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

Every Work Excluded (Colquhoun)

A Treatise on the Law and Gospel by [Colquhoun, John] One of the great themes of the Reformation – and of the Apostle Paul – was that a sinner is justified not by works, but only by faith in Christ.  In other words, a sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone, not by any sort of obedience to the law in any way, shape, or form.  Here’s how John Colquhoun (d. 1827) summarized this point that Paul emphasized in Galatians:

The great design of our Apostle, then, was to draw them [the readers] off from their false views of the law; to direct them to right conceptions of it in its covenant form in which it can admit of no personal obedience as a condition of life, but such as is perfect — and so to destroy their legal hope as well as to confute their wrong notions.

In other words, Paul was telling the Galatian Christians that when a person thinks he can gain salvation from works of the law, he has a false view of the law.  In this way, Paul destroyed their “legal hope” and their “wrong notions” of the law.  Colquohoun continues:

By the reasonings of the apostle upon this subject, it is manifest that every evangelical, as well as every legal, work of ours is excluded from forming even the smallest part of a man’s righteousness for justification in the sight of God. It is evident that even faith itself as a man’s act or work, and so comprised in the works of the law, is thereby excluded from being any part of his justifying righteousness (see the Westminster Confession of Faith XI:I).

When Paul says that all works are excluded, that means we can’t even claim that faith is a sort of work that contributes to our justification.  More:

It is one thing to be justified by faith merely as an instrument by which a man receives the righteousness of Christ, and another to be justified for faith as an act or work of the law. If a sinner, then, relies on his actings of faith or works of obedience to any of the commands of the law for a title to eternal life, he seeks to be justified by the works of the law as much as if his works were perfect.

If he depends, either in whole or in part, on his faith and repentance for a right to any promised blessing, he thereby so annexes [adds] that promise to the commands to believe and repent as to form them for himself into a covenant of works. Building his confidence before God upon his faith, repentance, and other acts of obedience to the law, he places them in Christ’s stead as his grounds of right to the promise; and so he demonstrates himself to be of the works of the law, and so to be under the curse (Galatians 3:10).

Justification by faith alone, as Scripture teaches, means the sinner doesn’t contribute anything towards his justification.  Like the Heidelberg Catechism says,

“It is not because of any value that my faith has that God is pleased with me.  Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me right with God.  And I can receive this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone” (Q/A 61).

The above quote is found in John Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, p. 19-20.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

It Does Not Depend Upon Any Uncertain Condition (Witsius)

Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (2-Volumes) In Reformed theology distinctions are quite important.  There’s a distinction between the law and the gospel, between justification and sanctification, and between the covenant of works and covenant of grace  (just to name a few).  Here is how Herman Witsius explained the difference between the latter:

Here we are to observe a remarkable difference between the promises of the covenant of works, and those of the covenant of grace. The same eternal life is promised in both, which can be but one, consisting in the communion and enjoyment of God; but it is promised in a manner quite different in the one from what it is in the other.

In the covenant of works God promised life to man, on condition of perfect obedience; but he did not promise to produce or effect this obedience in man.

In the covenant of grace, he not only promises life eternal, but also at the same time faith and repentance, and perseverance in holiness, without which life cannot be attained, and which being granted, life cannot but be obtained. And even in this sense it may be said – that the covenant of which Christ is the Mediator is “more excellent, and established on better promises” (Heb. 8:6), because it does not depend on any uncertain condition, but is founded on the suretyship and actual satisfaction of Christ – does infallibly secure salvation to the believer, and as certainly promise faith to the elect.

Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 1 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 251–252.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Peace (Vos)

Most of the books in my library are replaceable.  I do loan out my books and try to keep track of who has what.  But if one of these books would get lost, I wouldn’t be too upset.  There are, however, a handful of books that I don’t loan out because I have so much writing in them.  These would be hard to replace because I’ve written my own indexes and marginal notes. They’d also be hard to replace for sentimental reasons: I usually remember when and where and what stage I was at in my Christian life when I read these books.  Geerhardus Vos’ Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation is one of those books I don’t loan out because it would be hard to replace.  Speaking of this book, one article in it stands out for me: “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology.”  I read this one more than a few times and still find nuances I missed before!  Here’s one part that I highlighted and underlined:

If man already stood in a covenant relation to God before the fall, then it is to be expected that the covenant idea will also dominate in the work of redemption. God cannot simply let go of the ordinance which He once instituted, but much rather displays His glory in that He carries it through despite man’s sin and apostasy. It was merely the other side of the doctrine of the covenant of works that was seen when the task of the Mediator was also placed in this light. A Pactum Salutis, a Counsel of Peace, a Covenant of Redemption, could then be spoken of.

There are two alternatives: one must either deny the covenant arrangement as a general rule for obtaining eternal life, or, granting the latter, he must also regard the gaining of eternal life by the Mediator as a covenant arrangement and place the establishing of a covenant in back of it. Thus it also becomes clear how a denial of the covenant of works sometimes goes hand in hand with a lack of appreciation for the counsel of peace.

If you have to read these lines a few times to get the point, don’t feel badly; I did too.  But Vos is right on here: the covenant God made with Adam and the covenantal aspect of Christ’s work go hand in hand!  Herman Bavinck, another Dutch Reformed theologian, echoed a similar conclusion: “The covenant of works and the covenant of grace stand or fall together.”

You can find Vos’ article in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Positive Elements of the Covenant of Works (Vos)

Reformed Dogmatics (5 vols.) In volume 2 of his Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos discusses (in detail) the covenant of works.  Here’s an outline of the main propositions concerning the federal headship of Adam in that covenant (I tweaked the formatting a bit to make it easier to follow the outline).

    a)      Adam by nature was obliged to obey God, without thereby having any right to a reward.
    b)      God had created him mutable, and he also possessed no right to an immutable state.
    c)      His natural relationship to God already included that he, if sinning, must be punished by God.
    d)      All this was a natural relationship in which Adam stood. Now to this natural relationship a covenant was added by God, which contained various positive elements.
  e)      These positive elements were the following.
1.      An element of representation. Adam stood not just for himself but by virtue of a legal ordering of God, for all his posterity.
2.      An element of probation with limited duration. While previously or otherwise Adam’s period of testing could have lasted forever with a constant possibility of a sinful choice, so now a fixed period of perseverance would have led to a condition of immutable virtue.
3.      An element of reward, ‘ex pacto’ [by covenant]. By the free ordination of God, Adam received a right to eternal life if he fulfilled the conditions of the covenant of works.
    f)      Now when it is said that these three elements are positive, that does not mean that within God’s being there was not an inclination to reveal Himself in such unremitting kindness to man. He is the God of the covenant, and it is intrinsic to His being that He wants to be. But man had no right to expect and to demand it; in so far is the covenant of works positive.

Vos, Geerhardus. Reformed Dogmatics. Ed. Richard B. Gaffin and Richard de Witt. Trans. Annemie Godbehere et al. Vol. 2. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013. Print.

shane lems

Vos on the Mosaic Covenant

Reformed Dogmatics (5 vols.) Thanks to Logos Reformed, I’ve been enjoying the first two volumes of Geerhardus Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics (English translation).  In these volumes, and among other things, Vos discusses Reformed covenant theology extensively (the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace).  Here’s a section of Vos’ longer discussion on the place of the Mosaic covenant – the covenant God made with Israel on Sinai.

“The Sinaitic covenant is not a new covenant as concerns the essence of the matter, but the old covenant of grace established with Abraham in somewhat changed form….”

“The covenant with Israel served in an emphatic manner to recall the strict demands of the covenant of works. To that end, the law of the Ten Commandments was presented so emphatically and engraved deeply in stone. This law was not, as Cocceius meant, simply a form for the covenant of grace. It truly contained the content of the covenant of works. But—and one should certainly note this—it contains this content as made serviceable for a particular period of the covenant of grace. It therefore says, for example, “I am the Lord your God.” Therefore, it also contains expressions that had reference specifically to Israel, and thus are not totally applicable to us (e.g., “that it may be well with you in the land that the Lord your God gives you”).”

“But also, beyond the Decalogue, there is reference to the law as a demand of the covenant of works (e.g., Lev 18:5; Deut 27:26; 2 Cor 3:7, 9). It is for this reason that in the last cited passage, Paul calls the ministry of Moses a ministry of condemnation. This simply shows how the demand of the law comes more to the fore in this dispensation of the covenant of grace. This ministry of the law had a twofold purpose: 1) It is a disciplinarian until Christ. 2) It serves to multiply sin, that is, both to lure sin out from its hidden inner recesses as well as to bring it to consciousness (cf. Gal 3:19; Rom 4:15; 5:13). Paul teaches expressly that the law did not appear here as an independent covenant of works in Gal 3:19ff. That the law is also not a summary of the covenant of grace appears from the absence of the demand of faith and of the doctrine of the atonement.”

On a similar note, check out Francis Turretin’s description of the Mosaic covenant (HERE) and William Ames’ description (HERE).

Finally, Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics are not for sale individually quite yet at Logos Reformed, but the volumes 1-2 are included in some Logos Reformed package deals.  The above quote is found in Vos, Geerhardus. Reformed Dogmatics. Ed. Richard B. Gaffin & Richard de Witt. Trans. Annemie Godbehere et al. Vol. 2. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013, pp 76-77.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Bavinck’s Sharp Law/Gospel Contrast

(This is a repost from three years ago – January 2010.)

Below are some words by Herman Bavinck (d. 1921) on the law/gospel distinction.  No doubt Ursinus, Boston, Turretin, and Watson would put their stamp of approval on this.  [Note: right before this section Bavinck criticizes the Papacy for making the gospel into a second law and “erasing” the “Pauline antithesis of law and gospel” (even the modern RC catechism uses similar language – cf. Part III, ch. III, Art. 1).]

“While, on the one hand, the Reformers held on to the unity of the covenant of grace in its two dispensations against the Anabaptists, on the other hand they also perceived the sharp contrast between law and gospel and thereby again restored the peculiar character of the Christian religion as a religion of grace.  Although in a broad sense the terms ‘law’ and ‘gospel’ can indeed be used to denote the old and the new dispensation of the covenant of grace, in their actual significance they definitely describe two essentially different revelations of divine will.”

“Also the law is the will of God; holy, wise, good, and spiritual; giving life to those who maintain it, but because of sin it has been made powerless, it fails to justify, it only stimulates covetousness, increases sin, arouses wrath, kills, curses, and condemns.  Over against it stands the gospel of Christ, the euangellion, which contains nothing less than the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise, which comes to us from God, has Christ as its content, and conveys nothing other than grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, righteousness, peace, freedom, life, and so forth.”

“In these texts [Bavinck cites around 20 in the above paragraphs] law and gospel are contrasted as demand and gift, as command and promise, as sin and grace, as sickness and healing, as death and life.  Although they agree in that both have God as author, both speak of one and the same perfect righteousness, and both are addressed to human beings to bring them to eternal life, they nevertheless differ in that the law proceeds from God’s holiness, the gospel from God’s grace; the law is known from nature, the gospel only from special revelation; the law demands perfect righteousness, but the gospel grants it; the law leads people to eternal life by works, and the gospel produces good works from the riches of eternal life granted in faith; the law presently condemns people, and the gospel acquits them; the law addresses itself to all people, and the gospel only to those who live within its hearing; and so forth.”

This is Dutch theology at its Reformed best.  Maybe we could call this the Holland Hermeneutic.

Quotes taken from volume IV of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, p. 452-3.

shane lems