The Log of Legalism


In the previous edition, I introduced and outlined a series of articles that would take a serious look at the most prevalent sins among our conservative Reformed circles. In no way am I suggesting that all of our churches fall prey to these vices all of the time. Rather, it is these seven that seem to entangle us in ways that either we aren’t aware of or choose to ignore. The seven sins are these: legalism, elitism, formalism, behaviorism, conservatism, dogmatism, and exclusivism.

I recognize how much easier it is to indict the whole community than to put myself under the microscope for all to see. Yet my aim is to shoot the arrows of God’s Word upon our circles, of which I am a member. I have no particular person in mind, or one church, or even a denomination. Instead, I am suggesting that this is the collective air we all breathe as Reformed and confessional churches, which implicates us all.

That our churches are broken is not news. They are filled with sinners. But sadly, we have a tendency to feel better about ourselves when we compare horizontally instead of vertically. The result is that our sins are left unaddressed and unaccounted for. Feelings of smugness and superiority enter like a thick fog. Before long, we forget that a better way, a more biblical way, even exists.

When I was an undergraduate student at Covenant College, many days were lived in the fog—literally. Perched on a mountain, a dense thick cloud would often hover over campus, making it difficult to see more than a few feet away. Sometimes this would last for days, which seemed like months. But then we’d get in our cars and go down the mountain, and often, as we drove downward, we would drive right through the fog until we could see the sun. It was a wonderful reprieve!

To go forward as conservative Reformed churches, we must be willing to go downward. Humble repentance is the best antidote for being stuck in the fog of sin. We must get on our knees.

We turn, then, to the first of these seven sins: legalism. What is it? What’s it not? How can we see it when it’s there? And how does it affect us? It’s to these and questions like them that we now turn.

What Legalism Isn’t

“You’re such a legalist.” Ever been told that? Sadly, in our wishy-washy, biblically illiterate times, it’s an all too common accusation. But is it true?

If by legalism people mean that we are stubbornly and unapologetically concerned with and committed to a high view of the pursuit of obedience to the law as a response to the free grace of God, then yes, one hopes we are guilty as charged.

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing to be known for? Actually, that’s what the church at Rome was known for. At the conclusion of his letter, Paul commends them by saying, “For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you.”

Would that our confessionally Reformed churches be known for obedience as the proper outflow of the gospel—a robustly Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered, God-glorifying obedience!

Let’s be clear: we aren’t legalists for reading the Ten Commandments in our worship services or for preaching the third use of the law. If legalism is loving the law, then Jesus was the biggest legalist of all.

But that’s not what legalism is.

What Legalism Is

I suggest there are two main forms of legalism, both of which are alive in our churches (because they’re alive in our hearts).

The first is also the most common, and arguably the most devastating. Legalism, according to C. J. Mahaney, is “seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through my obedience to God.”

We are natural-born legalists, says Sinclair Ferguson. “Legalism is imbedded in the heart of man almost from the very day of his creation.” He’s right. In Adam, we are hard-wired for law, which means we naturally think acceptance with God is achieved by effort rather than received by faith.

Sure, we’ve got our theological ducks in a row on this one. Wasn’t the Reformation largely about this very issue? Aren’t we children of the doctrines of grace, over and against all methods of self-salvation?

Long live Luther! Yes and amen! We gladly preach justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We have Reformation rallies (who does that?)! We can smell Rome a million miles away. This is the hinge. Non-negotiable. Christ and Him crucified. The gospel of God’s free grace!

Yet legalists we were. And legalists, at times, we still are.

God loves me more when I obey—isn’t that what we think? Can’t preach too much grace—isn’t that what we’re told? We’ve got to prove ourselves. We must show God we mean business. Antinomianism is a real danger, you know.

So we temper the message of the gospel with “however . . .” We add fine print which reads, “Now this doesn’t mean . . .” We tack on footnotes to the scandalous message just in case people get too comfortable and fall into the antinomian ditch.

Why can’t we preach the gospel radically, scandalously, and promiscuously? Because like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, we have a hard time accepting the gospel on its own terms. Like Jonah, we fear that the gospel message might do what it’s supposed to do—rescue people we don’t like and bring in the types of people who might challenge our precious comforts.

But that’s not the only form of legalism.

Another form of legalism, which flows out of the first, and which lurks in our fellowship rooms, narthexes, and sanctuaries, is the practice of binding the consciences of fellow believers by requiring them to submit to man-made commandments and traditions as if they were God’s law.

Our banners and flyers might read, “Sola Scriptura,” but our practices are often anything but. We are really good at getting people in the door through the message of grace but then slowly surprising them with our unique traditions and idiosyncrasies.

Tradition and traditions aren’t wrong. Far from it. Every church and every denomination has a story, a culture, a context. The question is not whether we have them but how we use them.

Whenever we bind consciences where Scripture doesn’t, we are committing legalism. Whenever we move from “you may” do this to “you must” do this, we are succumbing to the very thing which the Pharisees were known for in Jesus’ day.

In fact, Jesus was incensed when he saw the religious elite go beyond Scripture by tying tradition around the necks of others like a yoke. Not only do mere men lack the authority to do what Scripture doesn’t, but in most cases the legalist ends up missing the biblical commandment in the process.

This is what is taught in Matthew 15:1–9:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat?” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

When the basis of our unity is things beyond Scripture, we commit legalism. When we require people to follow our traditions to be a part of our communities, we are committing legalism.

A relevant example is the way we dress for church. Are there principles in Scripture that form our practices? Yes. Can we learn from the approaches of those who have gone before us? Of course. Can we be personally persuaded to wear our Sunday best as we come into the presence of almighty God? I hope so. But when we create our invisible checklist of what people must wear, we are crossing the line. The Scriptures forbid immodesty, so we can too. But nowhere does the Word of God require a three-piece suit—at least I haven’t found it yet.

The Westminster Confession of Faith is extremely helpful here. In Chapter 20 (Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Consciences) it states, “God alone is the Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.”

Do our churches require things beyond Scripture? Do we define Christian maturity by allegiance to the Scriptures or by loyalty to our traditions?

One of the reasons we fall prey to this form of legalism is that following tradition is easier than following Scripture. Why? Because, if we’ve been born and raised in a Reformed church context, our traditions and practices are part of our very fabric. Sadly, the Scriptures are less known than the traditions we cherish.

How the Gospel Overcomes Legalism

My goal in these articles is not merely diagnostic. We go to the doctor when we have a problem not just to learn what the problem is and why it exists, but to get help.

The gospel is the medicine we need for the legalism we have.

For those seeking forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God, the gospel announces total and absolute freedom in the work of Jesus Christ. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).

Jesus paid it all. It is finished. God loves us not on the basis of our performance but on the basis of His. We are acceptable to God only because Christ did what we could never do.

The gospel of Christ’s perfect life, substitutionary death, and glorious resurrection liberates us from the bondage of always trying harder but never being good enough. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus!” (Rom. 8:1).

But the gospel also addresses the second form of legalism. Our unity and liberty are found in Him, not in our practices and traditions. We don’t have to bind people’s consciences in order to get them to obey. The Holy Spirit does that through the Word of God.

Nor do we have to exalt the commandments of men to the position of Scripture to keep things familiar and safe. The gospel breaks down barriers. It challenges our identity. It brings together what we would naturally find uneasy, even undesired. Jews and Gentiles. Black and white. Christian schools and public schools. Old and young. Male and female. Prodigal brothers and elder ones.

No wonder the gospel translates, “good news!”


Legalism is a powerful stronghold but an impotent god. It severs the root of Christian liberty and joy. It turns us inward instead of outward. It exalts our pride and suffocates assurance. It’s one of Satan’s best friends.

To paraphrase what Donald Grey Barnhouse articulated while the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia: you know the devil has a city when the streets are pristine, when the bars are closed, when there is no pornography, and when everybody goes to church twice every Sunday, where the gospel is never preached.

The gospel alone accomplishes what legalism merely promises: life, fulfillment, and peace. Legalism destroys. The gospel creates.

May the Spirit remove our blinders to see the legalism that lurks in every one of our hearts.