rule equal with God's law. See Christianity Liberty
Brothers and sisters, all of those uses of the word legalism are wrong. They
demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of this word.
The sad thing is that there does exist something called legalism. It is alive and well
in the Christian world today. In fact, many sincere Christians are being wounded
and burdened by genuine legalism. But we rarely recognize it. Real legalism
flourishes right under our noses, undetected, while we call walking in God's
As we discuss this concept called legalism, I'm not going to provide you with a full
look or even an exhaustive look. I will set before you a brief overview of the
? A wrong understanding of the word legalism
? A correct understanding of the word legalism
? The remedy for legalism
We will begin by setting forth the truth of God's Word.
III. A Wrong Understanding of the Word LEGALISM.
Passage 1. From John 14:15 we read,
If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.
Jesus is not reluctant to talk about commandments, is He? He's not afraid of being
called a legalist. There is a place in the ethics of the Lord Jesus Christ for the
commandments. In fact, this is the only proper evidence of love for Jesus Christ.
Profession alone is not evidence of love for Christ.
The Lord Jesus Christ says that if you love Him you will keep His commandments.
There's the evidence that we truly love Him: we obey God's commands.
Passage 2. In the next chapter, Jesus says practically the same thing. In John
15:10-11 we read,
If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My
Father's commandments, and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you,
that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.
One thing should be clear thus far: Jesus had no problem with giving
commandments. Jesus had no problem affirming existing Divine laws. And Jesus
had no problem calling for obedience to God's commandments.
Apparently, for the Lord Jesus Christ, there was no conflict between love and
obedience, between grace and obedience. He saw no tension at all; they both are
there in the verse.
Passage 3. In 1 John 2:3-6 we read,
And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His
commandments. The one who says, "I have come to know Him," and does not keep
His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His
word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are
in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same
manner as He walked.
Is the keeping of God's commandments optional?
Is keeping God's commandments what the first-class Christian does, while the
Christian who sloughs off is the tourist-class Christian?
Look at the verse. Obedience to law isn't optional, is it? What a strong statement! A
brother or sister who does not walk in God's commandments is not really a brother
Passage 4. Here is another passage, from Psalm 40:8, but this is later quoted in
Hebrews 10:5-9. The reference in Hebrews makes it clear that when the Psalmist
wrote this, it was a prophecy of Jesus Christ. In fact, it was the Messiah saying
these words. So, although this passage appears first in the book of Psalms, this is
the very heart of Jesus. This is what Jesus said,
I delight to do Thy will, O my God; Thy law is within my heart.
Jesus did not say, "Thy law is my enemy." Jesus did not say, "I run away from Thy
law." Jesus did not say, "I am ashamed of Thy law." Jesus said that God's law is
within His heart. It burned within His bosom.
As we consider this word legalism, we need to ask ourselves some questions. Here
is the first one.
1st question. Is it legalistic to obey God's commands?
Of course not! But by the way we often use the word legalism, you would think that
it is wrong to obey God! Indeed, we are reluctant to tell people to obey God. And
when we do tell people to obey God's laws, we quickly add on many qualifiers so no
one will think that we are legalistic (whatever that means). We experience an
awkwardness when it comes to talking about obedience, don't we?
Why are reluctant to call people to obedience? I suspect because we don't want to
be accused of being legalistic. Surely we can all agree on this: obeying God is good!
If we are going to say (as some professing Christians do) that obeying laws is bad,
then we must face the fact that God is the world's greatest promoter of legalism.
God has given many laws and many rules and expects obedience to them. In fact,
what is the central prophecy in the Old Testament foretelling the New Covenant?
Jeremiah 31:31-34 says,
"Behold, days are coming," declares the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I
made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the
land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,"
declares the Lord. "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of
Israel after those days," declares the Lord, "I will put my law within them, and on
their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And
they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother,
saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the
greatest of them," declares the Lord, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I
will remember no more."
What is the heart of the New Covenant, the covenant built upon the Messiah?
I will put my law within them, and on their heart I will write it.
Surely obedience to God's laws is good! It is at the very heart of the New Covenant,
isn't it? That's why God puts His laws in our hearts and in our minds -- so we will
Shame on me and shame on us if we ever imply that obedience to God is legalistic
and that obedience to God is bad.
2nd question. Is it legalistic to be careful about obeying God's commands? Is it
legalistic to obey even small commands? Is that legalism?
No, of course not.
Has anyone ever obeyed God's laws perfectly? Has anyone ever walked the earth in
sinless perfection? Yes. Isn't that what the Lord Jesus Christ did? The Lord Jesus
Christ, for thirty-three years, obeyed God's law perfectly, carefully, and minutely . .
. not just in outward action but in inward spirit. The Lord Jesus Christ was careful to
obey all of God's laws.
If obeying God's laws carefully and precisely is legalism, then Jesus was the world's
greatest legalist. Surely, Jesus wasn't legalistic, was He? We are not going to use
that phrase, are we?
And we are called to walk as Jesus walked. Is that not what the Word of God says,
that the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to in the same manner walk
as He walked? (1 John 2:5-6)
Are we not being conformed to the image of Christ, the greatest law keeper who
ever lived on the face of the earth?
3rd question. Is it legalistic to obey God too much?
What a silly question!
But that day in my classroom when I discussed the Puritans with my students, my
students might well have answered, "Yes." And what my students were really
thinking while we discussed the Puritans was, "We don't want to go overboard on
this obedience stuff."
Of course you can't obey God too much!
4th question. Does obeying God's commands create joyless legalism?
Is it not often implied that obeying God's commands somehow robs us of our joy?
Is it not implied that excessive obedience produces joyless bondage?
I do not think that it is any mistake, that here in John 15:11, right after Jesus talks
about keeping his laws, he says,
These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy
may be made full.
The context of this statement is Jesus' discussion of vines and branches. We must
abide in Christ or stay united to Him in the same way that branches are in a vine:
close union, tight connection, vital dependence.
In verse 10 Jesus says that if you keep His commandments you abide in His love.
Then, right after that, in verse 11, Jesus says that He'll give you His joy.
Obedience to God's laws produces joy.
This is not the way humans look at obeying God's laws, however. Instead we think,
"If you want joy, then throw out those commandments. If you want to be happy,
then let's not talk about rules and laws."
But God's ways are not our ways. With God, the path of joy is the path of
obedience. This is what Jesus says; He links them together as cause-and-effect.
5th question. What about obeying Old Testament commandments? Is it legalistic to
obey the Old Testament moral laws?
I've used the phrase moral laws because we know that there are some laws in the
Old Testament that were designed as ceremonial laws. These ceremonial laws
pointed to the Lord Jesus Christ, and they were fulfilled when the Lord Jesus Christ
died on the cross. Nobody here thinks that there is a binding law today that
requires you to go sacrifice pigeons or bulls or doves or something like that. These
requirements have been fulfilled in Christ. There are also laws in the Old Testament
clearly aimed at the nation of Israel for their political governance. We're talking
here specifically about moral laws, or laws that speak to morality and ethics. The
Ten Commandments would be an example of moral laws.
Is it legalistic to obey Old Testament laws? Of course not! God's laws are good,
wherever you find them. Laws -- be they human or divine -- are merely expressions
of the lawgiver's character or desire. The character of God has not changed, and
God's ethical standards have not changed. And wherever you find His laws, they
are good laws. Let us look for a moment at a passage and notice how strongly this
passage affirms the perpetual validity of God's laws. Jesus says in Matthew
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to
abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not
the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the law, until all is accomplished.
Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches
others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and
teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Now, however you want to define this word fulfill, it does not mean abolish, does it?
The Messiah did not come to abolish the law or the prophets.
Note also this word annuls. This word means to loosen the force of something, or to
render something not binding, or to say, "These laws really aren't as strict or
serious as you might think."
What a sobering statement! Whoever moderates or annuls one of the least of God's
commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of
On the other hand, whoever keeps and teaches God's laws, he shall be called great
in the kingdom of heaven.
I ask you: Do you want to be called great in the kingdom of heaven? Here's how
you can be called great in the kingdom of heaven: know the law and the prophets,
obey them, and teach them. Isn't that what Jesus said?
Would you like a recipe for being least in the kingdom of heaven? Then start
annulling those Old Testament laws. Say that they aren't binding. Say they're not in
Paul says the same thing that Jesus does. At the end of Romans 3, Paul has just
finished making a powerful statement of the Lord Jesus Christ providing justification
as a free gift. We are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in
Christ Jesus. What a beautiful statement of Christ as our justification! Here is the
heart of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone!
Then, in anticipation of the error that many will later embrace, Paul says in Romans
Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we
establish the Law.
Paul says that his Gospel puts God's laws on an even firmer foundation. He says
that the Gospel does not in any way strip the law of its binding power. And Paul
says the same thing in Romans 7:12,
So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
In concluding this first section that considers the wrong use of the word legalism,
we need to make an application.
As sinful men and sinful women, we have an aversion to law keeping. We don't
want to obey God. The very core of sin is disobedience to God. We rebel against
God's laws. We are just like our great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather
But we are church-goers, so we know that we can't come out and say, "I'm not
going to obey God's laws." We don't do that, right? I don't think I've ever heard a
bona fide church member say, "I'm not going to obey God's laws." We know we
can't do that.
Please listen to me here.
I fear that we try, at least at times, to justify our lawlessness with the word
legalism. We escape the demands of God's law by crying legalistic. "Oh, let's not be
legalistic. Let's not be too picky about obeying God's commands. Let's not talk
about rules and laws. After all, we don't want to be legalistic."
By using the word legalism in this fashion, we have created a sophisticated
theological smokescreen, a fancy way of stripping God's laws of their binding
Brothers and sisters, I fear this is a great tragedy of many conservative churches,
many Baptist churches, many Reformed churches. We use this word legalism as
camouflage for our antinomianism and our sin.
Let us never excuse antinomianism and disobedience with the word legalism. This is
the wrong use of the word legalism, and this is how my students used it that day in
Of course, if there is a wrong use of the word legalism, there is also a correct
understanding of the word.
IV. A Correct Understanding of the Term Legalism.
Again our starting point is divine truth, what God has said in the scriptures. Let's
look at just a few passages that will set the foundation for this discussion.
From Romans 5:19 we read,
For as through the one man's disobedience, the many were made sinners, even so,
through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.
Here is the Gospel in a sentence, and it is such a beautiful statement! Through one
man's disobedience, through Adam's disobedience, many were made sinners. We
were constituted sinners. At the level of our nature, we became sinners. Because of
Adam's disobedience, we were born sinful through-and-through, on the inside, not
just in actions, but in attitudes and desires. Our status as sinners was guaranteed
by what Adam did. Our standing as sinful men and women was secured by what
Adam did in the Garden of Eden.
But by the same token, through the obedience of the One, through what the Lord
Jesus Christ did, the many were made righteous. Many were constituted righteous.
In other words, our standing as God's people, as righteous people, is guaranteed
through what the Lord Jesus Christ did.
Look back at the verse we read. It does not say that when Adam sinned, he made it
very, very likely that we might fall into sin. That's not what it says, does it?
When Adam sinned, he constituted us sinners.
Paul's point in this section of Romans 5 is that Adam and Jesus correspond. We
learn something about Jesus and His work by considering Adam and his work.
When Jesus died, He didn't just make it, very, very likely, that we might be
righteous before God. No, the Son of God did more than that. He constituted His
people to be righteous. The Lord Jesus Christ made His people righteous, through
His one act of obedience. The perfect righteousness of the Messiah was imputed (or
put to the account of) His people, so that they now possess the very righteousness
So, in Philippians 3, Paul sets forth for us two different ways of having
righteousness. He says in Philippians 3:8-9,
More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of
knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and
count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him,
not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is
through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of
Do you see what Paul is saying here? He's saying there are two different kinds of
righteousness you can have. Now, when I use the word righteousness in this
context, I mean my score of acceptability before God, my score of holiness in God's
eyes. And every human has one of two different kinds of scores. Perhaps you have
this kind of righteousness: you stand in your own righteousness, built by you, by
your good works, by your lifestyle. You accumulate your own holiness score or
acceptability score (or righteousness) by doing good things, having quiet times,
reading the Bible, praying, going to church, and other such virtuous actions. And
this is what Paul means by standing in my own righteousness.
But, Paul says, no, no, I do not want to have to stand before God and in any way
have to fall back upon what I have done. He says that he is going to stand before
Him in Christ's righteousness, the perfect righteousness that Christ accumulated
during thirty-three years of sinless obedience. Paul wants that perfect holiness
score that was accumulated by Jesus put to his own account. So Paul stands before
God, not in his own righteousness, but in the righteousness that our Lord Jesus
Christ earned. That's the righteousness that he wants. That's the score that he
But this is not a new idea. Romans 4:6 makes it clear that Old Testament saints
sought an imputed righteousness that was different from the one they themselves
... just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons
righteousness apart from works ...
God has always worked like this. Men have never been able to earn an acceptable
righteousness before God. It was true of Abraham, it was true of David, and it's
true for us. God puts righteousness to His people without any regard for their
activities or their works.
Martin Luther had a beautiful phrase for this; he called it our "alien righteousness."
He said that it was the righteousness that another had earned, the righteousness
earned by Jesus Christ. It is that alien righteousness, put to our account, that
allows us to stand before God as perfectly righteous people.
From these verses, we see the heart of the Christian gospel. Friends, this matter of
"imputed righteousness" and "alien righteousness" is not one of several important
things; this is the heart, the very heart of the Christian gospel.
This means that Christians cannot add to the righteousness that the Lord Jesus
Christ secures for His people. We cannot do things that will augment or supplement
the righteousness that we have in Christ.
What can I possibly do that would improve my standing, considering what the Lord
Jesus Christ did? I'm going to add my two cents to that colossal work at Calvary?
My good deed is going to augment the Son of God's atonement?
Here is the same truth; I'm just saying it a little bit differently. Christians are
approved by God when they stand before Him. And Christians cannot improve upon
this standing that is obtained by the Lord Jesus Christ. How can I improve upon the
perfect righteousness earned by the Son of God?
Here's my last restatement of the same truth: Christians cannot gain or earn any
more of God's love. Grace has already granted and secured all the love there is to
have. You can't wake up in the morning and say I'm going to get some more of
God's love by doing a certain thing. How can we obtain more love than what was
secured through the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross? How can we secure more grace
for ourselves, in light of what Christ has secured for His people?
This truth is central to the Bible's message of redemption. And what makes legalism
so serious is that it repudiates this truth. Legalism strips this truth of its power. It
erodes this truth and makes it an untruth.
And now, for the first time, I will try to craft a definition of legalism.
Legalism is a motive (or attitude) that leads us to establish or improve our standing
before God by our activities.
Note that legalism is not the deed itself; it is the motive or attitude behind the
Here is what a truly legalistic attitude does.
A legalistic attitude assumes that what Christ has secured for His people is
Legalism flourishes when we think that what Christ has done for us and what Christ
has secured for us is not enough and is inadequate.
The legalist says that he can and must do some things that add to what Christ has
done. The legalist believes he has his part to play in bringing down God's grace.
And, when the legalist has done those things, he has become more acceptable unto
God. He's earned more of God's favor. By virtue of his performance, he has secured
something in addition to what Christ has secured. And he did it through his own
efforts! If he had not done this thing, he would have had less grace.
Look at our definition of legalism once more: Legalism is a motive (or attitude) that
leads us to establish or improve our standing before God by our activities.
The key words here are motive and attitude. It is good to keep God's commands,
provided we do so with the right motive. But what is the right motive?
Here is the right motive:
? We keep God's commands as an expression of our love for Him.
? We keep God's commands as a show of our loyalty to Him.
? We keep God's laws as an act of devotion to Him.
? We keep God's laws out of gratitude to Him.
We do not keep God's commands in order to improve our standing with God. We do
not keep God's laws in order to win His love, or to get more of His love.
Let me say this a different way. We keep God's commands because He has already
redeemed us and He has already declared us to be righteous before the Father. We
do not keep God's commands because our acceptance before God is still undecided,
the whole thing is still in the balance, and what I do or don't do influences God's
love towards me.
I'm saying the same thing over and over, and I'm trying to say it in different ways,
because I can think of few truths more essential to a healthy Christian life.
Please hear me; I'll put this as bluntly as possible:
Obeying God's laws is an act of praise, not a bribe. Obeying God's commands is an
act of gratitude, not a payment.
Legalism subverts this whole idea that Christ is our righteousness. It does this,
because legalism is an attitude or motive that sees the keeping of God's laws, or
living a certain way, or doing certain things, as a bribe or a payment.
And let me recall, the Puritans used to say that there is a Pope in every man's
breast; likewise, I'm convinced that there is a legalist in every man's breast. It's
hard to shake off; it's not something that, if you cross the bridge one time, it is
Let's be honest. Don't we all struggle with this? I do; I struggle; isn't this a difficulty
for all of us?
A legalistic spirit says, "What action of mine will make me right with God? What
behavior of mine will improve my standing with God? What can I do so that God will
love me more? What can I do so I can get more of God's grace?"
Note that last sentence again. Do you catch the oxymoron: What can I do so I can
get more of God's grace? If you're doing is what gets it, it's not grace, is it?
Legalism is not obeying God's commands. Obedience is good. Legalism is obeying
God's commands with the wrong motive.
This is what the Pharisees were guilty of doing. Their obedience was not the
problem. Jesus never scolds the Pharisees for obeying God's laws or obeying God's
laws too much. The Pharisees' problem was that they obeyed God FROM THE
WRONG MOTIVE. The Pharisees saw obedience (or prayer, or fasting, or other
religious duties) as a bribe or payment.
And, at heart, this is why legalism is so damaging. It assaults what God has done in
Christ. Legalism says, "I am not satisfied with my standing before God based solely
upon Christ's righteousness. It's not good enough. I'm going to add something to it.
I MUST add to what Christ has done."
By way of application, let me ask you some questions about this issue of legalism.
Is attending a public worship service legalistic?
Many of us are in church every time the church door is open. Is attending the
Lord's Day services regularly an act of legalism? It can be, can't it? Bit it's not
necessarily legalistic. It all depends upon your motive. Why do you do it? If you are
in church because you love God and you want to be here, then amen, you ought to
be here. But if you are here to earn His grace, if you are here because you are
supposed to be here, if you are here because you think God smiles a little more
upon you when you've been to church, then that's legalistic. Why are you here?
Is tithing legalistic?
Is giving to the Lord's work legalistic? It can be. But it is not necessarily legalistic,
right? Tithing can be a beautiful expression of praise and worship. Or it can be
legalism of the deepest dye, if we think giving our money somehow improves our
standing with God.
Many of us refuse to drink alcoholic beverages, not a drop. Is refusing to drink
It depends upon your motive. Why are you refusing to drink alcohol? Are you trying
to earn God's favor, or do you abstain because you love Him, you don't want to
sully His name, and you protect your testimony as an act of love and devotion?
What about wearing certain kinds of clothing? Are there certain rules for dress in
your family? Are there certain guidelines, certain dressing styles: your dresses have
to be so long, your hair has to be so short, etc. Are these modesty issues legalistic?
Maybe yes, maybe no. It depends on why you do them, right?
Recall our definition: Legalism is a motive (or attitude) that leads us to establish or
improve our standing before God by our activities. If you say, "I love my Lord; my
righteousness is secured. Because I love Him, I want to please Him, and I
understand that this is what I should do, so I'm going to do it," then amen! Your
obedience is a beautiful act of worship. It is an example of worshiping God with
your life and presenting yourself a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1).
However, if you hold to some dress code in order to improve your standing with
God, that's legalism, isn't it?
Let me move to a whole different set of questions. Get ready, because these are a
bit more difficult.
Is having a quiet time legalistic? Is having daily devotions legalistic? Can it be
Yes, it most certainly can. It's good to have a quiet time, it's good to have daily
devotions, and I encourage all of you to have daily devotions. But you must do it
with the right motives.
Because quiet times can be done with the wrong motive. I distinctly recall my
experience with quiet times as a new Christian. Poorly taught, I came out of the
Roman Catholic Church, and I moved, finally, to Campus Crusade for Christ.
Talk about culture shock, there in the Campus Crusade for Christ, I knew almost
nothing except the four spiritual laws. When I woke up in the morning, I would
never say this, but this is what I really thought, as a 21 year-old new babe in
Christ. I would wake up in the morning feeling like I had zero righteousness, and I
would say, "I've got to have my quiet time, right now." And, if I had a good quiet
time, if I prayed well and got through my list, I felt good. I could face the world. I
was triumphant! But if I slept through my quiet time, or if I fell asleep, if my quiet
time didn't work, then the whole rest of my day was miserable, and I felt like God
was against me. At least back in those early years, I was treating my quiet time
legalistically. I was doing it as a way to establish and improve my standing before
God. I was like a late twentieth century monk who did his daily devotions in order
to establish a new day's righteousness before God. I would feel woefully guilty and
spiritually empty if I missed a quiet time.
Is having a scripture memory program being legalistic?
Maybe yes, maybe no. I encourage you all to memorize scripture. But don't do it if
you think that earns you brownie points with God. If I think memorizing Scripture
secures more of God's grace for me, then my Scripture memory becomes a subtle
form of Galatianism. The wrong motive makes a good thing very bad.
Is reading your Bible on a daily basis legalistic?
Surely reading your Bible daily is a good thing; can it be legalistic? Most certainly it
can! If you see reading your Bible on a daily basis as a way of improving your
standing before God, earning His favor, bringing you more love, then that's
legalism. If you think God loves you less and might even be against you because
you've missed your daily Bible reading, that's reading your Bible for the wrong
But there is a remedy for legalism.
The Remedy for Legalism.
Understand what Jesus accomplished.
The remedy for legalism is the same remedy for most problems in the Christian life.
That is to see the Lord Jesus Christ more clearly.
See more clearly what He has done. Understand what the Lord Jesus Christ has
accomplished regarding your redemption. Back about a week ago, maybe ten days
ago, a Jehovah's Witness came to my door. And when this happens, I think to
myself, "Listen, if they are going to come to me, I'm surely going to take time to
speak with them and present God's Truth." So this Jehovah's Witness came to the
door and I talked to him for about an hour or so. And as I talked to the man, I
thought, "I'm not going to convince this person, but I at least want to make sure
that this Jehovah's Witness understands where we disagree."
So I said to this Jehovah's Witness, "Here is the heart of the matter. What do you
think happened when Jesus Christ died on the cross? There are only two
possibilities. Please choose which one you think is correct. Do you think this: that
when Jesus died on the cross, He made it POSSIBLE for you to be approved by
God, provided that you do your part? Do you think that Jesus accomplished
perhaps 90 or 95 percent of the task, but that now the ball is in your court? Now
you have to do your part? Now you need to add to what Christ did so that you'll be
accepted before Jehovah God. Is that what you think happened?"
"Or," I asked, "do you think Jesus' death on the cross secured and guaranteed your
approval before God? Do you think that the Lord Jesus Christ fully did it all, fully
accomplished all there is to accomplish, secured all the grace and love there is to
secure, and now gives it all to you as an act of grace? Do you think that you have
no role to play in securing God's blessing, that Christ has already secured it and
that Jesus fully secured maximum acceptance before Jehovah God?"
When I laid out these two options, the Jehovah's Witness didn't hesitate a moment.
The Jehovah's Witness said, "Oh, I believe in the first scenario. Of course I have to
do my part."
Most of us evangelicals/fundamentalists/Bible believers will see this response for
what it is: a bold affirmation of works salvation and a nullification of the gospel of
But hear me now, friends.
I suspect that it's not just the Jehovah's Witnesses that believe this. I suspect that
there are many in sound, conservative, salvation-by-grace-alone churches who
The Lord Jesus Christ's provision is the sole cause of divine acceptance! When the
Messiah went to Calvary, He paid for our sins. But, do you realize that He did more
"How could there be more than that?" you ask.
Yes, there was more than that. For thirty-three years the Messiah lived a perfect
life. He earned a perfect righteousness. He never yielded to temptation. He never
lost his temper incorrectly. He always obeyed all of God's commandments. With all
His heart, He loved His neighbor as Himself. He fully obeyed all of God's laws. Can
you imagine how high Jesus' score was on the score sheet of righteousness? It was
off the chart! Imagine, thirty-three years of perfect obedience, a perfect
righteousness. And when He died on the cross, does not the Bible say that God
made Jesus who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf -- our sin transferred to Jesus
-- that we might become the righteousness of God in Jesus?
Just as our sin was transferred to the Messiah, His perfect righteousness was
transferred to His people. So when God's people stand before the Father, they have
Jesus' perfect righteousness as their own "holiness score." That is what we mean
when we say "Jesus Christ's provision is the sole cause of divine acceptance." What
could be more complete than the perfect righteousness, earned by the Son of God,
painstakingly earned over an entire lifetime, culminating in the obedience of death
on the cross? This is the righteousness that Jesus Christ put to his people.
And, now I'm going to do my part? I'm going to add to that? My quiet time will
make me more acceptable to God? My church attendance will bring down a little
To really understand what the Messiah did on the cross at Calvary means that I'll
never try to add anything to what He accomplished. How could I? How
preposterous, that a sinful man, living in the midst of sinful people, could somehow
add to the perfect righteousness earned by Christ. Indeed, if I'm trying to add to
what Christ did, then I don't really understand what Christ did.
It is a perfect righteousness, put to the account of his people. If I understand what
the Messiah did, I'll never try to add to this.
If I realize what the Lord Jesus Christ has done and secured for me, then this will
cause me to want to demonstrate my love for Him, to lay my life before him, to be
a living sacrifice. I'll say with Isaac Watts, "Love so amazing, so divine, demands
my soul, my life, my all."
In other words, seeing Calvary correctly produces the right motives in me. I no
longer pray or tithe or live a certain kind of lifestyle in order to earn God's
approval; I live as He wants me to live as an act of love, gratitude, and loyalty.
When I see what Christ did at Calvary, then I understand that on my worst day --
the day that I oversleep, miss my quiet time, sin, and lose my temper -- on my
worst day, I'm STILL clothed in the righteousness of Christ. That means I am STILL
accepted in the Beloved, even on my worst day.
Oh, will that not elicit the most extraordinary love and obedience and compliance
with His commands?
And when we see Christ at Calvary clearly, when we understand this issue of alien
righteousness correctly, it will elicit something else. It will produce Christians that
display something that is increasingly rare today. It will produce Christians who
hold to BOTH a high view of grace AND a high view of Law simultaneously. In other
words, we will affirm high octane grace, sovereign grace that means 100% God
and 0% me, aggressive grace WHILE AT THE SAME TIME affirming high view of the
Law of God, a high view of obeying God's commands, and a determination to walk
in His statutes. That combination is rare today, isn't it?
But that is why the Messiah came. He gives an alien righteousness as well as the
proper motive for obedience.
That is why Legalism is so serious. It robs us of what Christ did on the cross. It
forces us to try to earn our own salvation. It condemns us to never being secure in
our acceptance before the Holy One of Israel. It drives us to do good things from a
Brothers, join me today in rejoicing that God has provided a perfect salvation. Has
He not? Do we not have a full salvation, a salvation that is completely of grace and
that most certainly elicits whole-hearted obedience to the law of God?
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), Copyright (c) 1960,
1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman
Foundation. Used by permission.
Permission is granted to copy and distribute this document
provided that no part of the text is changed or omitted.
Faith and Reason Forum would like to thank
Dr. Robert Spinney
for making this document available to our readers.