The word “legalism” is a loaded term. Nearly every group that uses it has something slightly different in mind. From my experience, the type of legalists I have been writing about in this series make the mistake of defining legalism too narrowly. They only define it as the attempt to add works to salvation. But most practicing legalists stop there.
For them, that is the only kind of legalism. They are quick to confess that they are not saved by any lawkeeping whatsoever. But that attitude toward the law ends there. As soon as they begin to live the Christian life, they become consumed with lawkeeping. But for them, they do not believe that they are guilty of being legalists, because they don’t believe in salvation by works.
Of course, this type of salvation-by-works legalism is patently unbiblical. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Not even the smallest contribution on our part adds anything to our justification before God. Our redemption is based solely on Christ’s merit, not our own. All Fundamentalists and Evangelicals agree on this point, even the legalist ones.
But that’s not the only kind of legalism that there is. To think that that is the only kind of legalism is to under-define it. There is also a legalism that tries to pass itself off as entirely biblical, and as such escapes the label of being “legalistic.” It is the requiring of particular rules, and especially extra-Biblical rules, that have to be kept in order to be considered holy. This is a really common form of legalism.
This kind of legalism is characterized by a passion for holiness and a concern for the renunciation of all forms of sin and worldliness. Commendably, in their zeal to be holy, they want to stay as far away from sin as possible. But the danger in this zeal is that it often goes too far – so far as to have the tendency to go beyond Scripture in defining what sin is and is not.
Now, I want to say up front that I’m thankful for fundamentalism’s high view of sin. I wish the rest of Christianity felt half as much of the sinfulness of sin that my fundamentalist brethren do. I believe that the seriousness I feel about my own sins is a great benefit (of many I could list) that I have taken away from my years in that movement. But fundamentalists think that just about everything is a sin.
In the interest of avoiding “every appearance of evil,” and of attaining as much (external) godliness as possible, these legalists are eager to put up fences around the commands of Scripture so as to ensure that there is no danger of violating them. “Fencing the Law,” as it is called, is a common and highly-justified practice.
This legalism not only says “THOU SHALT NOT…,” it also says, “NEITHER SHALT THOU….”
This approach fails to understand that God’s law was both comprehensive and sufficient. God’s Word clearly contrasts between that which God allows and that which He forbids. But men love to add to God’s law. They think they are protecting people from sinning, as if God’s own laws were not sufficient enough on their own. So, issues that were never forbidden by God now get taught to be wrong.
But they fail to see this as the legalism that it is. They fail to see it as adding to God’s Word. In fact, they think it is a commendable practice.
Yet, legalism, by nature, has its focus inordinately on external measures of behavior. It can’t regulate the heart. So, this form of legalism reverses the relation of inward and outward. They make rules for forms of entertainment, apparel, hairstyles, observance of days, diet, etc. It attaches altogether too much importance on the exterior, which, unbiblically, becomes the primary measurement of a person’s godliness.
So, their own form of legalism gets exempted, in their own minds, from the charge of being unbiblical through their under-defining of legalism. Plus, they over-define sin by adding requirements and restrictions that Scripture never prescribed. They often do this by finding a verse or two in the Bible and attempt to use it as a proof text for their new “standard.”
For example, not only is it a sin to get drunk, it is also a sin (not just inadvisable, but a sin) to consume ANY alcohol in any form except medicinal (e.g. cough-syrup – 1 Tim. 5:23). Not only is it a sin for a woman to dress immodestly, but for women to wear pants (Deut. 22:5). Not only is it wrong to watch pornography, but to watch a movie at a neighborhood movie theater (the catch-all verse: “avoid every appearance of evil.” – 1 Thess. 5:22 – This is the Swiss Army knife of the legalist (minus the corkscrew, of course). This verse offers an infinite number of uses for an infinite number of issues. There’s no limit to the legalist’s capabilities with this verse in his hands. See Dan Wallace’s helpful exegesis of this verse here).
This is no different from the Pharisees of Jesus’ day who required hand-washing prior to a meal, else one had sinned, or to refrain from traveling certain distances from one’s home on the Sabbath day, etc. And today’s legalists are just as blind to their error as they were.
There’s nothing new about this kind of legalism. It’s just as unbiblical, over-reaching, hypocritical, grace-denying, law-misusing, pride-producing and condemned by Christ as ever.
(PS: Promises Kept has a blog on 3 types of legalism here.)