3 kinds of legalism

I don’t know anyone who cheerfully says, “I am a legalist”. I don’t know anyone who admits, “I really like Pharisaism.” And I don’t know any Christians who dismiss the gospel with, “We don’t need so much of Jesus.”

But I know a boatload of legalists who would be happy to raise Pharisee children and who don’t see the need of the gospel or Jesus in normal living. I meet them everywhere, I hear their preaching, I read their books, and I converse with them daily. I find them in prayer meetings, on “family radio”, in Christian bookstores, on the Internet, and in the pew next to me at church.

Too often, I even find one in the mirror.

Over the next few posts, I want to examine the assertions made above, and the concepts behind them.

First, let me talk about some ways of using the terms legalist and legalism. A Christian can sincerely denounce legalism in the same breath they practice it. I’ve seen this countless times, and done it myself. A part of the problem is that there are at least three different kinds of legalism, three different ways we could use the term.

1. The first way we use the term is to speak of salvation by law-keeping, or by “good works.” We denounce legalism of this variety as opposed to salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We cannot live in such a way as to merit salvation, and we cannot be saved except in the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

On this first point, all evangelicals agree. Evangelicals denounce “works salvation”, and the legalistic thinking that produces the concept.

2. The second way the term is used is in speaking of the heaping up of rules for living, especially rules that go beyond Scripture. This is altogether common in some circles of evangelicalism. People long for someone to “tell me what to do.” Parents believe that “life within the rules” will keep their children safe in the world of sin. Rules are equated with holiness. A dear friend once said to me, when I challenged some rules he had given his teen children, even that “our standards have to be higher than the Bible’s.” It sounds horrible, but he was most sincere; for him, the Bible lays a “lowest common denominator” of Christian living, and the more rules we can add, the more holiness we can have.

Along with this kind of rule-orientation come generous helpings of guilt, manipulation-by-guilt, judgmentalism, and self-righteousness.

An examination of this mindset has recently been well-written by Scott Kay.

3. There is a third type of legalist in evangelicalism – the most common of all. This 3rd-type can be found practicing his brand of legalism at the same moment he is earnestly speaking against legalism of the first or second type. He is devout and sincere and honest, and yet regularly practices and proclaims a legalism that is just as Christless and self-righteous as the legalism that grieves his heart. Any attempt to direct or live the Christian life that does not flow out of the gospel of grace, is legalism. Any ethical teaching or “moralizing”, even that uses Scripture as a framework, that calls upon us to wield our utmost strength towards righteousness but does not ground itself in the work of redemption, the kept promises of God, and the news of our great rescue in Jesus Christ – is legalism.

I want to explain and illustrate this, and outline the alternative, in posts to follow. Some of them in the pipe include “Niké theology and the U.S. Army way of holiness”, “If my daughter were a Pharisee”, “Why family-values radio can be destructive”, and another “Dr. Crane and the Rabbi” post.

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One Comment on “3 kinds of legalism”


  1. […] (PS: Promises Kept has a blog on 3 types of legalism is here.) […]


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