It’s fun to watch evangelicals accuse other Christians of legalism. And we all know why, right? It’s because they’ll never, ever convince anybody else of their opinions. All they have to evaluate anything is their own Doctrinal Yardstick, and it is not marked with any earthly—or really even any meaningful—measures. Today, let’s check out this Christianese terms and see what it’s supposed to mean. And then, let’s see why it is, in fact, meaningless.
(This post first went live on Patreon on 7/18/2023. Its audio cast lives there too, and it should be available by now!)
Christianese 201: Legalism
What’s so funny is that today’s Christianese is not universal or even basic-level. If I went out and asked 100 basic, non-evangelical Christians to define legalism, I wager that almost none could do it.
No, this is at least sophomore-level Christianese. Instead of being a 101 class, this one’s a 201 class. And this word is, by now, very specific to evangelicals—though at one time it was also a Catholic thing. As for me, I probably began hearing it very quickly after joining Pentecostalism in the 1980s. Legalism, as a concept, is just part of the culture.
Legalism and lukewarmness refer to a Christian’s scrupulosity in following their conceptualization of Christianity’s rules for behavior and doctrinal beliefs.
If a Christian judge thinks that another Christian is too obsessive about those rules, just too focused on them at the exclusion of anything else, then that target Christian suffers from legalism.
If the judge thinks that other Christian is way too lax, by contrast, then the target Christian suffers from lukewarmness.
We’ll have to talk about lukewarmness later, but it’s got a fascinating history all its own. For now, we’ll just cover legalism.
The source of the term legalism
Legalism, as a word, doesn’t appear in the Bible. But like some other words and concepts that don’t appear there, it has a rather storied history in Christianity. It indicates obsessive pursuit of Christian law and correctness. And it’s been around since Christians began writing about their religion in English. In fact, it may have existed in Latin too with that same definition.
For example, we find it in a 1599 book with quite a mouthful for a title: Disputationum theologicarum repetitarum trigesima-septima de libertate Christiana. According to Google Translate, it’s a record of a big debate Catholics had about people’s freedom. In section seven, or rather “VII,” which is on page 6 of its PDF, we find someone talking about being freed of the legalistic obligation of religious ceremonies. The writer decides that Jesus’ death freed people from having to observe these ceremonies. He goes on to write that “even in general their consciences cannot necessarily be bound by any means external to themselves.”
Incidentally, the author of that book appears to have been Everard Booth, a minister who lived between 1577-1610 and was an early Protestant. Like many of them seem to have done, he bought into Reformed ideas. But he was very far from the obnoxious Reformed and Calvinist dudebros we encounter nowadays. It sounds like he acted as quite a mediating influence on the restive Catholics and hardline Calvinists in his area.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, by the 1640s the word legalist had come to mean “‘one who advocates strict adherence to the law,’ especially in theology.” The term “law” appears to mean Jewish laws. One entire book I found from 1674 tried to find what its anonymous author called “the middle-way” between “the Legalist & Antinomian.”
As you might guess, an antinomian was someone who felt that Jesus’ grace had severed Christians’ obligation to observe Jewish laws. A legalist thought Christians still had to follow all of it.
And this seems to have been quite the argument for decades.
A shifting definition for legalism
By 1723, Scottish minister Robert Riccaltoun (a Calvinist with the Church of Scotland; he lived from 1691-1769) had published a very excitable review of someone else’s essay about the differences between “gospel and legal preaching.” He did not approve at all of “legal preaching.”
Meanwhile, legalism as a theology term came into use around 1838. In 1844, a book of essays from Reformed Presbyterians discusses legalism. By now, though, the term meant the pursuit of salvation from Hell through both faith and following Christian rules. The writer of the essay about legalism calls it “a moral poison that destroys the soul of the sinner.” At least that part doesn’t change overmuch. It seems to have been part of every criticism of legalism.
(Incidentally, it’s really a neat little book. It begins with a glowing preview of the Endtimes. But its vision does not include the Rapture, which had only recently—as in the 1830s—become a doctrinal belief for some very fringe evangelicals. Suck it, Liberty University.)
But the meaning would shift yet again.
I know, I know: I’ve spent way too long today reading these old essays. They’re interesting stuff! That Scottish review in particular sounds like someone starting drama on Facebook. But the legalism they discuss is not the same term used by modern evangelicals.
I think it’s important for us to know where an idea comes from. I hope you agree!
Another shift in meaning for legalism
By 1917, Catholic ministers were calling legalism one of the primary defects of “English religion.” They thought it was the polar opposite of the other primary defect, “sentimentalism.” To be more precise, they thought legalism reduced Christianity down to rules, rules, rules. Legalism robbed people of a sense of grandeur and love in their devotions and daily lives, which Catholics felt their religion supplied in plenty.
But darn it, Protestants in England kept accusing them of legalism!
That said, it wasn’t until World War II that the term came into somewhat more common parlance—which is, of course, right around when evangelicals began to come into their full power in the United States. I’m not even close to surprised.
A book from 1960s, Disputed Questions by Thomas Merton, a Catholic, offers a definition for the modern age:
Legalism, on the other hand, is another weak form of love which in the end produces dissension, destroys communion, and for all its talk about unity, tends by its narrowness and rigidity to create divisions among men. For legalism, refusing to see truth in anybody else’s viewpoint, and rejecting human values a priori in favor of the abstract letter of the law, is utterly incapable of “rising above” its own limitations and meeting another on a superior level. Hence the legalistic Christian (like the legalistic Jew who caused so much trouble to St. Paul), instead of broadening his view to comprehend the views of another, insists on bringing everyone else into the stifling confines of his own narrowness.
Legalism is not synonymous with conservatism or traditionalism. It can equally well be found in those social-minded Christians who, by their contact with Communism in the movement for social justice, have unwittingly contracted a spirit of totalitarian narrowness and intolerance. [. . .]
Legalism in practice makes law and discipline more important than love itself.
Very pretty, isn’t it? One can almost forget that Catholic priests were raping thousands of children, scheming for a return to political power, and despoiling their churches across the world right as he wrote that. But Merton’s definition, whether it was his alone or just him capturing the mood of the age, has held steady since then.
Legalism in the modern age
In recent years, tons of new books about legalism have hit bookstores both in meatspace and online.
On that note, I particularly liked Sinclair Ferguson’s 2016 entry to the field. It uses a couple of words we just covered today! It’s called The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters.
Other books try to persuade Christians to reject legalism, like the 2013 anthology Law & Liberty. Others offer advice about getting away from legalistic groups, like Kendra Fletcher’s 2018 book Leaving Legalism. And still others, like Dave Swavely’s Who Are You to Judge (2005), seek to cure Christians of the judgmentalism brought on by legalism.
(Since then, I’ve noticed a slew of books with the exact same title that go the opposite route: They’re way happy about judging others, and they think Jesus actually ordered them to do it all the time.)
Yeah, legalism is a big topic nowadays, especially for evangelicals.
In the Wild: Legalism resources online
In addition to a bunch of books published since 2000 about legalism itself, we obviously have a ton of online sources that exist to help Christians figure out if they’ve fallen prey to the dreaded leeeeeegalism. They all suffer from the exact same problem that the books do.
I like to start these things with Got Questions if I can. It’s like a wiki, except it’s written by people who can’t agree on anything and believe lots of untrue things without evidence. And in this case, Got Questions offers a standard-issue evangelical view of legalism:
The word “legalism” does not occur in the Bible. It is a term Christians use to describe a doctrinal position emphasizing a system of rules and regulations for achieving both salvation and spiritual growth. Legalists believe in and demand a strict literal adherence to rules and regulations. Doctrinally, it is a position essentially opposed to grace. [. . .]
To avoid falling into the trap of legalism, we can start by holding fast to the words of the apostle John, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17) and remembering to be gracious, especially to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Then, the site’s writer cautions evangelicals not to be so gracious that they let heresy slide. Seriously. “We cannot accept heresy,” the page says. Some Catholic Popes want a word with them about that one, I suspect!
Recognizing and avoiding those dreaded legalistic beliefs
Many sites offered suggestions about recognizing and avoiding legalism. Ligonier, ironically one of the most legalistic groups around the Christ-o-sphere, declares that legalism chases Christians right out of their faith:
In fact, for many young people raised in the church, this is exactly the pathway they follow. True, after forsaking their legalistic moralism and “sowing their wild oats,” some of them come to see that their understanding of the gospel was anemic and even false. Yet most of them never return to the church, and hence they never really give biblical Christianity a hearing.
LOL! Because yes, that is exactly what’s going on here. Yep yep. Ickie Bad Christian™ pastors make those poor souls think Christianity is all about rules, rules, rules, and it sours young spirits on the entire religion. Ligonier’s solution, of course, consists of hardcore Jesusing every day.
The evangelical Outreach Magazine offers some “foundational principles” that they insist will stop legalism in its tracks:
- God’s Word, the Bible (including the “Law”), is perfect, good, without any mixture of error, and therefore completely trustworthy as the basis for living life.
- Holiness, complete maturity and Christlikeness are God’s goal for every believer in Christ.
- Legalism never gets us to that goal. (So let’s move on …)
Unfortunately, that first one is exactly what leads to legalism in the first place. That said, I do like their checklist for legalistic attitudes. It looks pretty accurate. In fact, that post’s writer, Brandon Cox, describes scrupulosity to a tee.
Avoiding legalism through embracing legalism
A site called Bible Study Tools thinks that Christians should “emphasize the Law” to avoid legalism:
In Christ, we’re free from the law as a covenant! But we’re not free from the law as a standard or rule. After Jesus justifies us, He graciously points us to His good law as our guide in sanctification. As believers, we express our love for Christ by learning to keep the standard of His law more and more.
Oh, yes, because Christians—particularly evangelicals—are so incredibly well-known for following Jesus’ rules. But we see a similar sentiment from The Gospel Coalition, which reprinted part of Lee Irons’ essay:
The way to avoid legalism is to believe that, as the Law teaches, only the perfectly righteous may be admitted into heaven. This counterintuitive premise accomplishes two things in a single blow: it crushes legalism and clarifies the meaning of grace.
But before you think that following the rules is optional, along come a few sources that make sure you know they are not.
“Don’t let the fear of legalism rob you of the benefits of a regular pattern of walking with God”
The above quote from Colin Smith leads a 2018 post from Open Bible. Its writer, Sarah Walton, tells us she was “struck” by it:
Some years ago, while in a small group with other young Christian couples, someone shared that they believed we shouldn’t force ourselves to pray before each meal. “For if we did, wouldn’t that be legalism?” they asked. “If we don’t feel thankful in the moment, aren’t we being hypocritical and legalistic to pray and thank God for our food simply out of habit?” Although something seemed a bit off in his reasoning, I found myself pondering it anyway. For a while, I even tried a little of his method, only praying before I ate when I felt moved to do so. I will admit, this caused me only to grow in a spirit of thanklessness.
As I considered Pastor Colin’s challenge, I began to realize what a subtle, yet real, lie this has become in many believer’s [sic] lives. For fear of being legalistic, we can rob ourselves of the benefits of a regular pattern (or “spiritual disciplines”) of walking with God.
Her post quotes liberally from both Paul’s letters and John Piper, an uber-Calvinist. And overall, it echoes similar posts from Crossway and Apply God’s Word. In fact, John Piper’s folks liked it so much they had her rework it a bit for their own site, Desiring God, the next year.
So yes, the rules do absolutely still apply. Christians still must do this and that and t’other, or else they’re in trouble. Somehow. Considering most of these sources are Calvinists, one wonders how pre-elected, predestined Christians could possibly foul up their shot at Heaven, but apparently it’s a problem.
The Doctrinal Yardstick strikes again
We’ve been seeing a lot of sources that try to thread an impossible needle to hit an ever-shifting goalpost.
It’s a serious question—and an even more serious problem: How much of an emphasis on Christian rules and devotions is necessary before things get out of hand?
And here, there just isn’t a solid line to be drawn. It goes too far when someone thinks it has. It’s too much when someone thinks it is.
But one Christian’s drawn line is another Christian’s cherished lifestyle. The Christian who eschews a set of rules or devotions, like drinking or dancing or getting tattoos or going to church, will run afoul of the Christian who sees all of that as sins that will drive a person right out of their salvation.
Without some kind of tether to reality, without boundaries drawn by objective measurement, there’s no way to define legalism. There’s not even a sure way to define what rules Christians today should follow. All they’ve each got is a subjective Doctrinal Yardstick to guide them, but its markings don’t match those of any other Christians.
You can almost understand the seething of Catholic leaders over Protestants reading the Bible for themselves. It just leads to exactly this situation.
They can’t all be right.
But they could all be wrong.
Why so many Christians fall into legalism
Compelling Truth asserts that legalism derives from “fear and pride.” That sounds spot-on to me. But those words do a lot of heavy lifting. I want to set them down and rummage around in them for a minute.
Legalism is, at heart, a deeply authoritarian approach to Christianity. It focuses on rules and laws and—perhaps most of all—punishment, especially of other people who break those rules and laws. But because there’s no real accountability in Christianity and no external standards by which to judge anything or anyone (especially Yahweh himself), it’s also a dysfunctional authoritarian system. So it calls to authoritarian followers who won’t recognize the dysfunction that will inevitably, inexorably hurt them.
Often, these followers have a very deep-seated anxiety about their own mortality and having to live on their own without a divine safety net underneath life’s colorful trapeze swings. Legalism, which is really about embracing a very regimented, rules-based way of living, soothes those fears.
But it is also an expression of pride. Legalistic Christians think of themselves as the only ones who really get Christianity. They’re the ones who recognize how truly important Jesus’ rules are, and how truly important it is to punish those who violate those rules. They are not content to let Jesus handle his own punishment, instead graciously volunteering to be his bludgeons to the world. Nor are they content to let Jesus talk to people himself and tell them what to do and how to do it. No, he needs his most trusted capos to make sure everyone knows what their divine orders are—and obeys them!
Those trapped in legalism rarely recognize it in themselves
And the Christians who think they’ve escaped legalism are often the ones suffering the most from it. Even deconversion doesn’t strip away that desire to control and punish—and be correct, and thus safe.
Think of how long it took to bring a fraction of Catholic child-rapists to justice. For me, I think here of the Catholic forum I once visited about five years ago. In one thread, the overwhelming sentiment was that if criminalized abortion killed women, then good. Those dirty, filthy murderers totally deserved death by botched abortion.
And as we’ve seen here today, for centuries Catholics have insisted up and down that they’ve totes defeated legalism! They blame Protestants for it!
Similarly, some of the sources I’ve shared today come from groups I consider deeply legalistic. They are rules-oriented and quite cruel to those they deem inferior to themselves. There is nothing in them of love or kindness, nothing of grace or charity. But there is plenty in them that craves the brutal punishment of anyone rejecting their control-grabs.
So when one of the apologetics-lovin’ ministers of a standard-issue, complementarian, thoroughly-Calvinist, Hell-believing fundagelical church writes an otherwise sensible-seeming guide to combating legalism, he doesn’t even perceive how his belief system renders its believers incapable of following his guide. When authoritarian people embrace cruel, controlling, punitive beliefs, it seems to inevitably lead to them expressing cruelty, control-lust, and punishment-lust. And I doubt that most of the people who embrace such beliefs even want to try to avoid that. It’s not a bug of their system; it’s a feature.
Seriously, it makes me laugh that so many Reformed and Calvinist sources have popped up here today seeking to steer Christians away from legalism. They’re the worst offenders of all.
Truly, the old saying has the right of it: the easiest person to fool is our own self. Christians’ centuries-old squabble over legalism is powerful evidence of the truth of that saying. I guess it keeps them busy. It certainly gives them something to do instead of obeying the boring-ass orders Jesus gave them.
And avoiding those orders is clearly their priority.
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