Names matter because words matter. And the words that give us handles for our most common ideas are our mind’s best friends. Who can you turn to for help in communication but tried and true terms that have been invested in a nearly divine way with meaning? Who appears an enemy like that one who blocks you from using the verbal pathways you’ve become familiar with?
We don’t want to change the name of a town or city that we have come to know and love. When we name something, we are taking a kind of ownership or fellowship with it. That is especially true of words from the Bible, like “Christian” or “church” or “baptism” or “tongues.”
Even extra-biblical words can become a battle ground. Galatians offers a very clear test case. In this book, the false teachers peddled legalism to the unsuspecting young Christians, and Paul takes up some of the most confrontational language in the NT against them.
At the front door, the Apostle tells his readers what to expect. The problem is “another gospel” (1:6, 8, 9). False teachers that history now calls the Judaizers were responsible for this heresy (1:7). Throughout this relatively short letter, two sides are constantly in view, the works of the law and faith in Christ. Three times in 2:16 he compares these two and again in 2:21, 3:8, and 3:11. Analogy often teaches better than mere propositions, so Hagar and Sarah represent these two opposites (4:21-31). Over a score of times, faith is found in the text. What does this letter teach positively? Justification by faith. What does this letter teach negatively? Good works cannot contribute to justification.
This error was so influential and widespread that the church has developed a word for this false doctrine: legalism. In the 21st century it is still codified in Catholic and Mormon dogma. Positively, the church has called this doctrine sola fide. If you believe that a man gains the righteousness of Christ as alien merit recorded to his account solely on the basis of his resting in the person and work of Jesus, then you have not committed this error. If you believe that a man through a combination of his works and his faith in Christ gains a position as a son of God (John 1:12), or that in this way he can be rescued from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col. 1:13), or that in this way his position in the heavenly places is secured (Eph. 2:6), or that with this works-and-faith mix he may receive the grace of justification, then you have committed the sin about which the letter to the Galatians was written.
The great majority of the world’s professing Christians are snared in this terrible trap, and it is thus no wonder that Paul spent an entire book dealing with this subject. It is no wonder that he refers to the glory of justification by faith in several other books (2 Cor. 5:21; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9; Tit. 3:5). And what of the extended treatment in Romans 3-5 of this vital topic? The author of Hebrews joins in throughout his lengthy letter establishing justification by faith (see especially Heb. 9:11-15; 9:21-26; 10:1-18, etc.). Jesus taught this doctrine explicitly in the parables of the Tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) as well as the Wedding Feast (Matt. 22:1-14).
I love the Five Solas of the Reformation; most of the members of the church I pastor could list all five because Sola Fide is my watchword. Galatians lays these bricks and gives us warrant to use this important word legalism as the word identifying the opposite of this teaching. A legalist is a gospel denier. He is a heretic who has another gospel. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a novice set up to damage Christ’s flock.
But sadly this needed word has been carelessly pulled out of the tool chest when justification by faith is not the issue at stake. Like government funds, it has been too often misdirected toward those that Paul was not aiming at in his Galatian letter.
Recently, I commented among a group of friends that a teenaged boy was sinning when he caressed his teenaged girlfriend. Someone in the group replied, “Isn’t that a bit legalistic?”
Now, I’ll leave to one side the question of whether the boy was actually sinning, and for sake of argument I’ll grant that he wasn’t (only for sake of argument though). Is it legalism to identify some action as sin? Is it legalism to identify sin so consistently and boldly that some people remember your particular convictions in that situation? Have I committed the Galatian heresy by calling as sin a whole list of actions done in the 21st century, yet not listed in the Bible?
Is the Westminster Larger Catechism contradicting itself when it spends 334 words defining and defending justification by faith (Questions 70-73) yet it lists hundreds of specific actions as sins in Questions 99-148 (the 10 Commandments)? Has this confession of faith and all other like it fallen into legalism? Here is the question and answer of just one of the 10 Commandments (I bolded a few that modern Christians may see as the most “legalistic.”)
Question 139: What are the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment?
Answer: The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections;all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks, impudent or light behavior, immodest apparel; prohibiting of lawful, and dispensing with unlawful marriages; allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews, and resorting to them; entangling vows of single life, undue delay of marriage; having more wives or husbands than one at the same time; unjust divorce, or desertion; idleness, gluttony, drunkenness, unchaste company; lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others.
In that one question of that one commandment, there are over 30 specific sins listed by the godly men of old. I’m not defending everything on their lists, but I am vigorously defending the right and the necessity of having lists at all. If you read the rest of the catechism there are hundreds of other specific actions listed as sin including playing sports too much, or playing at all on Sunday.
Legalism is a slippery word today, but it shouldn’t be. Though it is used as a verbal rook card to instantly win the argument, actually it is the opposite of sola fide. There is no justification for whipping out this epithet against someone who believes in justification by faith. When used of someone who knows, loves, preaches, and exalts in sola fide it is slander (James 4:11).
What are we really trying to say by using legalism to critique a brother who makes lists of sins? Really, we’re saying that he binds himself to duties that we don’t think come from the Scripture. That may be annoying because the brother is wrong, yet he is setting up a false standard of spirituality. Or that may be annoying because the brother is right, and we are lazy or carnal.
In my study, I could not find an example of someone in the Bible who believed in justification by faith and yet added too many works or laws to his life in an effort to be more like Christ. Can you think of anyone? In 1 Cor. 8-10, some of the believers were not eating meat offered to idols, yet Paul does not call them legalists. However, when someone does not use the law enough, Paul says, God forbid (Rom. 6:1)!
Legalism means what Paul meant in Galatians. It is a gospel-denying heresy that if believed damns the soul. It doesn’t mean someone who is trying to become more like Christ by denying himself. They may have written some useless, overly strict, even controlling rules. The rules might be bad or damaging, and if so, they should be addressed and changed to be more like Scripture. But the writing of rules in an attempt to obey the Bible is not legalism. It may actually be the path to holiness as the godly authors of the catechism told us many years ago.