June 1, 2015
Legalism is a tricky topic. There isn't a Christian alive on earth who doesn't struggle with legalistic tendencies. To diagnose this problem, we need to look at the various types of legalisms that we encounter in the church and in our hearts to understand the concept. Neat definitions aren't always helpful (as in the case of antinomianism). While there is a form of legalism that is soul-damning, there are other types of legalistic ideas whereby Christians may not necessarily be in danger of hell, but they are nevertheless in error.
I think it is important to distinguish different types of legalisms. No doubt, some of the categories below overlap with each other, but we should make the point that Christians, who are going to heaven, still struggle with legalism. In other words, we are not de facto legalists (in terms of our identity), but we still have legalistic tendencies (because of indwelling sin).
At the same time, we must never forget that there is a vicious type of soul-damning legalism that will send people to hell. We need to speak about that ("capital L") Legalism the way the NT authors do. Faith-alone and Christ-alone, are Reformation principles we cannot afford to be tentative about.
Thus there are two major forms of legalism: soul-damning legalism and soul-harming legalism. The former always includes the latter, but the latter does not necessarily include the former.
1. Soul-damning legalism
You need to do something, besides believe on Christ, to be saved. See the book of Galatians (e.g, Gal. 5:2). This type of legalism sends people to hell (Matt. 23:15).
Connected to this is "soteriological legalism" whereby even something good - i.e., God's law - is used improperly, and people believe, for example, that they need their good deeds to outweigh their bad deeds to be saved. They believe they are justified by works. All religions, except the true religion (i.e., Christianity), advocate for this idea.
These types of people, some of whom belong to the church (e.g., Pharisees), are generally good at keeping their own man-made laws, but not so good at keeping God's law (Matt. 23).
2. Soul-harming legalism
A) Time "heals" legalism
This form of legalism will not send you to hell, but it will harm your soul. As a Christian, you sin, and sin often. But when you confront the guilt of your sin and you put something between your guilty soul and Christ's free forgiveness, you have fallen into the trap of soul-harming legalism.
Some Christians will let time elapse before they think they can go to God. Others will indulge in forms of penance to help God out with forgiveness. And the list goes on. When we sin, the first and best thing we can do is repent and accept God's free forgiveness.
B) Well-intentioned legalism
Closely connected to soul-harming, works-salvation legalism is well-intentioned legalism. You know that God requires that you obey him, and you know you must have the fruit of the Spirit, and you long for righteousness, but you end up pursuing these things in your own strength, not because you are evil, but because you haven't tasted fully God's grace or even asked for his grace.
John Owen's treatise on Romans 8:13 is not a "must-read" (see below). But I do think he has some very perceptive things to say about ways in which Christians improperly try to deal with sin. He also has some very good advice on how Christians must depend on the Holy Spirit to deal with sin.
C) Mystical Legalism
Believers can place themselves and others under a law that God never placed them under. They say, "God told me...", not because the Scriptures have given a command, but because of some nebulous feeling or "voice".
Imagine God told a young man to marry a certain young woman. If that indeed is the case, is the young woman not obliged to then obey the Lord because the young man was told from the Lord that he was to marry her?
People unwittingly can make God a legalist when they claim he told them to do something specific.
D) Parenting legalism
How we view the way others parent, even our own spouse, can be legalistic. The high expectations we have for our children when our own example is so pitiful at times reveals a legalistic spirit.
We want obedient children (rightly so), but we produce moralism in our children. They can have cold, stony hearts because we never actually get to the heart of the issue. And they don't know what repentance looks like because we don't repent publicly enough for our own failings.
In addition, get a bunch of moms together in a room who either have small children or are about to have a child and you'll quickly find as many views (perhaps more?) on proper parenting as you will mothers in the room.
E) Adiaphora legalism
This is where God has granted us Christian liberty on a certain matter. There is no clear command given in God's word regarding certain things we may do or not do. The WCF has an excellent section on this in chapter 20:1-3 (see also 1 Cor. 8-11:1; Rom. 14).
The person may still go to heaven (i.e., it is not soul-damning), but they have made a rule where God has not. There are things indifferent (adiaphora), but even in these indifferent matters we are still bound to the principle found in 1 Cor. 10:31 and Rom. 14:23.
So there are Christians who believe it is necessarily sinful to listen to rock music or rap music. There are others who think it is sinful to not home-school. Still there are others who decry Christmas as a pagan holiday, which should not be celebrated in any way by Christians. And others think it is wrong to drink alcohol. There are even Christian seminaries that take this view, which is rather odd because seminaries are places where people go to learn good theology, not bad theology!
To suggest, then, that Christians must home-school is a form of Christian legalism. Those who make these claims are not those who are saying home-schooling is best for our family, but they are people who think it is wrong (sinful) to send your children to a public school.
F) Theologically-misinformed legalism
Here we have to acknowledge that we may have a fairly solid biblical argument, as far as we are concerned, but we may still be wrong. Take, for example, head-coverings (1 Cor. 11:2-16). If requiring women to wear head-coverings is not commanded by Paul, then commanding women to wear head-coverings is legalistic. It is commanding what God has not commanded. Of course, those who argue for this are not saying that a woman needs to wear a head-covering in order to be saved, but to require women to wear head-coverings may be, if Paul has not commanded the practice, legalistic.
The same could be argued for the Sabbath. I hold to the Lord's Day as a Sabbath day, but if God's word does not in fact teach the continuation of the Sabbath-day principle then I am, in this particular area, being legalistic. It will not damn me to Hell, of course, but I have commanded people in my church to do or not do things without warrant from God's word.
We all make mistakes in our theology and believe God is commanding something when perhaps he isn't, but we have a wrong view of what the Scriptures teach and require.
G) Ecclesiastical-pride legalism
"We are the only true church" mentality. I know of many churches where their ecclesiology effectively excommunicates the vast majority of Christians. They believe there are only a handful of true, faithful churches - and, shock of all shocks, they are one of those churches. It can be a denominational thing, too. Unless you marry someone from our denomination, you've basically sinned.
Or, our churches are big and continually growing, so we are therefore doing things right and how dare you question us about our methods or ecclesiology.
Or, our churches are small and shrinking, so we are therefore being faithful when everyone else is not.
H) Self-appointed authority legalism
This is quite subtle, and sometimes the intentions are clearly harmless. Here a person says something like: "Tweet this" or "You must read this." In effect, I am being told by someone to do something that God hasn't commanded me to do.
This self-appointed authority legalism flows out of an attitude of "I'm someone you should listen to." And if you don't read this article/book you have missed out on what I think is something you need, and, worse, you have ignored me.
I don't like to feel guilty about not reading things you think are important.
I) Tattletale legalism
These children are letter of the law types, as in LETTER of the law. They are always holding other children to rules that few children on earth can bear. They love to tell on other children, and have a graceless spirit. The problem is likely a parenting problem.
There are many more categories and types of legalistic tendencies among Christians. Most church disunity flows out of legalistic ideas.
Besides what I have spoken of above, we have youth-group legalism, Facebook legalism (share this if you love Jesus), political legalism (Christians vote for this party), women's retreats legalism, cultural legalism, conference legalism, birthday party legalism, etc.
If antinomianism is tricky to identify, define, and diagnose - and I have tried to argue that there are subtle forms of antinomianism, as opposed to the crass "against God's law" form of antinomianism - I think legalism may be even trickier. I have both antinomian and legalistic tendencies. The only problem is: identifying my legalistic tendencies is a lot harder than identifying my antinomian tendencies. Why? Because we love to wrap our legalisms up in a cloak of self-righteousness.
And, yes, keeping God's law is not legalistic. And we shouldn't ever call obedience, done in faith by the power of the Spirit , legalistic. But at the same time, we shouldn't be unaware that the easiest law-keeping in the world are the laws we make up instead of what God requires of us in his Word.
Remember, too, Christ died for our legalisms.