The word ‘legalism’ has all to often been used in the church as a sweeping condemnation of any view that holds God’s law as necessary or beneficial for the Christians life. Especially in our post-modern society, the idea of being held accountable to an objective standard of right and wrong is increasingly seen as restricting to our freedom, judgemental, intolerable, and of course, legalistic.
Legalism is a legitimate concern, but misunderstandings arise when the term ‘legalism’ isn’t fully understood or defined. The temptation for many in the church has been to completely disregard the necessity of the law of God, and rather embrace legalisms twin heresy, antinomianism (literally anti-lawism). This apparent jump to the opposite side of the spectrum turns out to be nothing of the kind as we shall see. Rather, (and to the horror I’m sure of the antinomians), it is simply the opposite side of the same coin.
Legalism has often been defined as exalting the law of God above the grace of God. It confuses our justification (being made right with God), with our sanctification (continual growth in obedience to Gods law as a response to experiencing Gods grace in our justification), and instead stresses obedience to the law for our justification. Jesus had some harsh words for the legalists of his day. In Matthew 23:23-24 he says, “ Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” The Pharisees were guilty of paying strict attention to the letter of the law at the expense of obeying the spirit of the law. Their adherence to the outward aspects of the law was nullified by their sinful motivations.
In reply, some people have exalted the grace of God above the law of God. The claim is that we are not under the law anymore, but under grace. Despite the New Testament repeatedly stressing obedience to God’s law, many liberal churches have accepted and consistently teach varying forms of antinomianism. The appeal of this heretical doctrine is self-evident and can be traced back to the garden where our first parents rebelled against God’s law.
Sinclair Ferguson, in his book The Whole Christ, writes: “What was injected into Eve’s mind and affections during the conversation with the Serpent was a deep-seated suspicion of God that was soon further twisted into rebellion against him. The root of her antinomianism (opposition to and breach of the law) was actually the legalism that was darkening her understanding, dulling her senses, and destroying her affection for her heavenly Father … This may not look like the legalism with which we are familiar. But it lies at its root. For what the Serpent accomplished in Eve’s mind, affections, and will was a divorce between God’s revealed will and his gracious, generous character.”
Here lies the explanation of the coin analogy. Both views stem from a distorted view of God that sees the law as a terrible burden to be borne on our own.
But what then is the cure?
The cure to our legalistic spirit and consequently our distorted view of God, is the gospel. The gospel reveals to us the gracious character of God and the perfect fulfillment of the law in one person, Jesus Christ. When we view God’s law apart from his mercy and grace, we will inevitably fall back into the rut of legalistic thinking. The weight of the law will be too much for us to bear. We will slowly be crushed under its weight (legalism) or forced to lessen the load and possibly drop it all together (antinomianism). Only by seeing God for who He truly is—our kind, loving, and gracious heavenly Father—and trusting in Christ as our complete savior, will we overcome the power of a legalistic spirit.
A rigid matter was the law,
demanding brick, denying straw,
But when with gospel tongue it sings,
It bids me fly and gives me wings.
Ralph Erskine (1685-1752)