You have probably heard the accusation, “You are so legalistic!” or “Your church is full of legalists!” How do you respond to that label? To such a stinging stigma, you may want to respond defensively, “No, I am not! No, we are not!” Yet, however truthful or untruthful that retort might be, I plead in love for you young people of our beloved churches—that you think before repeating that answer. Examine yourself for this heresy within.
For good reason, this article closely follows a previous one about the heresy of antinomianism. Antinomianism is one ditch; legalism is the other. In avoiding one error, we must be careful not to overreact to another extreme. We must side-step the antinomian perspective that states that good works in obedience to the law are not a necessary part of the salvation that Jesus works in us. But in doing so, we must not fall into the legalistic mindset that declares that works in some way contribute to the earning of our salvation. Having warned about antinomianism, I now warn about his evil twin brother, legalism.
Antinomianism and legalism are two extremes, but not true opposites. Instead, they are like conjoined twins with the same evil heart. At times, they may sound different and even speak in opposition to one another (if it helps their cause), but the arguments of each heresy come from the same anti-Christian old man in us—the one that despises Christ Jesus. Out of unbelief, the antinomian centers the attack on Christ and His work of sanctification, while the legalist concentrates on Christ and His work of justification. These are their foci, but the end goal is the same—to destroy the gospel of Christ’s saving work for us and in us.
Legalism attacks the gospel of grace by teaching that our obedience to the law in some way adds to Christ’s completed work. There are various forms of this heresy, but all kinds of legalism somehow try to take credit for some aspect of salvation that Jesus has done. In doing so, legalism gives man something in himself to boast about or take glory in.
The most obvious kind of legalism is the self-righteousness of the Jewish leaders like the Pharisees and Judaizers in Jesus’ day and in Paul’s day. They depended on their own obedience for justification. They looked to their own works (at least in part) for forgiveness, peace, and favor with God. Well catechized, Reformed young people will quickly dismiss this error as obvious. But what is clearly wrong for our intellects is still a temptation for our hearts to fall for. As soon as anyone, whether it is spoken explicitly or believed quietly, imagines himself to be righteous in the sight of God because of even one good work, he has fallen into this legalism. “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (). By His perfect life, suffering, and death Jesus has finished earning our justification. Reliance upon any of our works would be legalism that intrudes upon Christ’s complete righteousness and attempts to usurp some of His glory.
A second related form of legalism is the imposition of man-made laws as though they are part of the inspired word of Christ, the Pharisees again being well known for doing this. Jesus exposed their legalism this way: “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (). The Pharisees made extra, external “dos and don’ts” concerning the Sabbath day, offerings, fasting, and outward washings, teaching the people either implicitly or explicitly that they were required to obey these made-up rules.
What was their inner motivation for creating man made rules? It is important to understand that their intention was historically pure to begin with. The Pharisees were the early Separatists (their name means “separated ones”) or Puritans who sought to remain unspotted from the world of Greek and Roman religion and entertainment. If we had known the first Pharisees, we would probably have commended them for antithetical living. With godly zeal, many of the early Pharisees applied the principles of God’s law to their lives, thereby setting up rules for themselves as “helps” to obedience. This was holiness. Saints today who are dedicated to holy living in thankfulness to God and who make rules for themselves and families under their authority ought not to be accused of legalism! That is a slanderous stigma, a libelous label. Strict application of God’s law to one’s life is godliness rather than legalism.
Yet, what happened to the Pharisees must be a warning to every lover of God’s law. Pride led these men to begin to see their outward conformity to the law as the cause of their righteous standing before God. Their outward obedience to God’s law and their extra rules were seen as going “over and above” the righteousness required of them. They became blind to their desperate need for a righteous Savior, for they felt quite alright in themselves. Pride morphed religion into legalism. As a result, their legalism evolved quickly. Christ describes what they began to do. “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (a). The rules that they had once made for themselves as helps to piety, now became imposed on others as a standard of righteousness. In addition to this, their obedience to God’s law and man-made rules became merely external. Jesus uncovered their hearts with these words, “Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” ( ).
Young people, do not misunderstand the rebuke of Jesus here. He is not condemning external obedience itself. In fact, outward adherence to traditions and rules is beneficial and, therefore, with respect to God’s law and doctrines in Scripture, emphatically required. However, this external obedience among the Pharisees had become empty, without true and heartfelt love for God. Legalism embraces the letter of the law but kills the heart of obedience.
In fact, legalism becomes so much about the external code that legalists end up using their outward compliance to that code of conduct in order to circumvent true obedience to God’s law. The legalist constructs for himself an outward standard for the very purpose of excusing private sin. This is where the conjoined twins of legalism and antinomianism meet. Legalism at heart is as much against obedience to the law as is antinomianism. The masquerade of an external obedience is much easier and, therefore, becomes a cover-up of the heart’s love of sin rather than a love for God and the neighbor. Legalism is simply a round-about way to antinomianism.
This legalism of the Pharisees is a heresy within. I refuse to believe that Jesus includes so much ire against the legalists of His day just so that we have more ammunition to fire at others. The numerous passages in the Bible against legalism are not meant for accusation but for self-evaluation. Remember that we can find every heresy within our own souls. In my last article, I warned about practical antinomianism, and here I warn about practical legalism, a second ugly head of our sinful natures. While we may not be officially teaching legalism in our circles, we must beware of practical legalism within our hearts. Let us maintain piety in the PRC!
Let not accusations of legalism drive us to give up our inward convictions and outward stances about the law. For example, let us continue to strive to obey the first four commandments of God, worshiping Him only in the manner as is commanded in His Word, frequently on the Sabbath with both fear and reverence. Let us seek to honor all authority (which includes avoidance of affiliation with labor unions). Let us keep from sexual sin (which includes upholding our stance against unbiblical divorce and remarriage and homosexual sin). Let us not steal (which includes giving of our offerings in support of the budget of our church). Let us love the truth rather than the lie (which includes holding to true doctrines and having membership in a church that holds to truth).
Let us not covet any sin (which includes not enjoying the sin found in movies, music, and such entertainment of the world). Let us be a holy church in this way. Let us even make rules for ourselves. It is proper for me to decide for myself that although Scripture does not demand it, I will not drink any alcohol besides communion wine. I may decide for myself that I will not watch television because of the temptations that come with it. It is proper for a father to decide that those in his home will not engage in certain liberties on Sunday. It might be beneficial for me to decide to get rid of my smartphone or limit my usage of it, so that such a rule helps me against addiction to it. With a love for God’s law, we may make rules for ourselves as helps to obedience.
But beware of pride that often warps piety. Pride is practical legalism. As soon as your heart or mine feels the swelling of our egos, we should be conscious of that legalistic old man whispering, “At least some of this obedience makes me righteous before God, right? Especially since others do not obey like I do, this holiness must make me better than them and better before God, right? My membership in a church with right doctrine and my ability to explain right doctrine makes me righteous before God, right?” Remember that this mindset is an attack on righteousness in Christ alone. Silence that old man! Chop off his ugly head of pride!
Subtle as it is, this practical legalism will only mutate into worse forms, as it did for the Pharisees. When pride creeps up, we quickly begin to impose our rules upon others, sometimes even unconsciously. A rule we make for ourselves against a certain kind of entertainment, we force upon others as though it is God’s Word. Sabbath rules not stated in Scripture but made for the benefit of a home, we begin to use in condemnation of others. The good decision to be a member of the Protestant Reformed Churches becomes a law used to attack anyone in a different true church. Good traditions and well-intentioned habits in our worship services and devotional life are used to criticize anyone who worships or prays with the slightest difference (for example, praying with different pronouns).
This proud legalism continues to morph. Pride comes before a fall often in our generations. Our outward conformity to God’s law and rules not only becomes part of our righteousness before God, but less and less is the outward accompanied by inward obedience. The pride of practical legalism kills inward love for God and the neighbor. We keep the Sabbath by coming to a church with the correct outward form of worship but, while we go through the motions, our hearts are distracted or half-asleep. We give the budgeted amount for collection, but we splurge selfishly and covet quietly because of our love for money. We do not join a labor union, but our hearts rebel against the authority of parents, elders, and employers. We criticize those who are divorced and remarried, but we have no problem with stirring up lust in our dating relationships. We are members of a church that holds to true doctrines, but there is no real loving meditation on truth through prayer and reading of Scripture day and night. We do not go to the movie theater, but we enjoy all kinds of sinful entertainment behind closed doors. All of this becomes acceptable to the practical legalist because he feels that his own outward orthodoxy is his righteousness before God. But you see, young people, this formal obedience is not accompanied by internal love. The legalist quickly becomes a hypocrite, and a hypocrite is nothing but an antinomian acting like a legalist.
Legalism and antinomianism are twins with the same anti-Christian heart that attacks both Christ’s justifying and sanctifying work. You and I need to recognize both as part of our old man. Acknowledging both of these heresies as sins in our heart is the first step of repentance. When others accuse us of legalism, let our response be self-examination and repentance rather than stubborn denial. Let us go back to Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the publican () and see ourselves in both. The Pharisee points to the legalist within, while the publican points to the antinomian within. Let us conclude not with the seemingly pious phrase: “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are.” Rather, let us conclude with a repentant and believing heart: “God be merciful to me a sinner.”