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The Detection of Legalism

March 23, 2020
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This is the third 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.

In the last two posts, I warned that two popular understandings of legalism will ultimately fail to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked in this battle against the “legal spirit.” Those two understandings are the idea that legalism is simply being overly strict, and the second is the idea that legalism is only an effort to save oneself by one’s good works. Last week, I gave a biblical definition of understanding based on a very brief sketch of the issues Paul addressed in Galatians and Sinclair Ferguson’s treatment of the temptation of Eve in the garden.1 I came to the conclusion that in its most distilled definition, we can describe legalism as “an abuse of law and grace so that God’s favor becomes something that must be earned.”

Now we come to the messy job of finding this sin of the heart and rooting it out, and like any battle against the Christian’s remaining sin, it is an ongoing conflict that requires perpetual vigilance and a willingness to be exceedingly thorough in examining our hearts. This is not a call to morose introspection that is followed by a retreat into one’s own sense of helplessness and a pining away for the perceived lack of progress towards holiness. While the Sauls wring their hands in their tents, let the Davids go to the battle in the name of the LORD. King Jesus has smitten his enemies before him, let us ride out with him and utterly destroy the retreating stragglers.

But we must find them. The legal spirit is a master of disguise – a shape-shifting sin who is able to sneak through defensive positions undetected. He hides in the dens and in the rocks of our hearts and minds. How can we find him and flush him out?

Let me share with you what has helped me in the battle against this particular sin. Keep in mind that I am no expert here. I share this with you “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.” I freely confess that I am a man of like passions and the Canaanites remain in my land, too. But this has helped me, and perhaps it will help you.

It dawned on me that the legal spirit was safely tucked away in my own thinking when I came to understand the Lord’s parable of the prodigal son as it should be understood. Previous to this epiphany (if I may use the word) I had actually admired the eldest son in the story. And my misplaced admiration for the eldest son was bolstered by a number of famous sermons that perpetuated my misunderstanding. One such sermon was titled “Let’s Hear It For the Other Son” which was preached during a popular youth conference at a large Baptist church. (It is not my purpose here to pick bones, so I find no need to mention names. Those who care, know of whom I speak; those who don’t, don’t. After all, the sermon I’m referring to wasn’t an isolated incident of one Baptist preacher’s abuse of scripture, but a representative of many such sermons preached in many different pulpits.)

In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus tells the story of a man who had two sons: the youngest demanded his inheritance and then proceeded to waste it all on sin. Later he “came to himself” and determined to return to his father in repentance. He indeed returned, and the father welcomed him home with gracious mercy. A party was given in honor of the occasion, but the eldest brother refused to attend. The eldest son was indignant and said to his father, “thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.”

Luke chapter 15 begins with these words: “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. And he spake this parable unto them…” The three parables of lost things (the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son) were parables spoken to the Pharisees to expose their sin of the indignation against Jesus for his reaching out in mercy to the worst of the worst. The eldest son was emblematic of the scribes and Pharisees who mumbled and murmured that publicans and sinners (the prodigals of the world) were getting saved. The eldest son was a rank legalist.

In the above-mentioned sermon, the preacher said in reference to the oldest that, “I kinda like the guy. I wouldn’t have gone to the party…he’s my kinda guy.” And further into the sermon, the preacher added, “This kinda guy [the eldest brother] is exactly what this Bible conference is all about.” He went on to preach how we need to be throwing parties for the young people who never go into sin – the faithful ones who never rebel, just like the eldest brother.

Such preaching totally misses the point of the Savior’s parable and commits a serious error by making a hero out of a legalist instead of humbling our hearts at the gracious mercy we have received from the Father. Jesus didn’t tell this story to pat the Pharisees on the backs for their works of righteousness, but to expose the corrupting legalism that had so infected their hearts with spiritual arrogance that they assumed they had a right to the Father’s blessings because of their many years of faithful service.

Listen again to the eldest son’s complaint: “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.” (Luke 15:29). These are the words of the legalist. “You owe me for what I have done. I have earned your blessing.”

But what is the father’s response? “…all that I have is thine.” Both the prodigal and the eldest son were offered the father’s blessings, not on the basis of works and performance, but on the very basis of the father’s goodness to his children. The prodigal was not made to earn his spot back to the table by serving as lowly field-hand, nor was the eldest son given all that was his father’s on the basis of his perfect attendance record; rather, both are offered all things because they are simply his children. It is a gracious offering from a father who loves.

At this point, many fly off the rails because they balk at the interpretation of the eldest son representing a Pharisee and the prodigal son representing converted publicans. They want the prodigal to be the backslidden Christian and the eldest to be the faithful Christian. They might say, “How could the prodigal be called a son if he wasn’t saved at the beginning of the story? And how could the eldest represent a Pharisee if the father spoke of the eldest son affectionately whereas the Pharisees were enemies of Christ?” These are good questions, but they are representative of the old adage “missing the forest for the trees.” The parables of Christ generally teach one truth, but when we get bogged down by trying to make all the details of the story find some exact parallel we end up pounding square pegs into round holes. The one truth of the parable of the prodigal son is that God is gracious to sinners. It’s about grace – something the Pharisees needed to learn. So here’s how you can shine the lamp of grace into the corners of your heart as you search for the leaven of legalism: ask yourself, “Do I admire the eldest son? Do I sympathize with his feelings? Do I feel like I have earned a fatted calf because I have been faithful in my work?”

Does God owe me a fatted calf because I pray for exactly 60 minutes every day and not 23? Does God owe me a party with my friends because I knock on doors an hour every week, rain or shine? Do I feel that asking a hundred times a day “O God! Give me your power!” functions like some progress bar wherein the more I ask the more power I get?

Do you feel that your praying, Bible reading, soul winning, church attendance, fasting, or whatever good works you perform earn something from God? Oh, my brothers and sisters! God owes us nothing. It’s better than that. He has freely given us all things in Christ. This is grace.

Romans 8:31 What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? 32 He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?

Does this mean that obedience isn’t required? Can we live any way we want and still expect these blessings offered to us in Christ? No. Obedience is still relevant. We will sort through these issues when we discuss how we can defeat the legal spirit.

Assuming we have detected legalism in our hearts, how can we destroy it? I’ll offer an answer next time.

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


  1. Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 82-83.


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