Legalism and Scripture 1: Definitions

About a year and a half ago, a friend asked me if I listened to the “Recovering Fundamentalist Podcast.”  He went on to describe their meteoric rise to fame and popularity as they hammered away at the “legalism” that has often characterized fundamentalism.  This particular genre of Internet sensation exposes just how offensive people find the arrogance that comes from crotchety fundamentalism.  No doubt, we have a lot to answer for.

More than a few Christians have been seriously hurt by fundamentalism.  I will be the first to acknowledge the warrant for some of the criticisms – I have seen the damage personally, as these things have irreparably damaged members of my own family.  Over the past 20 years, countless blogs, forums, websites, and now podcasts have sprung up in an attempt to repudiate the arrogance and extremes of fundamentalism.  It is low-hanging fruit, sure to get attention.  And in a sense, these kinds of Internet sensations have become commonplace enough that we might say they are a dime-a-dozen.  Nonetheless, the demand for these sites illustrates the deep pain many feel at the legalism they have encountered in IFB churches. 

My purpose in this post is not to defend arrogance in any form or to argue particular standards. No doubt, many would consider me a legalist.  But my purpose is not to provide cover for IFB cranks.  Some things are easy to caricature, and I have heard far too many cringe-worthy sermon clips from my brethren in the IFB.  Much of what has alienated Bible-believing Christians could be resolved by a return to what past generations might have called “Bible preaching.”  Despite all the yipping to the contrary, I hear very little Biblical content in far too many IFB sermons.  Ranting makes for a good show.  But let’s don’t equate opinionating with Bible preaching. 

Several years ago, some young men from Texas helped us produce videos for our church.  They had grown up in an IFB church and had consequently left the IFB in their early adulthood.  As we progressed through the week, they began to open up to me about the hurt they carried from their youth.  In particular, they felt deprived by the lack of Bible preaching they heard in their church.  They commented that at one stretch, they had gone to church for four straight weeks without the need to open their Bibles. Instead, they heard weekly rants about the Bible and the neos.  They said, “we knew every opinion our pastor held — but we didn’t know the Bible.” 

As I said, legalism is the low-hanging fruit, easy to lampoon.  I will be the first to admit to some terribly arrogant attitudes in our ranks.  I don’t deny the existence of “legalism” (as popularly understood) amongst IFB churches.  And I am not here to defend unscriptural attitudes or extra-biblical standards.  But I also know that many tender-hearted members of IFB churches are just as bothered by the charge of legalism as those jaded “IFBx.”  I write this for their sake. 

My goal in this post and what will likely be a short series of posts is to flesh out a Biblical view of legalism.  In this first post, we will focus on the difficulty of establishing a Biblical standard for calling someone “legalistic.”  Feel free to offer feedback in the comments section below as we navigate this hot topic.  We begin by arguing that…

“Legalism” isn’t a Scriptural Category

Legalism, as popularly understood, is never explicitly named in Scripture.  The Bible doesn’t use the term or address the issue directly in any form.  When believers accuse other believers of legalism, they typically mean that you are too strict and rules oriented – too many “binding man-made rules:” When I try to research the origins of this particular use of the term legalism, I struggle to find a source.  I come up empty in every google search attempting to discover when this term began to be applied to strictness.  Plenty of articles address the failure; none tell me when “legalism” became the term for it.  This particular article, called “The Roots of Legalism” (, traces it to the heart (no surprise).

The roots of legalism are in the sinful and fallen human heart itself. The heart manifests its sinful condition in our crippling desire to lean on our own merits and our own abilities in the attempt to somehow climb out of the miry pit of sin and reach all the way to heaven. 

In this same article, Stephen Nichols traces legalism (gasp!) to Fundamentalism through the Anabaptists. 

One branch of the Reformation initially celebrated this glorious truth of grace and then departed from it. In Zurich, there arose the Anabaptists. In addition to their other beliefs, they advocated withdrawing from society and living in segregated communities. They would soon develop a dress code and rules for how they would live and work. They called themselves the Mennonites, as they followed the teachings of Menno Simons (1496–1561). In 1693, Jakob Ammann broke from the Mennonites over the practice of “the ban”—shunning those who transgress rules. His followers would be known as the Amish. They went beyond the gospel to regulations and traditions.

The same dynamic occurred in the twentieth century in various pockets of fundamentalism. I remember walking into a church in the 1970s and being confronted with two large diagrams showing acceptable hair and clothing guidelines for men and for women. Christianity was reduced to lists, mostly of what not to do.

But when I research the term itself, I find various articles on an ancient Chinese philosophy that looked to rules as the antidote to human depravity. In addition, Kent Yinger has written a scholarly paper for George Fox Evangelical Seminary in which he examines the historical use of this term.  From his findings, legalism is a fairly elastic pejorative, suitable for aiming at just about any set of rules one finds distasteful or extreme.

Roman Catholics have been termed legalists by Protestants for requiring adherence to a code of canon law and/or for a perceived soteriological synergism. Puritans have been viewed as legalistic by non-Puritans due to the former’s stringent Sabbath rules. Protestant Fundamentalists appear to make adherence to strict rules of doctrine and behavior a saving necessity (e.g., no dancing, smoking, or card-playing) and thus receive this epithet from non-Fundamentalists. Liberal Protestants appeared legalistic to some Lutherans since the former seemed to require certain social or political behavior of those who would be genuine followers of Christ. Even the call to repent and believe might be termed “legalistic” by some who advocate sola gratia and sola fide, since it makes not only faith in Jesus Christ but also repentance a requirement for salvation. In Christian theology, the meaning of legalism varies with the soteriology of the individual user and his or her tradition. Of course, for many “The rigid interpretation of Torah by the Pharisees as reflected in the NT has become a prototype of legalism.” (the author cites Iris V. Cully, s.v. “Legalism,” The Dictionary of Bible and Religion, ed. William H. 28 Gentz (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986), 608.)

John Piper on Legalism

John Piper has done great work on the topic of legalism.  Despite some significant disagreement with Piper, I find him refreshingly fair and honest and reasoned.  After pointing out that there is no Hebrew or Greek word for legalism, Piper says that when someone uses the term, they need to define it and defend their use of the term from Scripture.  Piper then says what he means when he says “legalism.”

Legalism is the conviction that law-keeping is now, after the Fall, the ground of our acceptance with God – the ground of God being for us and not against us.

Piper points to Romans 3:20 and Romans 3:28, and Galatians 2:16 as Biblical evidence that legalism is wrong; this kind of law-keeping is renounced in the New Testament. But then, he rightly adds, “God is for us because of Christ, and not because we have gone the way of law-keeping.”

From there, Piper adds a further definition – a derivative meaning more common today among those considered “legalists.”

It’s the spirit and life that flow from a failure to be humbled and broken and amazed, and satisfied by the grace of God in Christ. There’re all kinds of attitudes, of pride, demandingness, lack of mercy, lack of compassion, unkindness, impatience. And these have their root (don’t they?!) in a heart that is not stunned by grace. Not broken and humbled by grace, not joyfully filled with grace, and that creates a legal spirit.

And then, he points to the attitude of legalism:

Legalism is used rightly I think, biblically, if we say that it’s an attitude, a spirit, a disposition, of all kinds of behaviors, of feelings that are rooted in a failure to be amazed that I’m saved by grace, amazed that I’m accepted by God, freely melted and broken and humbled and filled with joy because of what God has done because that… that has… that flavors all we do…

In a different episode entitled “Can we be legalistic about legalism?” Piper points out the danger of this term as a pejorative.  You can read a full transcript here.

Here’s the startling fact that more people need to take into account, and they need to become more careful in their use of the language: there is no word for “legalism” in New Testament Greek. The English word “legalism” never occurs in any modern translation of all the Bible. It’s not in the ESV, NIV, NASB, NKJV. What this means is that the incredible frequency and confidence with which we use the word today in a negative way to criticize other people stands on very shaky ground. Not shaky because such a thing may not exist, but shaky because we may not know what we’re talking about.

Piper then lists “four things that are often called “legalism,” which the New Testament does not condemn but in fact encourages.” 

  • It is not legalistic to believe that a changed life of love and holiness are necessary for final salvation.
  • It is not legalistic to think of the Christian life as a life of obedience guided by commands, commandments of Jesus.
  • It is not legalistic for a Christian to make it his aim to please God by the way he lives.
  • It is not legalistic to use warnings and threatenings toward professing Christians to stir them up to be vigilant in their pursuit of holiness in heaven.

This he follows up with “three meanings of legalism that I hear used today that I think ought to be used.”

  • We might call someone “legalistic” if they are overly scrupulous about behaviors that are not prohibited or commanded in the New Testament.
  • We might call someone “legalistic” if they fail to see that the Mosaic system of sacrifices and priestly ceremonies and rites of purification and food laws and rituals that distinguish Israel from the nations are not binding any longer on the Christian.
  • Finally, we might call someone “legalistic” if they treat the law or any moral behavior as the ground of our full acceptance with God instead of seeing Christ’s blood and righteousness as the only ground of our acceptance, and faith in him as the only means of having what he died to obtain.

I include so much of what Piper says here because, frankly, I think he nails it on this issue, even though I hold a few standards (maybe more than a few) that he considers legalistic (like prohibitions on alcohol in the church). 

Thinking Biblically About Legalism

In the next few blog posts, I intend to look carefully at what the Bible says about strictness and law-keeping and its place in God’s churches. But, for now, I would like to point out the difficulty of nailing down a precise definition of legalism that can be used to identify stricter brethren as legalists. 

If I may summarize, Piper describes the flaw in legalistic thinking. He argues that legalism shows up when we are overly scrupulous about behavior, or apply parts of the law that no longer apply, or view the law as a means of gaining favor with God.  I agree with this in principle.  But I would quickly add that this definition doesn’t make it any easier to identify a legalist – a fact that Piper seems to agree with. 

We have friends who believe a woman should wear a head covering in church services.  I can’t entirely agree with their reasoning, but I wouldn’t call them legalists.  I believe they are attempting to apply Scripture faithfully and desire to honor God by wearing a head covering. So why would I despise them by calling them legalists?  The fact that they are stricter in this area than I believe Scripture requires does not make them legalists. 

We know more than a few Christians who refuse to celebrate Christmas and consider a Christmas tree a modern-day form of idolatry.  I strongly disagree with this view. Our home sports about 4-5 Christmas trees every year.  I think they are being overly scrupulous about Christmas.  But I wouldn’t call them legalists. 

We have other friends who are Messianic.  They only celebrate the Jewish holidays mentioned in the Old Testament.  They follow strict kosher laws.  We disagree with them on these things.  We don’t believe this is a correct application of the Mosaic system in this New Testament age.  In this particular case, I have had several conversations with our friends, probing whether or not they believe these scruples about Mosaic purity rites are necessary for salvation or are “the ground for God being for us and not against us” (as Piper describes it).  These friends are believers in Christ.  They have come to Christ by faith and believe that salvation is by grace alone.  As far as I can tell, they have a Biblical understanding of progressive sanctification.  Yet, they see the Mosaic system differently than I do.

Despite this significant difference in their application of Mosaic standards, we don’t call them legalists.  We do our best to accommodate them and honor their scruples.  In light of numerous conversations, I do not believe that they see their adherence to Levitical purification practices as the grounds for their acceptance with God.  I am satisfied that they aren’t approaching Moses in a “legalistic” fashion.

So, as I begin what may be several posts examining the legalism charge, I want to say that “we can be overly scrupulous about many things, extra-biblical things, including “legalism.”  Most Christians are overly scrupulous about something.  “Overly scrupulous” is a subjective standard.  Christian charity would require us to show some restraint in how we judge a brother about how scrupulous he is with his standards.  I think that most followers of Christ sincerely desire to do those things that He asks of us, to display their love for God in the way they keep His commandments, to live a life that honors God down to the mundane and “trifling” matters. 

For this reason, I believe many are entirely too casual in the way they sling about the “legalism” charge.  That doesn’t mean I deny the existence of legalism or that this blog series is a front for giving legalism a pass. On the contrary, I believe that legalism is a problem, a tendency of the fallen heart – even though redeemed – and that we should all guard against it in our hearts and lives.

I recently preached a message on the tongue in which I pointed out that the sins of the tongue are one area we tend to excuse the most in ourselves and accuse the most in others. So when the preacher starts preaching on the sins of the tongue, our minds tend to go to others who don’t bridle theirs.

I argue much the same with this thing called legalism.  Far too often, we want to cast the mote from our brother’s eye while ignoring the beam in our own. 

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Matthew 7:1-2)

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