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

I Felt Led To…

  (This is a slightly edited re-post from May, 2011)

Common phrases in evangelicalism today include “I felt led to…”, “God told me to….”, and “The Lord laid it on my heart to….”  I cringe every time someone uses these phrases because I’ve heard so many unbiblical endings to them.  In fact, I’ve seen people’s lives take a million tough twists and turns because they were “following the promptings of God.”  For one example, I hesitate to think that God would “prompt” somebody to avoid the ER when their daughter gets a deep cut that probably needs stitches. 

If I can speak candidly, I believe this has to do with lack of biblical knowledge.  Sinclair Ferguson says that perhaps one reason why our Christian forefathers rarely wrote about finding God’s will is because they knew the Bible better than most Christians today know it.  “They concentrated on teaching themselves and others the will of God which they discovered in Scripture, and the life of obedience to God in a daily submission to and application of his truth.” 

What is God’s will for us?  To know his word (cf. Ps 119, Ps 143:10), to grow in godliness, faith, and obedience (sanctification – cf. 1 Thes. 4.3), and to give thanks always (1 Thes. 5.18).  Instead of going by our gut feelings, promptings, or some kind of leading, we go by the word first and foremost.  God’s will is that we obey his law – our duty is to know it, study it, and meditate on it (Ps 119).  We do not and cannot know the big part of God’s will that is secret, but we can and should know the part that is revealed in the Bible (Deut. 29.29).

Ferguson says it well.  He writes that our own thinking that has to do with discerning God’s will.

“Do you speak about God’s guidance as ‘discerning the will of God?’  Or, do you usually speak of it in terms of ‘I felt led to do it?’  Guidance, knowing God’s will for our lives, is much more a matter of thinking than feeling.  We are not to be ‘foolish’ (literally ‘mindless’) says Paul, but to understand what the will of the Lord is (Eph. 5.17).”

That’s exactly right.  The Christian life doesn’t need to be a constant, subjective, and often frustrating attempt to step into God’s will (whatever that means).  We don’t need to treat scripture like a lottery system (in John Newton’s terms) and hope for some single random verse to spark a “prompting.”  We have God’s revealed will in the Old and New Testaments.  Our duty is not to pry into God’s secret will, but know his revealed will, both the law and the gospel, praying for the Spirit’s help in applying the word and giving us wisdom to make those tough choices in life.  We know the first Q/A of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, but we shouldn’t divorce it from the second Q/A!

In summary, instead of saying “God really spoke to my heart and told me…” we need to say this: “I prayed, read through God’s commandments and his promises, asked a few Christian friends, and these things helped me decide to take that job on the other side of town instead of move to another state.”

By the way, I highly recommend Ferguson’s book I quoted (pages 34-36): Discovering God’s Will.  In fact, since it is inexpensive, get two and give one to the next person who tells you that God has been prompting him to do something obviously unbiblical (and probably quite foolish).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Where the Word Is, There Is the Spirit

In the immediate wake of the Reformation, some radical reformers (the Anabaptists) began to divorce the Spirit from the Word.   For example, some Anabaptists said the Bible was a ‘dead letter’ (referring to Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 3).  In 1531, Sebastian Franck even lamented that his friend Campanus was “so addicted to the letter of Scripture” that he withdrew his heart “from the teaching of the Spirit.” Sinclair Ferguson explains Calvin’s excellent response to the Anabaptist division of Word and Spirit.

“In response we find Calvin frequently emphasizing – as a refrain in his teaching – that we can never separate the Spirit from the Word, precisely because the Spirit is the author of the Word, and executes the will of God in covenantal consistency with the Word.  Thus, for example, he writes that those who forsake the Word for the Spirit are guilty of ‘fatal fantasies in which fanatics entangle themselves when they abandon the Word and invent some sort of vague and erratic spirit.’  A recurring theme in Calvin’s thought, therefore, is that Christ, the Spirit, and the Word are not to be separated.  For the Scriptures are the scepter by which Christ rules the church as its Lord.”

“Thus what presents itself as a recovery of the ministry of the Spirit in effect leads to a rejection of the distance between God and man, a rejection of the authority of Scripture, and a rending apart of justification and sanctification.”

Taken from pages 18-19 of Always Reformed (for more details, click here).  Ferguson’s chapter (“Calvin: Theologian of the Holy Spirit”) is simply fantastic.  I highly recommended it!

shane lems

Always Reformed: A Collection of Outstanding Essays

 If you’re looking for a book that broadly summarizes the history, theology, and ecclesiology of Reformed churches, you’ll want to get Always Reformed, a collection of essays dedicated to Dr. Robert Godfrey, pastor and president of Westminster Seminary California.  This book is a handsome hardcover (around 250 pages) that includes contributions by men like Sinclair Ferguson, Richard Muller, Mike Horton, R.C. Sproul, and Cornelis Venema.  The topics include Calvin’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Ferguson), a summary of Machen’s ministry (D. G. Hart), an essay on Calvin, Kuyper, and culture by David VanDrunen, a chapter on the Lord’s Supper (Kim Riddlebarger), and a lesson on preaching the doctrine of regeneration (Hywel Jones), among others. 

I’m about half-finished with this book (I’d finish it today but I had better write some sermons!), and so far my favorite chapters were Ferguson’s on Calvin’s teaching of the Holy Spirit and Hywel Jones’ great emphasis on preaching the doctrine of monergistic regeneration.  Venema’s summary of the URCNA was helpful as well.  No doubt I’ll blog more on the other chapters later. 

The book will be most appreciated by Reformed Christians who are relatively well-read in theology and history.  In other words, it is not for high schoolers, but I would assign certain chapters to college age students in a discussion group (for one example).  Also, I’m going to assign chapters in my elders’ training classes.  Obviously, seminary students and pastors should also get this book.  The print is relatively small, but footnotes and chapters of around 15-20 pages make it less daunting.   Always Reformed is a collection of solid theological essays that will no doubt contribute to the profession and piety of Reformed churches.

Much more info about this book (table of contents, a few free chapters, etc) can be found HERE.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

New Baptism Book on Sale (Three Views)

Go here to get it for just 4.99 – limited time only!  I haven’t read it yet, and I’m somewhat skeptical about these “Three/Four Views” type books, but I like Sinclair Ferguson and thought other readers might like to check it out.  The other contributors are Bruce Ware and Anthony Lane.

shane lems

sunnyside wa