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What Legalism Is (and Isn’t)

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Yesterday R.C. Sproul Jr. posted an article on his blog identifying three ways which the term “legalism” is used.  Rather than restating what he has already written I will just list them here, add my thoughts,  and allow you to read his post yourself (read it here). The three forms of legalism described by Sproul are:

  • “. . . any idea, any system, any thought that suggests that we are able to have peace with God on the basis of our own obedience.”
  • ” . . . that view which seeks to add to God’s law or to fence God’s law.”
  • ” . . . we accuse others of legalism when they actually are exposing the reality of our sin.”

Sproul does a good job at identifying three common ways which the word is used. I appreciate the distinction between true legalism and the false accusation of legalism used to justify one’s own sin. However,  there is still one form of legalism which went unmentioned; one which may be just as common as the last form.

When using the law to expose sin, one of the biggest errors that many Christians make is to present the law of God as the solution to sin. However,  Paul tells us in Romans 8:3 that the law is powerless to produce obedience and powerless to produce life. This is also the rebuke that Paul gave to Galatians who were promoting legalism in the church. In Galatians 3:1-3 we read the following,

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

To lead someone to the works of the law for their sanctification is not only foolish and ineffective (powerless) as Paul teaches us, but it is a form of legalism. It is a softer form of the first type of legalism mentioned by Sproul which presumes to be able to accomplish something (sanctification) on the basis of our obedience.

That being said, it is a grave error to avoid the law when approaching a brother or sister in sin. So what are we to do? The answer is to use the law; but use it lawfully. The law itself is powerless to produce obedience but it is mighty to expose the gap between our behaviour and God’s standard because it reveals what God demands and reveals how far we are from keeping it as thoroughly and as perfectly as we ought.

Once the law has done it’s work we must not leave them powerless to obey. This is when the gospel is used. The gospel is what produces the gratitude leading to obedience. The gospel alone has the power to transform. If your brother does not respond to the gospel with repentance leading to obedience, that is strong evidence that he may not be your brother after all.  In that case he needs more law. He needs to be crushed by the law. But let’s not crush the bruised reed with the powerlessness of the law. After being bruised by the law, minister to them with efficacious good news of the gospel.

6 thoughts on “What Legalism Is (and Isn’t)

  1. Erik

    I would say Sproul Jr probably leans more toward theonomy and is probably heavy on law. I have heard him use the antinomian word more than a few times and uses it unfairly. Ironic how now he wants to make sure people use the term legalism correctly but has no issue misusing antinomian to describe anyone who emphasizes grace.

    • ajcerda

      I don’t know Sproul personally but I am sure that while he emphasises obedience he is well aware that the gospel is what produces it.

  2. Matei Dumitru

    My family keeps both legalist and the anti-legalist who want no one to tell them they are sinning. Mostly the last. They want posessions and they want pleasure also want God to bless them. We left our church for this and now find the other who know nothing but law. Where is the happy middle?

    • ajcerda

      Matei, the answer is to allow the law to inform of what God requires, trust in Him to conform you to it, and battle the sin within while keeping the perspective that while we feel the effects of doing battle against sin, Christ does the real work.

  3. J. Sanchez

    Legalism is any attempt to earn favor with God through our actions or any attempt to persuade others to do so.

    • ajcerda

      Amen!

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