Are We Legalists

by Rick Shrader

It was James who wrote the wonderful and inspired oxymoron, So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the perfect law of liberty (Jas 2:12).  Douglas Moo wrote of this verse, “God’s gracious acceptance of us does not end our obligation to obey him; it sets it on a new footing.  No longer is God’s law a threatening, confining burden.  For the will of God now confronts us as a law of liberty — an obligation that is discharged in the joyful knowledge that God has both liberated us from the penalty of sin and given us, in his Spirit, the power to obey his will.”1

John understood this when he admonished us, And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments (1 Jn 2:3).  And also, He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked (vs 6).  The believer who is seeking a life of true liberty seeks to keep the Lord’s commands, and even strives to walk in all his ways as He walked!  Some insist that the very presence of laws must be “legalism” but then the very Word of God would be legalism unless we are not obligated to obey it.  Charles Ryrie wrote, “The existence of a code of law cannot be legalism.  The fact that there are regulations, be it those of the Mosaic Law or the law of Christ, is not legalism.  Law is not legalism.”2

These days any believer who practices separation from worldly things lives with the constant accusation of being a “legalist.”  The accusation is wrong, of course, by any biblical concept but therein lies the problem.  What is “legalism?”  Those who make the accusation seem at liberty to use the term “legalist” in the broadest of definitions.  However, once their own definition is presented, anyone who transgresses it becomes the target for the accusation.

A common type of definition of legalism involves the idea of making a list of rules, being a Pharisee (seemingly the easiest accusation to make), being judgmental of others, being grace-killers, even being a believer who makes an effort to please or gain favor from God!  Synonyms seem to be: right wing, fear-mongerer, control-freak, joy-killer, and sometimes broader terms like fundamentalist (or “fundy” to be sarcastic), separatist, or dispensationalist.  Ironically, the common users of such invectives rarely see themselves as mean-spirited.  Evidently they have found a way to be above such inward motivations.

The Problem of Definition

1) From silence.  The most obvious problem with defining “legalism” in the Bible is that we don’t have such a term!  We have used the term only as a description of something we think is a biblical concept.  This fact does not necessarily negate the use of the term, but we must be extra careful how we use it.  The words “rapture” and “trinity” are not in our Bible either, but the use of them is surely justified.

“Legal” has to do with law and there is much in the Bible about law.  Unger lists six “senses” of law in Scripture:  laws given by man; the law of Moses; the law of grace; God’s will as law; the natural law; and the kingdom rule of life.3 Being “legalistic” might apply to any of these concepts.  The Pharisees surely used the Mosaic Law to their own advantage, usually seeking license to sin by manipulating the Law.  Ironically, the closest term to “legalist” in the Epistles is Paul’s quotation of antinomians in Corinth demanding, “All things are lawful unto me” (1 Cor. 6:12).

2) From common definition.  This is given by Ryrie as clearly as anyone:  “Legalism may be defined as a ‘fleshly attitude which conforms to a code for the purpose of exalting self.’”4 The emphasis is on legalism as an “attitude.”  Though law has its proper place, even within grace, it is obvious that someone can attempt to keep it with a selfish attitude rather than with love.

The problem with this common definition is the evaluation of someone being “selfish.”  Charles Swindoll used a similar definition in his anti-legalism book, The Grace Awakening: “Legalism is an attitude, a mentality based on pride.”5 But Myron Houghton rightly objected by writing, “Swindoll is correct when he says ‘legalism is an attitude, a mentality,’ but it is insufficient to say that legalism is ‘based on pride.’  Who determines whether or not a person’s actions are based on pride?  The person himself?  Dr. Swindoll?”6 The common thinking however is that God’s laws should be followed because we love Him, not because we want applause from others.

3) From the New Testament.  The major problem with law-keeping in the New Testament was the problem Paul had with Judaizers.  And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved . . . . But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That is was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:1, 5).  In the strictly New Testament sense, “legalism” would be the keeping of the law (especially Mosaic) in order to be saved or to stay saved.

Baker’s Dictionary of Theology says, “In Christ the Christian is free from the condemnation of the law and from  the necessity of fulfilling its precepts as a condition of eternal life.”7 Liberty in Christ, then, is the liberty from the works of the law for salvation!  Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law . . . . Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage (Gal. 2:16; 5:1).

The Great Equivocation

Because salvation by the works of law is “legalism” and “liberty” is to be free from such a system of dead works, it is easy to find verses which instruct readers not to work for the grace of God (e.g. Eph 2:8-9).  But often that admonition is followed (by accusers of “legalism,”) with further admonition not to work at all, even as a believer.  A typical warning is: do not to try to “earn God’s acceptance” or “please God” by law keeping.  The appeal to Scripture comes from verses that warn against being saved by works, but the accusation of “legalism” is applied to the good works in a believer’s life.

Ernest Pickering rightly responded to Swindoll for doing this very thing.  He writes,

There is a caricature here of those who seek to maintain standards of godly living.  They are stated to be conspirators who want to enslave others, who do not want them to be free. . . . The writer also declares that Christian leaders formulate rules of conduct so that persons obeying them can ‘earn God’s acceptance.’  After many years of ministry among thousands of churches both in this country and others I believe I can say with confidence that I have never met a pastor or Christian leader who believed this.  God’s acceptance is gained by grace not through the observance of rules (even biblical ones!).  This is an exaggeration which we believe does great disservice to many Christian leaders.8

Pickering is pointing out that one cannot start off quoting verses that prohibit works for salvation and then criticize believers on that basis because they are doing good works, even if those good works are of a questionable nature.  One may disagree with the rule that a certain believer is keeping, but that is merely a disagreement over sanctification in a believer’s life, not the mode of salvation.

The Reality of Legalism

So do we have legalists today?  Absolutely!, whether we use the common or the biblical definition.

1) Legalism by the common definition.  In this definition (see Ryrie above), legalism may occur when a believer is striving to keep the laws of God but for selfish reasons.  On the one side, a believer may keep biblical commands but with the attitude that he can keep the commands better than anyone else!  On the other side, a believer may become legalistic in his so-called liberty!  Ryrie uses the example of movie-going,

If, however, non-attendance is practiced in order to exalt the piety of the one who does not go to such affairs, then this is legalism.  However, the opposite course of action may also be legalism.  Another Christian may attend in order to prove to all the world that he has liberty, and he is zealous in letting everybody know that fact.  Even if it be perfectly all right for him to go, his going and exalting his self-righteous liberty is legalism.  He does not go because [he is] led of the Spirit and in order to glorify God; therefore, his attendance has become legalistic.9

2) Legalism by the New Testament example.  This is the obvious area of legalism where we would do well to place our emphasis for the gospel’s sake.  We have many legalists today who, like the Judaizers of Paul’s day, are tying to work their way into heaven.  The whole Roman Catholic system is a system of works to gain God’s grace for salvation; all the Arminian branches of Christianity who teach works FOR salvation are legalists, whether that work is baptism, church membership or tongues speaking.  Also, any who teach you can lose your salvation by a human act are teaching that God’s grace is merited by good works, and that is legalism.  Besides these are the multitude of cults and all false religions who are busily working for their salvation.

The Reality of Sanctification

The true believer, who is saved by grace alone without good works, now finds himself faced with the commands of Scripture to do good works.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them (Eph 2:10).  As we have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him (Col 2:6).

When a believer starts out his new life in Christ maintaining good works, is he “pleasing God?”  Of course he is! And we should not feel bullied by antinomians into dropping such language!  That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work (Col 1:10); That as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more (1 Thes 4:1); But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts (1 Thes 2:4).  What is wrong with a believer, who knows he is saved eternally by God’s grace, wanting to please God?  To seek God is to desire to be like Him.  It is to emulate Him in His attributes; to please Him.

The Greater Problem

The fact is that antinomianism (“license”) is a far greater problem within Christianity than legalism.  One cannot read a doctrinal definition of “liberty” without reading strong warnings of its abuses.  Paul wrote, Only use not your liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another (Gal 5:13).  Peter wrote, [Live] as free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God (1 Pet 2:16).  James Orr wrote, “Christians are earnestly warned not to presume upon, or abuse, their liberty in Christ.”10 Lenski wrote, “It is rather usual when Christians are released from the fetters of legalism by throwing open to them the beautiful gates of Christian liberty, that they tend to turn this liberty into license.”11 Even by the common definition of legalism, there is just as much (if not more) bragging about how much one can get away with, as there is about setting up rules for self-congratulations!

And So . . . .

Being conservative in life-style, desiring to keep God’s laws, applying principles of Scripture to one’s life and saying “no” to worldly culture, even enforcing rules when necessary (e.g. Matt 18:15-17), does not make one a legalist, neither by common definition nor by biblical language.


1. Douglas Moo, James (Liecester, UK: IVP, 1990) 98.
2. Charles Ryrie, The Grace of God (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975) 74.
3. Merrill F. Unger, “Law,” Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1966) 647.
4. Ryrie, 76.
5. Charles Swindoll, Grace Awakening (Dallas:  Word Publishing, 1996) 83.
6. Myron J. Houghton, “What Is Legalism,” The Faith Pulpit, Sept/Oct, 1993.
7. O. Raymond Johnston, “Law,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 1978) 319.
8. Ernest Pickering, Are Fundamentalists Legalists? Baptist World Mission, nd., p. 15.
9. Ryrie, 78.
10. James Orr, “Freedom, Free Will,”  ISBE (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1939) 229.
11. R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of First Corinthians (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Pub. House, 1961) 254.