Legalism is a Real Problem

Rick Phillips Articles
Editors' Note: In the coming weeks, Dr. Richard Phillips will be discussing the affirmations and denials of the Gospel Reformation Network. A full list is available at the conclusion of this article.

In order to assist the important discussions taking place concerning justification and sanctification, the Gospel Reformation Network has published 12 Affirmations & Denials on the Gospel and Sanctification.

The first affirmation, Article I: Legalism is a Real Problem, states: 
We affirm that legalism is a dangerous problem that the church must always address.
Perhaps most important to this statement is the word always. Legalism and self-righteousness are perennial problems that are endemic to the fallen condition of man. As Sinclair Ferguson has written, legalism "is embedded in the heart of man almost from the very day of his creation." (1)  This is universally true of the unbeliever who, having neglected Christ, can only point to his or her own deeds for acceptance with God. But legalism is also a constant danger to the believer in Christ, who is constantly tempted to base his or her acceptance with God on moral or spiritual performance.

The problem of legalism must be stressed today in contrast with the New Perspective on Paul, which asserts that Paul was not concerned about legalism when he wrote the classic New Testament passages on justification, especially Galatians 2:16: "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." It has been amply shown that Sanders was wrong about Second Temple Judaism and the apostle: they did practice self-righteousness and Paul was combatting legalism, so that Paul's doctrine of justification does isolate faith from meritorious works. (2) Similarly, some scholars criticize the comparison between the Judaism of Paul's time and Roman Catholicism today, pointing out the role of grace in papal theology. While noting many distinctions, however, the comparison is generally valid, precisely because of the way that grace and works combine for justification under Roman doctrine. Ligon Duncan has written that in Roman Catholicism, "Traditions God never gave us to keep, and practices inconsistent with a gracious salvation, are required and regarded as instrumental causes of salvation along with faith in Christ." (3) This is a profound, however subtle, form of legalism in justification.

Legalism consists of more than openly claiming to be justified by works. It can be seen in an approach to sanctification that forgets the constant dependence of the sinful believer on the active grace of God, through the intercession of our Savior and by the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit. Important as regeneration is, the new birth does not place the Christian into a state where on his own and in his own strength he can obey God. Moreover, legalism can be seen in approaches to conversion that involve legal preparation. This latter issue unfolded in the nineteenth century Marrow Controversy, when the question was asked whether we must "forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ." Here, the law-work of forsaking sin is seen in advance of and as preparation to the embrace of Christ for salvation. The Marrow Controversy primarily concerned the vital question of the free offer of the gospel. Yet it also involved the legalistic idea that the good works which the Bible describes as the necessary fruit of saving grace must be instead a necessary precondition for saving grace. (4)
The proper pastoral response to the problem of legalism is to proclaim faithfully the biblical doctrine of justification through faith alone.  A common over-reaction to legalism, however, is seen among those who as a result are hesitant or even unwilling to teach the biblical doctrine of sanctification, by which the justified believer is called to obedience and good works (see Ephesians 2:10). This over-reaction is addressed in the denial joined to Article I: 
We deny that legalism is the primary enemy of the gospel to the exclusion of spiritual bondage, moral rebellion and a love for sin.
Here, the error lies with the word the. There is no doubt that legalism is a primary enemy of the gospel, as I have stated above. But legalism does not stand alone, apart from the corresponding enemy that is the love of sin. Biblical balance will see legalism on one side of justification and licentiousness as the ditch on the other side. No doubt, there are many people raised in Christian churches who struggle with moralism and performance religion, to whom justification through faith alone must be emphasized. But there are just as many people - perhaps more today - who are at ease in sin and place little value on personal holiness. For these Christians, the doctrine of sanctification needs to be emphasized. Indeed, both conditions pertain equally to all believing sinners, so that both problems - legalism and laziness  -  should be in the constant focus of any gospel ministry. This situation calls for the balanced emphasis on justification and sanctification that we find in the New Testament.

To generalize the situation in terms of biblical books, there is as great a need for 1 Corinthians, which calls Christians to holiness, as there is for Galatians, which defends justification through faith alone. The need today is therefore not to preach Galatians to the Corinthians or to preach 1 Corinthians to the Galatians. The answer is to proclaim the message of both books - the good news of Christ's liberating grace from both the condemnation and the corruption of sin - so that Christians are delivered from both self-righteousness and sinful indulgence. As Toplady so memorably put it, we must cry to our Savior, "Be of sin the double cure / Cleanse me from its guilt and power."(5)

Gospel Reformation Network Affirmations and Denials

Article I - Legalism is a Real Problem
We affirm that legalism is a dangerous problem that the church must always address.
We deny that legalism is the primary enemy of the gospel to the exclusion of spiritual bondage, moral rebellion and a love for sin.

Article II - The Gospel and Total Depravity
We affirm that unregenerate man, being totally depraved, is unable to obey or please God unto salvation.
We deny that the believer, being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, remains unable to obey and please God, by grace and in Christ.

Article III - The Gospel Includes Sanctification
We affirm that the gospel provides salvation for the whole man, including man's need for both imputed and imparted righteousness.
We deny that the gospel provides freedom from the guilt of sin in justification without deliverance from the power of sin in regeneration and liberation from the practice of sin in sanctification.

Article IV - Union with Christ and Sanctification
We affirm that both justification and sanctification are distinct, necessary, inseparable and simultaneous graces of union with Christ though faith.
We deny that sanctification flows directly from justification, or that the transformative elements of salvation are mere consequences of the forensic elements.

Article V - Gratitude and Motivation
We affirm that gratitude for justification is a powerful motivation for growth in holiness.
We deny that gratitude for justification is the only valid motivation for holiness, making all other motivations illegitimate or legalistic.

Article VI-Good Works not Merit
We affirm that believers are not under the Law as a covenant of works, where the believer is required to merit his or her own righteousness before God.
We deny that Christ has freed the Christian from the moral Law as the standard of Christian living.

Article VII - Adoption and Sanctification 
We affirm that through the finished work of Christ believers are adopted by God as sons and now relate to God as their loving heavenly Father.
We deny that our adoption precludes God's fatherly displeasure when His children rebel, or that God's Fatherly love prevents Him from disciplining Christians who stray from the path of righteousness.

Article VIII - Effort and Sanctification 
We affirm that God-glorifying, Christ-centered, Holy Spirit-empowered effort to put off sin and put on righteousness is necessary for Christian growth in grace.
We deny that all practical effort in sanctification is moralistic, legalistic or that the only effort required for growth is that Christians remember, revisit, and rediscover their justification.

Article IX - Faith and Sanctification
We affirm that growth in the Christian life comes through faith, which believes and acts on the promises of God in the Scriptures.
We deny that faith is wholly passive in sanctification or separated from good works in the same sense that justification is by faith alone.

Article X - Preaching the Imperatives
We affirm that faithful preaching of the Law for use in the Christian life must always be done in the context of God's provision through the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit.
We deny that preaching the Scripture's indicatives without the imperatives is a healthy model for Christian ministry because such preaching fails to conform to the pattern seen in Scripture and is dangerous to the life and ministry of the church. 

Article XI - Sanctification and Assurance
We affirm that Christians gain assurance of salvation by cherishing the promise of the gospel and by the fruit of the Spirit's work in the believer's life.
We deny that assurance gained through growth in godliness amounts to a performance-based religion or necessitates an unwholesome spiritual pride.

Article XII - Sanctification and Victory
We affirm that Christians can and should experience victories over sin, however limited and partial, and that these victories bring glory to God and bear testimony to the power of His grace.
We deny that rejoicing in victories over sin amounts to spiritual pride or performance religion, although Christians may and sometimes do sin in this way.

1. Sinclair B. Ferguson, "The Marrow Controversy: Historical Details,", accessed on-line, May 21, 2014, p. 16. Ferguson's lectures on the Marrow Controversy are pure gold in dissecting the nuances of legalism that may infiltrate our ministries.

2. See E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977).  For critiques and rebuttals of Sanders, see Guy Waters, Justification & the New Perspectives on Paul (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), Gary Johnson & Guy Waters, By Faith Alone (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), and A. Andrew Das, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001).

3 .Ligon Duncan, N T Wright and the New Perspective on Paul,", accessed on-line, May 21, 2014.

4. Ferguson, The marrow Controversy: Historical Details, 6.

5. Augustus Toplady, "Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me," 1776.