Legalism and Preaching

Legalism2Legalism is an easy word to throw around, but a challenging term to define. For many of us, legalism seems to refer to whatever restrictions others might feel that I personally do not feel. But defining legalism carefully is vitally important.

It is important for each follower of Christ. It is a serious business to discount a restriction as legalism when it actually is displeasing to the One who loved us and gave Himself for us. Equally it can be stifling to the life He has given us to overlay unnecessary restrictions and thereby misrepresent Him to ourselves and others.

The issue of representing Christ to others means that defining legalism accurately should be a concern for every preacher. People look to us for guidance, both in clarification of the Gospel and in instruction for living. Every preacher treads a minefield in every sermon – preach legalism, or preach license, and damage will be done.

However, many of us never really think about the definition of legalism. I think part of the reason for this is that we have been lulled into a false sense of security by an inadequate definition.

Many definitions are essentially similar to this:

“Legalism is about trying to merit salvation by obedience.”

But there is a significant problem with this definition. Too easily we will hear this to be referring to the heresy of salvation by works. That is, the idea that we have to behave in order to be saved. And the problem with that understanding of legalism is that once we are saved (by grace, not works), then we are effectively immune from any charge of legalism. After all, doesn’t every born again believer in Jesus know that salvation is based on grace, not works?

Surely a definition of legalism that rules out any Christian from being a legalist must be flawed.  It concerns me because I am sure I have met a few legalists.  I have probably been one too.

So perhaps it would be better to define legalism as “trying to merit God’s favour by obedience.” After all, God’s favour is not just about getting into the family in the first place, we also value God’s favour in our ongoing relationship with Him.

Next time I would like to wrestle with this idea more and identify one big reason why believers can fall into legalism so easily.

4 thoughts on “Legalism and Preaching

  1. I have struggled with the term “legalism” because it nowhere appears in the Bible, that I can see. It is a term that was created, I suppose as a reaction to error, and because it’s not truly a Biblical term, definition is difficult. Could you address this in your study? Why do we even need the term if it isn’t in the Bible? Why can’t we simply preach grace, and obedience and holiness, as they are defined in the Bible, without trying to fit them into a word that the Holy Spirit never used? I realize I’m the odd man out with this view. But I’d love to read your thoughts on it.

    • Thanks Bill. There are lots of labels used that are not in the Bible. The label Trinity is not in the Bible, but it describes the God of the Bible. Equally there are labels used of tendencies, such as legalism, or individualism, or nomism, etc. If we were to ban all non-Biblical labels then we would end up trying to describe the same phenomena using Bible language, but taking several sentences to cover what a label can reference in a single term. I’m not sure we would be better off. Having said that, it is important to wrestle with the definitions of these labels. Otherwise, as in the case of legalism, people may find themselves unaware of a problem due to a misunderstanding of the term.

  2. I have enjoyed and received benefit from many of these posts, but this one troubled me, and in particular the idea that man does and cannot do anything to appropriated God’s grace. A few questions if I may…
    Was Noah saved by grace? Was he a legalist for building the ark? Did his works negate God’s grace? The same could be said for those bitten by fiery serpents in Numbers 21. Were they legalists for going to the brass serpent and looking at it in obedience to Divine instructions? Did their works negate God’s grace?
    Or what about the walls of Jericho? Did they fall by grace? Were they legalists for obeying God? When was God’s grace appropriated to them in the matter of Jericho?
    Or what about Naaman? Was he cleansed by grace or obedience?
    The appearance of God’s grace always requires a response to appropriate it in man’s life – Titus 2:11-12.

    • Thanks Todd. Doesn’t it seem like God’s people in Numbers 21 were facing the choice of doing something (natural instinct, but leading to death), or expressing trust in God’s word by gazing on the elevated serpent (completely unnatural as an instinct, but leading to life)? It feels slightly forced to overstate their action here, don’t you think? One option was about self-driven activity, versus trusting God and expressing that through a gaze. Jesus picked up on that in John 3:14-15. Once we overstate the human response of active trust and turn it into a work we do to appropriate grace, then don’t we lose sight of grace and turn the situation into a quid pro quo where our participation is one side of a contracted arrangement? There is a big difference between contract and covenant, but when we shift to the former we tend to lose sight of God’s grace. All of this is not to argue against an active responsiveness to God though. The bride of Christ is not invited to be dead weight as the groom takes us in his arms – no, the bride is to be completely and thoroughly responsive to him. But the moment we start to assert any hint of independence, autonomy, self-direction, initiative, etc., we ruin the dance. I hear the “you are arguing that we are dead-weight” critique, but don’t honestly find that compelling that we must therefore shift into a quid pro quo arrangement with God for salvation or for living the Christian life. Thanks so much for engaging with the site, Todd!

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