I confess that I write this post with a little bit of an axe to grind, so I’ll state it up front: it bothers me the way that people cavalierly toss around the word legalism and its variations (legalist, legalistic, etc.) in religious or theological discussions. This is a great example of a word that has been used so imprecisely that it has largely been divorced from its actual meaning.
I don’t know how many times I have heard someone who is very strict on a certain issue—whether or not it is permissible for a Christian to drink alcohol, what the corporate worship of the church should look like, whether or not it is okay to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday*—be written off as a legalist by someone who is less strict. But that is not what the word means. It is nothing more than an ad hominem attack, and a lazy refusal to actually engage the person’s views on the issue at hand.
I think it is important that we be more careful with our words in this case, because as we will see, the idea of legalism is directly tied to salvation. And that makes it a big deal.
The Definition of Legalism
Put simply, in theology, legalism is works righteousness: it is the idea that we can somehow earn our salvation by the things that we do. To be clear, that idea is heresy. It is false doctrine. It is not what the Bible teaches.
It’s also not something that very many Christians believe. Now, I’m sure that if you look hard enough, there are Christians out there who feel like they earn salvation by their good deeds, whether by abstaining from liquor, worshiping correctly, feeding the poor, reading their Bibles, or whatever else. Really though, this idea is more of a perversion of Christianity as understood by the culture at large (i.e. “Good people go to heaven when they die”), than it is an actual belief of most Christians. The vast majority of Christians are absolutely aware that they are sinners who are incapable of saving themselves, and are saved by God’s grace through faith. This is what the Bible teaches.
Thus, a legalist is someone who believes he or she can earn their salvation through their good behavior; it is not someone who has very strict or rigid views on a particular doctrinal or moral issue.
So, for example, unless the person who strictly believes that it is wrong to eat in a church building actually believes that avoiding that practice saves them, you cannot accurately call that person a legalist. You can disagree with their viewpoint and believe that it is biblically or theologically unsound, but you can’t dismiss it as “legalistic” because that simply is not what the word means.
Terms Related to Legalism
If you were to imagine a spectrum charting different ideas on grace, keeping God’s law, and salvation (see below), at the opposite end from legalism you would find antinomianism. Antinomianism is the idea that we are saved by grace through faith to the extent that our works have nothing to do with salvation at all: we are not bound to try to keep God’s moral laws (nomos is the Greek word for law, so the word really just refers to the rejection of law-keeping).
This view, the opposite extreme of legalism, is also heresy. It is not what the Bible teaches. Just think of all the passages in the New Testament that provide lists of sinful behaviors that are not in keeping with God’s law and will exclude those who practice them from God’s kingdom (Romans 1.18-31, 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, Galatians 5.19-21, Ephesians 4.17-32, Ephesians 5.3-5, 1 Timothy 1.8-11, and Revelation 21.8, to name a few). Clearly, the things we do matter to God and thus, are related to our salvation as well!
Thankfully, not many Christians are antinomians either (although, extreme proponents of the “Once Saved Always Saved” perspective come pretty close to this, in my opinion).
In between the two extremes of legalism and antinomianism is what the Bible actually teaches, and hopefully what you believe, even if you aren’t familiar with the theological term: covenantal nomism. Covenantal nomism suggests that we enter into God’s covenant and are covered by His grace through faith in Christ, but that we “stay in” that covenant by trying to do God’s will and obey His commands.
Now, certainly we don’t do this perfectly—all of us sin and fall short from time to time. And covenantal nomism does not hold that our attempts to obey God’s commands somehow earn our salvation; salvation is by grace through faith. But covenantal nomism does hold that as Christians who have been saved by God’s grace, we should do our very best to obey His commands and live our lives as He desires. In the words of Dallas Willard, “Grace is opposed to earning, it is not opposed to effort” (emphasis mine).
So what’s the big deal? Why does this even matter, and why would someone spend time writing about it?
First, I think it is good general practice to use words appropriately. We live in a world where texts, tweets, and twenty second sound bites dominate communication, and where people are not particularly inclined to give people with whom they disagree a fair hearing. In that context, I think it is important that we speak with precision, and do our best to be clear and accurate in our communication. That cannot happen when we assume that words mean something other than what they actually mean.
Second, there really is a theological issue here. When you call someone a legalist, you are saying that they believe they can earn their salvation through good works. You are, in essence, calling them a heretic. That is not something to do lightly.
So the next time you encounter someone who seems overly scrupulous about a particular issue, or, from your perspective, makes a mountain of doctrine out of a molehill of opinion, take a moment to get them to explain their viewpoint, and maybe even take some time to study Scripture together on that issue. But whatever you do, please don’t dismissively call them a legalist.
*Throughout this post, I reference as examples different issues which I have heard people associate with legalism. Please understand that in this article, I am making no argument one way or the other about any of these particular issues.