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

Addicted to Law (or Loving Legalism)

 Read this amazing piece by Walter Marshall (in The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification).

“We are naturally so prone to ground our salvation on our own works, that if we cannot make them procuring conditions and causes of our salvation by Christ, yet we shall endeavor at least to make them necessary preparatives, to fit us for receiving Christ and his salvation by faith” (p. 52).

In other words, we are so prone to legalism and salvation by law-keeping that we’ll convince ourselves that though we’re not saved by our works, they do prepare us for salvation.  After all (we sinfully reason), we can’t come to Jesus as messed-up, filthy, naked sinners who cheat, lie, lust, and hate.  Marshall stomps this legalism out as an attack on the gospel.

“[This] error is pernicious to the practice of holiness, and to our whole salvation.  …While we endeavor to prepare our way to Christ by holy qualifications, we do rather fill it with stumbling blocks, and deep pits, by which our souls are hindered from ever attaining to the salvation by Christ (ibid).”

He goes on to clarify this.

“Christ would have the vilest sinners come to him for salvation immediately, without delaying the time to prepare themselves for him. … Christ would have us to believe on him that justifies the ungodly; and therefore he does not require us to be godly before we believe.  He came as a Physician for the sick, and does not expect that they should recover their health, in the least degree, before they come to him (Matt 9:12). 

This is the beauty of the gospel.

“The vilest sinners are fitly prepared and qualified for this design; which is, to show forth the exceeding riches of grace, pardoning our sins, and saving us freely (Eph 2.5, 7).  …He loved us in our most loathsome sinful pollution, so as to die for us; and much more will he love us in it, so as to receive us when we come to him for the purchased salvation. …It is no affront to Christ…to come to [him] while we are polluted sinners; but rather it is an affronting and contemning the saving grace, merit, and fulness of Christ if we endeavor to make ourselves righteous and holy before we receive Christ himself.”

This book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, is one of the best discussions of justification and sanctification that I’ve read (right up there with Ed Fisher’s Marrow).  It is a tough read, which unfortunately means fewer people will get through it.  I promise you, however, that if you take your time and work through Marshall’s book, you’ll get a deeper undersanding of the gospel and free grace of Christ. 

shane lems

sunnyside wa