Legalism: A Complex and Deadly Spiritual Disease

Legalism is not a rare thing in Christian circles.  It’s not confined to a certain denomination, age, gender, race, or class.  Legalism is not rare because it’s the default mode of the sinful human heart.  Thomas Boston said it is “engrained in man’s corrupt nature.”  From one angle, then, we could even say that legalism is alive and well in non-Christian religious circles since people, in general, tend to think of God as a strict master demanding obedience to his strict rules.  Many people think that we need to obey God to gain his favor and acceptance.  Legalism is not rare!

Legalism is also dangerous and deadly because, as Sinclair Ferguson notes, it is “separating the law of God from the person of God” (p. 83).  Instead of seeing God as a loving and generous Father who gave the law for the good of his children, a legalist sees God as a “magnified policeman who gives his law only because he wants to deprive us and in particular to destroy our joy” (p. 83).

Legalism is poisonous because it is “not only a distortion of the gospel but in its fundamental character it is also a distortion of the law” (Ferguson, p. 88).  A legalist distorts the gospel by mixing the law with it, as if the gospel has to do with one’s obedience.  He distorts the law by forgetting that God gave it to his people in love as a light for their paths.  Or, like John Colquhoun said, “They [the legalists] perverted both the law and the gospel, and formed for themselves a motley covenant of works.”

There is obviously a lot more to legalism.  Legalism comes in many shapes and sizes, degrees and layers; it is a complex spiritual disease.  Based on Ferguson’s discussion of legalism, my interaction with legalists, and my own experience battling legalism, here are some characteristics of legalists:

  • Legalists are unbalanced in that they stress law over grace, God’s justice over his mercy.
  • Legalists are typically rigid, harsh, and judgmental because of their emphasis on laws and rules.
  • Legalists often lack love; being “law-heavy” makes one “love-light.”  For them, judgment triumphs over mercy.
  • Legalists are often unteachable since they believe they are right and others are wrong.
  • Legalists are often biblicistic and their biblicism leads them to ignore the context of Scripture as well as other Scriptures which might go against their rigid beliefs.
  • Legalists often demand/expect perfection and are impatient with others who are not like them.
  • Legalists are often inconsistent and unbalanced.  They emphasize minor, tertiary rules or laws (i.e. clothing rules) but sometimes neglect major important laws (i.e. love and help your neighbor).

More could be said about these things, of course.  Perhaps you could add to the list!  The point I want to make (and repeat) is that legalism is dangerous and deadly.  Here’s Ferguson again:

“[Thomas Boston] knew from experience that a ‘legal frame’ or spirit can pervade the whole of an individual’s life.  It can twist the soul in such a way that it comes near to and yet veers away from the grace of God in the gospel.  Particularly if it is present in someone engaged in preaching and pastoral ministry, it can multiply and become an epidemic in the congregation.  …It lies at the heart of many pastoral problems and is one of the most common spiritual sicknesses” (p. 79-80; 123).

What’s the medicine for the deadly disease of legalism?  It’s for sure not antinomianism.  What then?  The person and work of Christ.  The gospel.  Grace!

For more information, you’ll for sure want to read Ferguson’s chapters on legalism in his excellent book, The Whole Christ.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

The Danger of Biblicism

Biblicism is a problem in the conservative Christian church today.  By “biblicism” I mean an over-rigid adherence to certain Bible texts or teachings at the expense of context and other biblical teachings.  Biblicism is a cousin of legalism since both are often quite rigid, demanding, and unforgiving.  Some examples of biblicism would be an inflexible adherence to things like courting, abstinence from all alcohol, and insistence on a certain way to run a home (to name just a few).  Biblicism often doubts the value of general revelation and sometimes views the Bible as a science textbook.  I’ve also noticed that many biblicists are self-taught and sometimes do not like creeds and confessions.  Biblicism can lead to many problems in a church’s life and in a Christian’s life.

Terry Johnson has a helpful section on biblicism in his book on the five solas called The Case for Traditional Protestantism.  Here’s part of it:

“Believers must not fall into an unwarranted biblicism which, in the name of biblical authority, narrows the scope of its application to only that which the Bible explicitly states and not to that which it implies as well.  This is a danger when the nature of Scripture is not understood.  There is not a verse for every occasion.  The Bible is not a book of detailed causistry providing answers for every imaginable ethical question.  No doubt some have wished that the Bible were such a book….  Yet it still applies to every occasion.  How so?  It reveals general principles which, to be grasped, must be illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and, to be applied concretely in life, must be joined with reason and wisdom.  The need of wisdom can be illustrated by this fact – almost all of life is lived between the lines of explicit biblical commands.”

“We can summarize our point in this way: The Scriptures are sufficient to reveal to us the truth and will of God when read in conjunction with biblical wisdom.  Biblical wisdom can be defined as understanding the nature of things.  To do so I must know the ‘sacred writings,’ ‘which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3:15).

Johnson later notes how a person may know what the Bible says but not really understand the nature of things and therefore misapply the Bible’s teaching.  The farmer doesn’t plant in the spring because the Bible commands it.  “He does so because he correctly percieves the nature of things and acts in harmony with it.”  The wise Christian understands general revelation and special revelation, and conforms his life “to the reality that both books (nature and the Bible) reveal.”

Yes, the Bible is the Christian’s highest authority in all of life, and yes, Scripture is sufficient for doctrine and life.  But that doesn’t mean we should ignore general revelation.  It doesn’t mean that there’s a Bible verse for everything.  It doesn’t mean we can ignore context and flatten out the Bible.  It doesn’t mean we don’t have to use wisdom in all areas of life.  Biblicism sometimes sounds good because it uses Scripture so much, but we have to remember there is a wrong way to use it!  And typically, as Augustine said, the person who has himself as a teacher has a fool for a student (cf. Prov. 1:7, 12:15, and 28:24). So we need to humbly listen to wise counsel and fervently pray for wisdom ourselves, which – thankfully! – God gives to those who ask in faith (James 1:5-6).

The above quotes are found in chapter two of The Case for Traditional Protestantism by Terry Johnson.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI