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The Definition of Legalism

November 29, 2019
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This is the second in a four post mini-series on legalism set within the context of this series on grace. These are by Pastor Joe Cassada of the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Maryland Heights, Missouri.

Previously, I mentioned that two popular understandings of legalism fail to take the battle to the enemy: the first is the idea that legalism is simply being overly strict; the second is the idea that legalism is only an effort to save oneself by one’s good works. With the first understanding, it is implied that legalism is defeated by merely relaxing the rules; with the second, legalism is seemingly dismissed by rejecting a false doctrine.

The first understanding is woefully shallow – perhaps even theologically ignorant. The second doesn’t go far enough. I said I would offer my definition of legalism this week, and I will. But the astute reader may have already discerned a definition in my last post where I said, “… at its root, legalism is a grace-abusing condition of the heart…” Before we dive into that, let’s start with a very brief dip into a few verses of Scripture.

Legalism is a challenging word to define biblically because it doesn’t appear in the Bible, so we must take what we widely understand about the word, and search the Scriptures for more information. And the thing about legalism that is widely understood (because it is obvious) is that legalism deals with the law – specifically it deals with the law in relation to the Christian. Is there any passage in the Bible that deals specifically with the law in its relation to the Christian’s life? Yes, there are many, but one book really stands out: Galatians.

In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul doesn’t hold back in his strong condemnation of the abuse of grace by Judaizer heresy. In his opening remarks, he jumps right into the fight with a jab-right-cross: I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ. Pow! Paul is defending grace with the zeal of a man defending his own mother. Paul knew what grace was, for he had experienced God’s amazing grace in a blindingly brilliant fashion (pun intended). It was grace that birthed him into the family of God. It was grace that turned him from blood-thirsty persecutor to bold Gospel preacher. This Gospel of grace that Paul received was not through some Johnny-come-lately from Jerusalem, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:12)

The Galatians, though, had turned from the Gospel of grace to another gospel – which isn’t a gospel at all. (Gal. 1:7) So learn this: when grace is diminished, the Gospel is twisted and ruined – “perverted” is the word Paul used. A gospel devoid of grace is no longer gospel – whatever it is, it isn’t good news.

Paul wanted his Galatian friends to know that he was no stranger to dust-ups with Judaizers and their sympathizers. Paul even shared the story of how he had withstood Peter to the face when that esteemed rock crumbled underneath the pressure of legalistic sensibilities (Gal. 2:11, 12). If the Apostle to the Gentiles wasn’t afraid to get in the face with the Apostle to the Circumcision, you can bet your next allowance that he wasn’t gonna back down to the Judaizing bullies who were kicking sand at the Galatian Christians.

Listen: when Peter (et al) refused to eat with the Gentile Christians because of the name-dropping Judaizers, Paul said they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel. (Gal. 2:14) That’s huge. For a saved man to insinuate through his actions anything that is contrary to Gospel grace is to, therefore, walk not uprightly according to the truth. Saved people, even the ones who preach the Gospel, can act legalistically. Peter did, and so do we (more than we would care to admit).

Peter’s refusal to eat with the Gentiles insinuated that the grace of God wasn’t good enough to make them good enough. And that’s bad. Legalism can be full-orbed works salvation (a false gospel) and also an attitude that grace alone isn’t enough to sanctify a believer to an acceptable level or cleanliness – there remained in Peter’s view of the Gentiles a “favor that had to be earned” (if ever it could be). Legalism, then, is an abuse of law and grace so that God’s favor becomes something that must be earned.

Ah. Now we see legalism in its ugly nakedness. The Judaizers were nothing new. Their brand of poison was milked from a Serpent’s fangs long ago, for this attitude that “God’s favor must be earned” is as old as the first sin. Sinclair Ferguson, in his wonderfully helpful book “The Whole Christ” describes the scene in the Garden of Eden where the Serpent asks Eve, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? and thereby intimates that God had not been good and gracious in literally giving our first parents every single tree in the Garden but one. The Serpent switched the focus away from God’s provision and onto God’s prohibition. God’s law was no longer loving and gracious but cruel and mean. “Now, like a pouting child of the most generous father, she acted as though she wanted to say to God, ‘You never give me anything. You insist on me earning everything I am ever going to have.’…God thus became to her ‘He-whose-favor-has-to-be-earned.’”1 Ferguson goes on to note that, “Legalism is simply separating the law of God from the person of God…[Eve] was deceived into ‘hearing’ law only as a negative deprivation and not as the wisdom of a heavenly Father.2

Legalism, then, is both the abuse of grace and the perversion of the law. It twists people’s minds into seeing God as “He-whose-favor-has-to-be-earned.” Contrary to popular opinion, legalism and antinomianism go hand-in-hand, for when one abuses grace, they inevitably divorce the law of God from the person of God, and vice versa.
Haven’t you ever been amazed when some of the most straight-laced people are found to harbor some of the most scandalous sins? It’s because legalism and antinomianism are weeds that spring up from the same ground.

Perhaps you think my thoughts on this matter and those of Ferguson’s are new-fangled innovations injected in an age-old controversy. Some might say I muddy the waters, and I understand why they would think that: legalism was much less confusing when it was simply salvation by works. But now that I see that it is also a spirit (the “legal spirit” the Old Timers spoke of) that is not merely a false doctrine to be mentally rejected but a deed of the body that needs mortification.

I hope, if my handling of those few verses in Galatians, and Ferguson’s treatment of the Garden scene are unsatisfactory, that you would give heed to a preacher who predates #OldPaths. Thomas Boston (1676-1732) warned that “Legalism is one of the dangerous engines the gates of hell are directing this day against the church built upon a Rock: this is an attempt against the grace of Christ, bringing in a scheme of religion that has no relation to Jesus Christ and his Spirit, and putting virtue or a virtuous life in the room of Christ’s righteousness, for acceptance with God, and the exerting of our natural powers in the room of the influences of his Spirit, by which means the corruption of nature, and the necessity of regeneration, are buried in deep silence, and living by faith, attending the Spirit’s influence, and communion with God, are branded as enthusiasm: Thus a refined heathenism is palmed on us for Christianity.”3

Boston added, “In a sinking state of the church, the law and gospel are confounded, and the law justles out the gospel, the dark shades of morality take place of gospel light: which plague is this day begun in the church, and well far advanced. Men think they see the fitness of legal preaching for sanctification but how the gospel should be such a mean, they cannot understand.”4

“Legal preaching for sanctification” – sound familiar?

So far we have seen the danger of legalism and the definition of legalism; next time we will discuss the detection of legalism, and we will ask, “Lord, is it I?”

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at Concerning Jesus Blog. Used by permission.


  1. Thomas Boston, James Hog, et al, Gospel Truth Accurately Stated and Illustrated, PDF (Canonsburgh: Andrew Munro, 1827), 82.
  2. Boston, 83.
  3. Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 106.
  4. Ferguson, 106.


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