Shortly after I preached one recent Sunday, I saw an earnest-looking man angling toward me. His brow showed that he was a friendly fellow with a serious question. He had bounced, he told me, from the Reformed tradition to the Holiness tradition and back again. Why, he asked, do Reformed churches love doctrine more than holiness and Holiness churches love holiness more than doctrine? Should we not love both equally? I had to admire both his perspective and his manner. What a blessed contrast to Christians who seem to think they can preserve the valid insights of their tradition by hurling labels at the other camp. And we know the labels in this case: the Reformed are charged with “dead orthodoxy” and Holiness devotees are “legalists.”

just-do-itSince the charge of “legalism” is tossed around carelessly, we should define the terms and see who does and who does not deserve the label. Let me name four classes of legalists.

1. Class one legalists believe that they can do something to earn God’s favor and even obtain salvation. The rich young man who asked Jesus what he could do to inherit eternal life fits this category (Matt. 19:16-22, Luke 18:18-23). Many of the world’s religions are legalistic in roughly this sense.

2. Class two legalists require believers to submit to man-made commandments, as if they were God’s law. Think of the Pharisees who attacked Jesus when he didn’t follow their rules for the Sabbath, for washing hands, and for avoiding sinners (Matt. 12:1-14, 15:1-2, Luke 15:1-2).

3. Class three legalists obey God and do good in order to retain God’s favor. Here we think of disciples who believe God’s daily favor depends on their daily performance. When something goes wrong, they are prone to ask, “What did I do to deserve this? Is God punishing me for something?”

These three errors are different from each other, yet each is a form of legalism. Sadly, some hurl the “legalist” label at anyone eager to understand and obey God’s law. Let us remember that Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; see also Gen. 26:5, Exod. 20:6, Psalm 119, John 15:10).

That said, there is probably one more kind of legalist. It is a borderline case. This person avoids the worst forms of legalism. Yet he so accentuates obedience to God’s law that other ideas shrivel up. He thinks of Christian living as little more than obedience to God’s law. He reasons, “God says we should tithe, so I tithe. The Bible says we must pray, so I pray. It says submit to leaders, witness, read Scripture, so I submit, witness, and read.” We could call this person a Nike Christian. He hears a command and thinks I’ll just do it. He reasons, “God has redeemed us at the cost of his Son’s life. Now he demands my service in return. This is my duty.”

Class four legalists so dwell on God’s law that they neglect other aspects of the Christian life—the love of others, the nurture of character, the pursuit of noble but optional projects, and more. They may forget why we obey God. They don’t see that the law is more than a command, that it reflects God’s very character. That is, we obey, in part, because obedience leads us toward to conformity to him. We don’t kill because God gives life. We are faithful in marriage because he is faithful. We tell the truth because God always tells the truth. We are kind to the poor and the alien because God cares for the poor and the alien.

If we return to the man I met a few weeks ago, we might answer him this way. There are Christians who have tried to love both doctrine and holiness in equal measure. In the history of the church, the Puritans and the early Pietists both hoped to live out that ideal. But given our fallenness, it’s hard to get it right. Theologically minded believers can act as if right action will surely follow if we just get our ideas straight. And practically minded believers can avoid the great Christ-denying forms of legalism and yet hurt themselves by wandering into a lesser form of legalism (Nike Christianity). So by all means let us strive to love doctrine and holiness in equal measure. And let us love our Lord all the more, for he loves, forgives, and restores us when we miss that mark.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    It’s so easy to shift our focus from His finished work to some sort of work that we think we need to do.

    We’ll…He has done it all.


    • Tim Mullet

      Did you know that Anton Szandor LaVey’s personal philosophy was essentially “Now… live.” LaVey was the founder of the Church of Satan. He was very quick to point out that live is evil spelled backwards.

      • ManW

        Wow! Had to quickly check Steve’s link (attached to his name) to see why that response… I don’t see it…

        Is that meant to be very funny and just way over my head? :-/



        • Tim Mullet


          Yes it was partly meant to be funny, but also very serious. I am concerned with the sort of philosophy that is essentially the same philosophy that a materialistic, church of Satan founding hedonist could adopt. The only fundamental difference between the two philosophies is the object of their focus. Lavey believed that the material world was all that existed, therefore we should… “Now…live.” Martin thinks that Christ has worked for us, therefore we should never focus on works that we must do but simply… “Now…live.” “Now… live” is essentially antinomianism. I am sure that Satan is just as happy to have materialistic antinomians as he is to have Christ exalting antinomians. In the last day many will say LORD, LORD, and he will say to them, depart from me antinomians (workers of lawlessness).

          Least I be clear, I am not accusing Mr. Martin of antinomianism. I am just saying that he has spoken like one, and it seems to be currently fashionable to say things like he has said. I do have a good idea where these ideas are coming from. However, they are damnable ideas. Someone has to say it. I do understand that many people parrot things they have heard from famous people in an unthinking way, and their personal practice is much different than their stated philosophies.

          I do think the personal philosophy “Now… Live” is essentially a recipe for evil and lawlessness. The heart is deceitful and wicked above all things, who can understand it? If we just go on autopilot and follow our natural inclinations we are asking for all manner of sin.

          The Bible is very clear, good works are not unnecessary things that “we think we need to do” when really all we need to do is focus on Christ’s “finished work” remembering that “He has done it all,” but necessary things which we must actually do on the basis of what Christ has already done.

          Philippians 2:12-13 12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

          Philippians 2:14-15 14 Do all things without grumbling or questioning, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,

          Ephesians 2:10 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

          Hope that is clarifying!


  • Pingback: Two Kinds of Legalism | Andy Naselli()

  • Dean P

    I am so glad that someone at TGC finally made it clear that there is more than one category of legalism other than just category #1. I can’t reiterate how tired I am of seeing the amount of commenters over here that fit the 2-4 legalist category who are constantly trying to perform every kind of theological, philosophical, mental gymnastic they can in order to justify their 2-4 legalisms. Thank you Dr. Doriani.

    • http://www.corinthtoday.org paul cummings

      thank you for this post and especially bringing out what the multiple layers of legalism can be.
      Class #2 truly masquerades as the “right way to do ‘church’ and be a real Believer”. The whole “We have it figured out and are doing it the right way” smacks of this in certain churches.

  • David W

    Thank you for the post! I find much truth to what you are saying in your first three “classes” of legalists. I am confused about your fourth, however. You seem to put being passionate about obeying God’s law against loving God and loving others. I certainly think there are many who are passionate about obeying all of God’s commands except these two. But we cannot forget that loving God and rejoicing in God are also commands, along with loving others. Is it class 4 legalism to be passionate about wanting to grow in love for God, delight in Christ, and love for our fellow man? For example, you state “Class four legalists so dwell on God’s law that they neglect other aspects of the Christian life—the love of others, the nurture of character, the pursuit of noble but optional projects, and more”. If someone is “so dwelling on God’s law”, they could not possibly neglect the love of others and the nurture of character since God’s law (the imperatives of Scripture) encompasses loving others (Mark 12:31) and nurturing character (2 Peter 1:5-7). Right? I believe the problem is not believers dwelling on God’s law, the problem is them not understanding that God’s law includes commands like delighting in God, and loving our neighbor. We need a full picture of what the law of God is so that our mouths will be stopped and we will see our need for a Savior first, and also so that we will be able to live for God’s glory and our joy as redeemed children.

    Glad to be your brother in Christ. Thanks!

    • ManW

      Class 4 “Nike” legalist = the other brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son…


      • ManW

        Well, I suppose one might say that other brother falls somewhere between class 4 and the others. If you’re class 4, you might start to follow the path that other brother was already heading…

  • Brandon L

    Why is class three necessarily legalism? Obeying to retain God’s favor (not in the ultimate sense of case 1 of course) seems to be a major theme of both the Old and New Testaments.

    • Chris G.

      I agree. Some of the problem lies, I think, in forgetting that we are united to a person not a systematic theology. He is affected by our actions for good or ill. As a good brother of mine once said, “we can’t change His(God’s) heart but we can change His face”.

      Good observation Brandon.

    • Clayton

      Agreed. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11:28)”.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornelll

    Perhaps my thoughts on this are partly shaped by many years of ministry in a more conservative community (Lancaster, PA) but Church history seems to verify a need for more explicit teaching on the subject of legalism. Thanks for this contribution. Without doubt the most prominent legalists were the chief antagonists against the ministry of Jesus, the Pharisees. If we taught people the history of Pharisaism, it would go a long way toward protecting the Church from legalism (using the term pejoratively). A number of years ago, I wrote a piece outlining an overview of Pharisaism titled, “Are the Pharisees still among us?” (http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2007/06/06/are-the-pharisees-still-amoung-us/). More recently, I devoted a special page to resources on the subject of legalism (If interested, http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/legalism/). Thanks for keeping the conversation going! Thank you TGC for facilitating the discussion here!

  • http://www.redeemedwarrior.com Justin M. Davito

    Awesome. Thanks for posting this. I too am glad to see an explanation of multiple forms of legalism.


  • Mr. Conservative

    One example of legalism in scripture (most likely class 2 from Doriani’s categories) is in John 5, and it makes me laugh every time I read it. This paralytic–after 38 years of lameness and of laying near the Temple at the pool of Bethesda–is healed by Jesus.
    You gotta know the Pharisees KNEW who the paralytic was–again he’s been laying in the same place for 38 years near the Temple. Incredibly, the first thing the Pharisees say after they see him walking is NOT–“Dude you can walk, a miracle, let’s rejoice and throw you a party!” Instead, it’s “You know you can’t carry your mat on the Sabbath.” (Think teacher voice from Charlie Brown videos.) Talk about your “Debbbie Downer.” Talk about missing the big picture.
    Maybe there is a time to help this guy with understanding the law and its role (Jesus even does it a few verses later with a stern rebuke to the former paralytic–we aren’t given the subject, but I doubt it’s Sunday-afternoon-mat-carrying), but the Pharisees had the time, place, and tone all wrong. They were focusing on the footnotes, and missing the headlines. God deliver us all from the same tendency.

  • https://twitter.com/DFBetz David Betz

    This is epic! We are to be like God, not act like God. We are declared righteous and are made ontologically righteous through sanctification; we are being transformed into people who produce these fruits, not people who do “good actions” from an unsanctified heart (99% of the problem). The distinction analogous to “faith as a verb” (merit) and “faith as a noun” (instrument), which can be very confusing if we only use Twitter/bumper-sticker speak (unqualified/short == inherently general, extreme).

    I’d recommend listening to R. Scott Clark’s series “Nomism And Antinomianism” at http://heidelblog.net/the-heidelcast/ AND John Samson’s talk on “Law and Gospel” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dATPYcClb_c . The latter’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount as law is quite good.

  • Kenton

    Is there any distinction between obeying to retain God’s favor and obeying to please God? Some of these classes could be more nuanced.

    #1 could be reflected as the belief that human beings by their own actions can somehow obtain or reach some sort of salvation (whether it’s Paradise or nirvana). This includes every mystic and ascetic tradition, and perhaps most religions with some sort of salvific perspective (though not all). It’s not so much about divine favor (though it can be in theistic religions), but it is most certainly about merit, and about achieving higher levels of spirituality until one reaches and connects with the divine. Islam, especially it’s mystic tradition, holds to this view. This, I’d argue, is Paul’s main view of legalism: it’s earthly rules trying to accomplish by human effort what only God can do Himself.

    #2 is spot on, though it has nothing to do with earning God’s favor, but with appearing righteous before men. hence, such man-made laws, though in part an attempt to be devout, are often merely grounds for boasting and self-righteous pride, not so much before God, but to gain the respect and praise of men. This is what Jesus criticizes.

    #3 often hinges on the view that everything good or bad in this life is a reflection of God’s approval or disapproval, and therefore it is up to us to figure out what we have to do to stay on his good side. This is pagan and distinctly American Christian.

    #4 is perhaps an unhealthy restricted view of God’s commands, but if it is a legalism, it’s one that doesn’t really grasp what it means to be a Christian. It cannot but read the Scriptures selectively, and it will inevitably produce a view that one gets what he deserves. God says obey, so I obey, and if I don’t, then I’m punished. And then it’s my job to make sure other people obey as well (and to let them know when they’re not). This would seem to have been Paul prior to conversion. While its true that God does command obedience, and will punish disobedience in a larger sense, such a view misses the fact that love is the central thing, and we are more than servants to Him. We are His sons, and the son does more than obey; the son loves his father, and loves those whom the Father loves.

    So each of these are a difference species, and while we give them all the label of legalism, none of them reflects an earnest, desperate attempt to keep God’s law. The Law of Moses doesn’t reflect the above views. That is, the Law is not legalistic in its commands, in the above senses. It is God’s Law, it doesn’t seize upon divinity, and it doesn’t teach such a fickle, pagan view of God’s favor.

    All three cases above (excluding the fourth) involve human effort beyond the Law, hold subjective standards of holiness and merit, and depend on a poor understanding of God and human beings. In opposition, the gospel says that salvation, the resurrection from death, is quite naturally something only God can do. That is why it’s by faith. And therefore, our obedience is out of love for God, coupled with reverence, and we live as those who are His sons and heirs, pursuing Him and that resurrection to which He has called us, for which he is preparing us. And in this way, we seek to please and honor Him.

  • Tim Mullet


    Yes you are right, the Bible clearly teaches that our post-salvation works are pleasing to God. We are clearly commanded to discern what is pleasing to the Lord, to do good, and to seek to please God with our actions. If it is legalism to seek to please the LORD with our obedience, then call me a legalist.

    Ephesians 5:10 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.

    Philippians 4:18 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.

    Colossians 1:9-10 9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.

    1 Timothy 2:1-3 ESV 1 Timothy 2:1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior,

    1 Timothy 5:4 4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.

    Hebrews 13:16 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

    Hebrews 13:20-21 20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

    • Lou G.

      Tim, you should get the free ebook from Ligonier by Derek Thomas called The Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home. In chapter 4 especially he answers this and supports the case for all 4 forms of legalism. I highly commend it to you and others.

      • Tim Mullet

        Hi Lou,
        I’m not sure to what specifically you are responding, or how you think the book you mentioned will help modify my views. I really haven’t stated much of a view on this thread other than the view, our post-salvation obedience is pleasing to the Lord. I wasn’t asking any questions. I was stating an observation that the Scripture repeatedly confirms. So what specifically in my comment is an error that your suggested reading will fix?

        • Ryan Fishel

          Tim, I completely agree! In fact, theologian Wayne Grudem wrote an in depth study on “our post-salvation obedience being pleasing to the Lord.” You can find it as chapter 14 in this free pdf of For The Fame of God’s Name:


          The chapter is titled “Pleasing God By Our Obedience: A Neglected New Testament Teaching.”

          • Tim Mullet

            Thanks Ryan!

        • Lou G.

          Tim, I was responding to your juxtaposition between the original article when you stated: “If it is legalism to seek to please the LORD with our obedience, then call me a legalist.”

          Certainly, our delight ought to be in pleasing the Lord with our obedience; however, if it does not flow out of love and merely out of the motivation of duty, it will be short lived and such dutiful (self-willed) obedience cannot stand the test of time, testing, and temptation.

          In the book I mentioned, Derek Thomas refers to John Owen’s work on the mortification of sin. Here is the particular section that I thought applied here:

          “We are all wired for self-justification, so imperatives can feed into our need to do something in order to make ourselves a little more justified. “If only I can achieve a little more holiness,” we sometimes say to ourselves, “God will be pleased with me According to this view, we are saved by grace alone, but we are sanctified by our own effort. Our relationship with God, therefore, fluctuates from day to day in accordance with how well we perform. Maintaining our adopted relationship as sons of God (Rom. 8:14, 15, 19, 23) depends entirely on how well we do in killing sin. We say to ourselves, “He loves me, He loves me not; He loves me, He loves me not.” Keeping gospel principles before our eyes is essential if mortification is to be successful. Otherwise, we may find ourselves killing one sin and giving life to another-pride.

          Unless our motivation in pursuing holiness is gospel-based and grace-centered, our efforts toward holiness become attempts to win God’s favor. If we are not careful, we find ourselves adopting the spirit of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Irritated by the grace shown to the prodigal son (for whom, upon his return, their father had thrown a party), the older brother protests: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends” (v. 29). The New International Version translation is very significant: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you …”
          Do you see what the older brother is saying? He views his obedience as “slavery.” … Do you sometimes find yourself thinking of God as an impossible taskmaster to be obeyed rather than a heavenly Father who loves you more than you can possibly imagine?”

          So, the important factor in determining legalism is: “What is our motivation in pursuing holiness?… When the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son viewed his obedience as a form of slavery, his obedience was legalistic.”

          The reason why I recommended the book is because the author unfolds the theology, the motivation, and scriptural support for how a Christian is walk in step with the Spirit, in newness of life as new creations in Christ – to mortify sin – without being legalistic. Does that make sense?

          • Tim Mullet


            Thanks for clarifying your objections!

            1) In response to your description of my comment as a “juxtaposition between the original article when you stated: “If it is legalism to seek to please the LORD with our obedience, then call me a legalist.””

            Maybe the elaboration on my original comment given to ManW below would clarify my original comment? I was not disagreeing with Dr. Doriani’s point 3) as much as I was seeking to confirm what I thought was Kenton’s helpful clarification to point 3). I simply think 3) as stated needs a bit more nuance to allow more of Scripture to speak. I tried to distinguish post salvation obedience and pre-salvation obedience with the statement above, but I do understand that the above statement, taken as a stand-alone statement, could use more nuance itself.

            2) I do not think of “duty” as a bad word. Therefore, I do not think that duty necessarily needs to be at odds with love. I also do not think of love as a motivation, but I do understand what you are saying. We should obey out of gratitude and thankfulness for what Christ has done for us. Furthermore, we should obey in dependence on the Holy Spirit, trusting in the promises of God. Apart from him we can do nothing, but if we abide in him we bear much fruit. Agreed and agreed.

            3) In terms of the following quote:
            “We are all wired for self-justification, so imperatives can feed into our need to do something in order to make ourselves a little more justified. “If only I can achieve a little more holiness,” we sometimes say to ourselves, “God will be pleased with me According to this view, we are saved by grace alone, but we are sanctified by our own effort. Our relationship with God, therefore, fluctuates from day to day in accordance with how well we perform. Maintaining our adopted relationship as sons of God (Rom. 8:14, 15, 19, 23) depends entirely on how well we do in killing sin. We say to ourselves, “He loves me, He loves me not; He loves me, He loves me not.” Keeping gospel principles before our eyes is essential if mortification is to be successful. Otherwise, we may find ourselves killing one sin and giving life to another-pride.”

            a) I simply do not recognize my own experience in the quote. My heart is deceitful, but as far as I can accurately judge my motives I do not find myself struggling with self-justification. I do not find myself seeking to be a little more justified. As far as I can tell, I have fairly settled it in my heart that I am adopted by grace alone. I did nothing to earn my adoption. I am a member of God’s family solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to me. I do not question this, nor seek to add to this. Certainly there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Neither height, nor depth, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor any created thing can separate me from God’s adoptive love.

            b) I have no problem saying that we are sanctified, in part, by our own effort. To work out our own salvation with fear and trembling is to bring to completion our own salvation by means of work or effort. Surely this is a dependent work. But reformed theologians have always acknowledged that sanctification is a work of God and a work of man. All work requires effort. The Christian life is analogous to a race, boxing, and farming. Perseverance involves work to enter into rest.

            c) I believe the main problem with the quote is that it fails to distinguish God’s adoptive love and God’s familial love. It is reductionistic. The quote seems to lump all “effort” into a category of seeking to try to “maintain our adopted relationship as sons of God,” instead of seeing a fundamental difference between working to maintain our adopted standing and seeking to work to improve our familial standing. The quote is like a river that seeks to push all of its water down one channel when there are actually several different channels that the water can travel down. We have to allow passages like this to stand. Jude 1:20-21 20 But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.

            4) I do agree that motivation for obedience matters. I do think that there are some people who can’t seem to settle it in their minds that they are justified. If they are seeking to obey in a desire to make themselves a little more justified, then that would be a bad thing. If someone wants to call this legalism, I don’t really mind. I think there are probably more clear things to call it. Therefore, I absolutely agree that motivation for obedience matters.

            Hopefully that is clarifying!

            • Lou G.

              Good stuff! Appreciating the discussion of this topic, because I do think it is vital both within the body of Christ and in our discussions and dialogues with those outside of the church. This type of nuancing is definitely needed and appreciated.

            • Tim Mullet

              Great! I completely agree with you that these are important topics. In the comments section of many if not most TGC articles you have people throwing around words like “legalism” and “pharisee” in what seems like an almost thoughtless fashion. I think we are seeing a lot of influence from Sonship Theology and antinomianism. Maybe Pipa’s critique is helpful at this point. I also think that Mark Jones book Antinomianism is fairly insightful.



            • Sarah

              Tim, I love all your comments and think they are spot on! As I read the article and the following comments, I felt the need to say something….but you’ve done it all for me, and much better than I could have! :) It is especially interesting to me that TGC just posted a review of Mark Jones’ Antinomianism yesterday: http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/book-reviews/review/antinomianism
              I am currently reading Holiness by R.C. Ryle and am finding it immensely helpful in this area. He sees a lot of the problem being that people are often want to confuse the work of justification and sanctification, with the latter being a very neglected doctrine. It seems that everyone is afraid to be called a legalist these days, and thus we don’t even want to talk about Bible passages that emphasize working out of faith and doing good works to please our Savior and Lord.

            • Sarah

              Oops, I meant to type J.C. Ryle. :)

            • Tim Mullet

              Sarah, praise the LORD! I get called a legalist all the time, maybe I am just hardened to it :)

      • Tim Mullet

        I hope that didn’t come across as rude :) It is hard to determine tone with text. I was curious if you thought something I said was inaccurate and needed correction.

    • ManW

      Don’t believe Kenton (or Dr. Doriani) is really suggesting otherwise. The key is why do it and are we doing it to the point of neglecting, discouraging or even eliminating love, grace, hope, etc. and losing sight of the one source and primary object of all that while pursuing obedience in the name of holiness, etc.


      • Tim Mullet


        As far as I understand him, Kenton was seeking to add a little more nuance to Dr. Doriani’s third definition of legalism:

        3. Class three legalists obey God and do good in order to retain God’s favor. Here we think of disciples who believe God’s daily favor depends on their daily performance. When something goes wrong, they are prone to ask, “What did I do to deserve this? Is God punishing me for something?”

        In response to point number 3(Kenton correct me if I am wrong), Kenton asks:
        “Is there any distinction between obeying to retain God’s favor and obeying to please God? Some of these classes could be more nuanced.”

        From my perspective, point number 3, as it stands, needs further nuance. There is a fundamental difference between God’s adopting love and his familial love. We can do nothing to earn our adoption. Once we are adopted, our familial status changes depending on our obedience. When we disobey the LORD, he is not pleased with us; therefore he disciplines us. Our obedience is pleasing to the LORD. We can do nothing to earn entrance into the family, neither can we do anything to remove ourselves from the family. Our adoption is secure. However, we experience God’s pleasure and displeasure in different ways from within a committed familial relationship.

        As a result, all I was trying to do is agree with Kenton (Ithink?) that point number 3 needs a little more nuance, though I agree with the basic thrust of it.

        I do agree that all 4 points are things that are condemned in Scripture. Whether or not you call them legalism is somewhat arbitrary considering the fact that legalism is not a biblical word. However, I do think some of the points could be worded a little more carefully to avoid antinomian abuse.

        In Christ,


        • Kenton

          Spot on! Yes, I was trying to say that 1) I don’t think all four are identified as “legalism”, though all four are condemned, and 2) there is a difference between obeying to retain God’s favor, and obeying to please our God and Father.

          1) self-righteousness is perhaps the better term, as legalism misconstrues the issue as fundamentally about laws, particularly the Law of Moses, when in fact the issue runs deeper than, and extends farther than, the Law itself. In fact, the term legalism makes laws out to be bad things, when in fact the Bible upholds law, and order, and authority, as good reflections of God’s own holy authority and order. Self-righteousness reminds us that the root of the problem is humanity’s obsession with itself: man-made morality, man-made authority, man-made salvation. And the error I was seeking to avoid was the one that casts obedience and reverence for God as something evil.

          2) The problem we run into (and I mean exclusively Christians) is that we tend to view our obedience much like treading water. That is, we obey in order to maintain our justification, and as soon as we relax a bit, we start to sink again. That’s a faulty view that results in despair. God has brought us back to shore. Now he expects us to live as those who have been rescued. He expects us to live, not to run back into the ocean and drown.

          I think a big problem is that we’ve come to view the law of God (whether the law of Moses or the law of Christ) as a test that we must pass, rather than as a law that instructs us on how to live. But laws are not tests. They’re laws. They provide order and guidance. And for the Christian, the law of Christ, patterned after Christ himself, shows us what living truly looks like. We live to God, and as His sons and daughters, we seek to please Him as any true child does. It is out of faith, joy, love, and hope that we do this, and therefore it cannot be sinful or evil. Only if it is out of fear and disbelief is it evil.

          • Tim Mullet

            Agreed that self-righteousness is probably a better term. It is less confusing.

            Much of the difficulty that we experience in speaking about the Law is the difference between Lutheran Theology and Calvinistic Theology. Calvin has a much more positive view of the Law than Luther did (especially early Luther). As a result, Calvin’s third use of the Law urges us to consider the law as a guide to sanctification. Lutherans and those who are influenced by them tend to have a difficult time having anything positive to say about the Law.

  • Steve

    I think some of the problem stems from the anti-legalism crowd who like to lump any discussion of obedience into an accusation of pharisaism. Jesus spoke against the first three types of legalism in different ways, however number four is a trickier. The motives of our hearts are very important but I also understand that obedience is called for even if our wicked hearts aren’t in agreement.

    I want my kids to want to obey me because they love me, but I also want them to obey me out of respect for my authority even if they don’t really want to.

    • ManW

      I think Jesus touches on #4 w/ the other brother in the Prodigal Son parable… that is, someone doing #4 may well be headed down that road even if not outright pharisaism.


  • dcamp

    #3 is more complex. Certainly as sons, we are never out of the Father’s favor, and yet on another level, there are things that we do or don’t do that can result in His temporary displeasure or pleasure. In other words, an absolute aspect — based on our standing in Christ — and a relative aspect based on our faithfulness to His Word and the leading of the Holy Spirit, which are one and the same thing. And we are fooling ourselves if we don’t also recognize that God’s discipline will and should come — because we are loved as sons (Heb 12) — if we persist in walking in a manner contrary to God’s revealed will.

  • http://jesus-is-coming-again-repent.blogspot.com Edwin

    good message. thanks a lot. stay blessed.

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  • Eric F

    Though it makes for interesting conversation, I do not think legalism can truly be dividing into sections. I don’t think Paul or Peter or any New Testament writer ever divided it into kinds of legalism. Legalism is mankind’s method for doing good rather it be before God or men. Faith in Christ is the only alternative method for doing good and the only one that pleases God. Faith produces works. Legalism also produces works. It is hard to objectively identify the difference (it is the work of the Holy Spirit), but we must learn to have faith that produces works.

  • Michele

    My husband has just had a book published on this subject. This is something that has been on his heart for a very long time and feels that it is much needed in Christiandom. The title is “Robots or Rebels”.
    It is available at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Robots-Rebels-Legalist-Biblical-Motivations/dp/1620202581/ref=sr_1_1_bnp_1_pap?ie=UTF8&qid=1393938329&sr=8-1&keywords=robots+or+rebels

  • dcamp

    Agree with Tim’s comments on the need for a more “nuanced” development of #3. Justification is about “earning,” sanctification is about “following.” Mark Jones in “Antinomianism” is excellent in this regard. And in the sense others have mentioned, Christianity must have a “do it” mentality. What else would we do with a command like “Do this until I come”? But doing something in purposeful obedience is different from “Just do it.”

    • Tim Mullet

      Agreed :) I highly recommend Mark Jones’ book. His analysis of the current situation seems very astute.

  • Katmoncue

    This article is very helpful. I often flinch when a Christian dismisses “the Law” like it was a dirty old rag without defining what is being dismissed. Your perspective helps grab onto what is profitable.

    I’ve been using the term “Nike Christian” in relation to expectations some teachers and preachers place on hearers to immediately put into practice whatever THEY preach. Their commands to act immediately urge hearers to bypass the individual need to meditate on how, when or what part of their message applies.

  • http://anointedplace.wordpress.com Roy Martin

    Obedience is more than just doing what is expected and what is right just because it’s the thing to do. The Laws is a school master sent to reveal God and to establish what we all know. If you look at the parts of the law that deal with our neighbors, you honestly cannot say that you didn’t know that? The problem is that our hearts like to twist words and wear rose colored glasses to view ourselves and life. God’s law crush us and Jesus Christ’s words on the Sermon on the Mount of “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect” was meant to reduce all of our “good works” to ashes. Even as Christ expounded the true meaning of the Ten Commandments, we know that obedience is more than actions. There is a heart that is motivated by selfish pride or humble love of God. A man can obey his wife and on the outside be perfect in his action but hate her with all of his heart. The only thing that can change that husband’s heart is the grace of unconditional love from his wife. We were saved by grace when we were enemies of God. No matter how much we would all like to think that we have always loved God or wasn’t that bad before we became a Christian we forget that “perfect holiness” is what God wants. “99.9%” is not good enough. When someone loves you in spite of everything, it does something to you. You will do anything for them not to pay them back but you want to have what you are receiving. Plus you everyone around you to have it. When you have the best meal of your life, you willingly tell everyone. See, when you are moved by grace; duty isn’t duty and obedience isn’t rule keeping it’s living. Also, we lie to ourselves about how much work it is to have faith in Christ for our salvation. We lie to ourselves about how much Christ has done for us. The burdens of the law that Christ spoken about effected every area of life not just temple affairs but daily living. I honestly love my wife more completely when I’m not constantly thinking about how I’m loving her going down the mental checklist. When I do that, it doesn’t come across sincere at all.

  • http://www.crossway.org Dane

    Really nice post, Dan.

  • bondservant

    Doing things my way = legalism
    Doing things God’s way = obedience

  • http://blog.covhope.com Steve

    I identify with type 4. I was making my Christian life a joyless waste because of all the things I should “just do” but wasn’t doing. Then I started dwelling on Jeremiah’s promise of the New Covenant (Jer 31:31-34).

    I think the key principle of the New Covenant is that we couldn’t keep the law. God knew that and had mercy on us, and wants to renew us. God takes the law we couldn’t keep, and writes it on our hearts so we will keep it. We should say to God “You say I should tithe, help me tithe. You say I should pray, help me pray. I cannot just do this, but you can and will do this in me.”

    • dcamp

      Certainly the prayer that all believer’s should pray. In fact, it is the prayer that believers have always prayed. You can see in great passages on the importance of obedience to the Word of God, Ps 19 for example, where the psalmist prays that God would find his purposeful though imperfect obedience acceptable to God:

      “Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; Let them not rule over me; Then I will be blameless,
      And I shall be acquitted of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
      Be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.”

      Furthermore, the “law written on the heart” is the spiritual inclination to do the will of God that is an attribute of every child of God, NT or OT saint. What is new in Jer 31 is not “the law written on the heart,” but the newness of the NC and the promise that “all will know him,” or that every NC member will have this attribute. And as one can see in the numerous OT passages, the “law written on the heart” does not in any way preclude the importance of obedience to the written Word, in fact, that is what makes it possible.

      “The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever. The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice. The law of his God is in his heart; his steps do not slip.” (Ps 37:29-31)

      “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:6-8)

      “Listen to me, you who know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law . . . my righteousness will be forever, and my salvation to all generations.” (Isa 51:7-8)

      The “law written on the heart” does not refer to a specific codified content, although I wouldn’t entirely disagree with those that suggest it is a general love for God and neighbor – the “two greatest commandments.” The “law written on the heart” is simply the disposition of every regenerate soul that longs for the relationship of covenantal obedience to their Lord and Savior – the desire to do the will of God. Ps 86:11-13 is a good summary: “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.”

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  • Donald DeCamp

    Would considering all ten commandments ,including the fourth, of equal importance be considered legalism?

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