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.”
Since 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.