Labelling people legalists might make pharisees of us all

There is a term that is, ironically, somewhat liberally thrown around Evangelical circles: legalism. Rarely, I think, do people actually use it correctly. Many seem to think that anybody who reckons the Bible demands of believers something that they don’t think it does someone is being legalistic. But, in truth, it really isn’t legalism to dare to suggest that Jesus call us to do, or not do, certain things. Paul doesn’t refer to ‘the law of Christ’ for nothing!

Most Bible-believing Christians are trying to avoid the twin pitfalls of antinomianism i.e. there is no law whatsoever and legalism i.e. keeping the law is what saves. Both are errant.

There is a law of Christ and there are New Testament imperatives that bind Christian believers. We are not free, for example, to murder or to lie. We aren’t ‘freed from the law’ so that sin may abound. There is still such a thing as sin that displeases God even though, in Jesus, the entirety of our sin has been covered by his substitutionary life and death in our place. Antinomianism essentially says God has freed me from the law, and now there is no law, I am free to sin. This is simply not true. The Bible calls us to strive for holiness and Jesus quite clearly lays down commands for his followers that he, presumably, expects us to obey (otherwise, why give them at all?) Antinomianism rightly reckons we have been set free from the law in Christ, and our sin is not counted against us, but it mistakenly suggests there is no law of Christ and that God is not pleased with us continuing in sin.

On the other hand, the alternative ditch to fall in is legalism. This is the belief that we are under law and, by keeping it, we are saved. We will come onto a related, but different, term shortly but for now, legalism is the belief that we are saved through law. It rightly recognises that there is a law of Christ and even believers are subject to it but it wrongly suggests that it is through keeping that law that we are saved. In other words, if you don’t keep God’s law, your salvation is in doubt. Failure to live up to God’s law, which none of us can do perfectly, brings into question whether we are truly saved. Indeed, some would argue if we dno’t keep certain rules, we are certainly lost.

Now, if somebody calls you to do something that you don’t think Jesus demands, but the other person does, it is only legalism if they imply that you cannot be saved but for your doing it. They might be legalists if they suggest your doing/not doing it seriously calls into question your salvation. If your salvation is being tied intricately to your works, not to your faith, then we might be dealing with legalism.

But more often than not, when the term legalism gets thrown out, it is usually when somebody disagrees with our view or application of scripture. I might think its fine to wear a hat in the pulpit when I’m preaching (I do think that, as it happens) but somebody else might think that is dreadful and dishonours the Lord. Now, unless they are suggesting I am Hell-bound for doing it, it would be deeply unfair to call that person a legalist. They are not saying my salvation depends on it, they are suggesting what I am doing is not what the Lord demands and hope that I see things their way and will change. If we disagree, I am not being antinomian either. We are simply disagreeing over what the Bible says; both of us are still seeking to honour the Lord as we best understand him. As Paul said, ‘let each one be convinced in his own mind’ and ‘it is before his own master that he stands or falls’.

A related, but less used term, is Pharisaism. Often, what people call legalism is something closer to Pharisaism. Now, it bears saying, the Pharisees were legalists (which confuses matters). But then, the Jews under the old covenant were – to the New Testament eye – legalists because they are specifically the people Paul calls ‘under the law’. Though salvation was always by faith, for a people whose lives were so intimately bound up with a law that covered the civil, ceremonial and moral aspects of their lives – it was all encompassing even in its specifics – it is easy to see how many would become obsessed with rule-keeping and mistakenly come to believe that salvation revolves around the rules, not around faith and matters of the heart. But whilst the Pharisees were legalists, they were not unique in Israel in that regard.

What made the Pharisees stand out was their extra-biblical laws. They were not content simply to carefully keep the law of God, but would put fences and boundaries around the law of God and consider such things legal boundaries of their own. Whilst the Pharisees were legalists, they also went beyond the law itself. That is what we mean by Pharisaism – the very thing that they continually did to Jesus (who kept the law of God perfectly) – they chastised him for breaking their man-made extra-biblical laws. They believed in the law of God and their traditions and couldn’t distinguish between the two.

More often than not, when we throw around the term legalism what I suspect we really mean is Pharisaism. I suspect it gets confused because the Pharisees were, also, legalists. And so, when people begin to bind our conscience – not with things that they think our salvation depends upon – but that nonetheless are not in God’s Word, many of us call that legalism when really they are copying the Pharisees pharisaism.

Interestingly, the Pharisees also thought Jesus was an antinomian. They were continually accusing him of breaking God’s law. Sometimes of things that God has said – but of which he was wrongly accused by them – and sometimes of things God hadn’t said, but that went against their traditions. But because Jesus didn’t keep their rules, their way, they accused him of being lawless. He was, in their eyes, an antinomian who had no respect for the law of God.

This is, more frequently, the discussion being played out in Christian circles. One person calls someone to the law of Christ and the other person believes they are being Pharisaical by insisting (in their view) on things that God hasn’t demanded. Another person does whatever they will and the other considers them to have neglected the law of Christ. Either might be right. But throwing terms like legalist and antinomian about don’t really help anybody.

The solution, just as Jesus did when he was accused of such things, is to turn to the scriptures. The only way we can know if we are going beyond God’s law, either by neglecting it or by adding ‘rules’ and traditions to it, is to return to it. That is, fundamentally, what the Reformation was all about.

But if we are discussing with brothers and sisters, we do well to assume the best. If this person claims to love Jesus and insists they have repented of their sin and trust in him, we are most likely dealing with somebody with a different view of the Bible to us. And the answer to that must be to sit down with the Bible and dig into those respective views. We may just find labelling our brother or sister who disagrees with us either a legalist or an antinomian might well be going beyond the scriptures themselves, making pharisees our of all of us.