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Whenever we put a qualifier in front of the noun “Christian,” we might be inserting legalism.  But we might not be.  It depends on whether we perceive that qualifier as meritorious.  Does it elevate us above other blood-bought Christians who don’t wave the banner of that same qualifier?

It is possible to be a “missional” Christian or a “radical” Christian or whatever, and that language is being used merely as a way of communicating something biblical that you want to call people to, something truly in Christ.  But it is also possible — it all depends on internal factors, difficult to discern even in ourselves, much less in others — to use such qualifiers in a way that is truly legalistic.

Legalism is a serious accusation, as is obvious from Galatians.  That makes me reluctant to use it in a targeted personal way, naming names.  I could identify a specific man as a legalist only if (1) he makes an obvious theological blunder in writing, diminishing the finished work of Christ on the cross, adding something of his own to the empty hands of faith as the way of receiving that finished work, and he stands by his stated error even after appeals to reconsider, or if (2) I can have direct personal conversation with him and really press into what he means by what he says and I find out that, yes, he really is requiring more than the cross, received by mere faith, for peace with God.  But without that clarification, legalism is an easy accusation to make, and a difficult one to prove.  And any unprovable accusation is itself a wrong — a different kind of wrong, but still wrong.

It can get complicated, and quickly.  Caution seems wise.

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20 thoughts on “Accusations of legalism”

  1. Russ The Reformer says:

    Great post. This articulates a lot of thoughts I had after reading Anthony Bradley’s post a while back.

  2. Mike Pohlman says:

    Always appreciate your posts, Ray. I do wonder, however, if your criteria for determining legalism allows for what some observers of contemporary evangelicalism are seeing as legalism on a functional level — something I think we would all agree needs to be avoided. To be sure, your criteria would determine “theoretical” or “philosophical” legalism. But while I’m sure none of the leading voices in the “radical” or “missional” or “whatever” categories would advocate or qualify for philosophical legalism, I do wonder if at the functional level we are seeing a new legalism (Cf., David Platt’s YouTube discussion of theoretical vs. functional universalism). So, while caution should be invoked in pronouncing legalism on any one person or group, caution should also be applied whenever we seek to define Christianity with an overarching emphasis on any one (biblical) aspect of Christianity.

  3. Aaron says:


    Thanks for the great post!

    It seems like the accusation is most often made these days of something being “a new legalism” not a specific person being a “legalist”. So, just because a book is mentioned, or a movement as being “a legalism” doesn’t necessitate the critique being personal, or towards a person. I think some of those “attacks” have been helpful and needed, while not being personal.

  4. Luma Simms says:

    Thank you, Pastor Ortlund, very sound wisdom. I think we can, however, confess it for ourselves when we know our hearts and we know we have been blinded by it. The beautiful and most amazing thing is that Jesus forgives our legalism too. Blessed be his name!

  5. Dave Willis says:

    Good thoughts, Pastor Ortlund. I know I have always disliked the (at times) popular term “carnal Christian”. I never thought it had any precision and was very unhelpful in general. Thanks for your consistent effort to promote a culture of graciousness!

  6. Yes, Dr. Ortlund, these are great points and you gave criteria!! I agree completely. These questions require much wisdom and discernment. Given the noetic effects of sin I would have to say that, also, that it is possible for any well-intentioned movement to create a form a legalism. Epistemic humility is a requirement so that we continue to test everything according to the Scriptures so as to not to harm to souls under our care. Rev. Larry Osborn in his book “Accidental Pharisees” describes five movements tending toward a “new legalism” today. Dr. Michael Witmer, Professor of Systematic Theology, Director of the Center for Christian Worldview at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary summarizes Osborne’s insights here.

    Osborne cites five kinds of Christians who can easily become Pharisaical about what they care about most (p. 92-94):

    1. Radical Christians: these people think generosity is most important, and while they are careful not to give out a list, they are suspicious of Christians who live in large houses and drive expensive cars. Their parents’ generation worried about beer in the refrigerator; they worry about BMWs in the driveway.

    2. Crazy Christians: these earnest believers think that you’re only committed to God if you’re taking wild leaps of faith, getting yourself in trouble to see if God won’t bail you out. They suppose that normal Christians who punch a time clock and pay their mortgage on time probably aren’t as committed to Christ as they should be. What these “crazy Christians” forget is that they’re only free to take their risks because of the normal jobholders who have saved enough money to help them should they fall (p. 188).

    3. Missional Christians: these counter-cultural Christians think the badge of discipleship is earned by volunteering in a soup kitchen, tutoring at risk children, or moving from the suburbs to the inner city. They are suspicious of anyone whose life is too comfortable (there seems to be some overlap among these first three categories).

    4. Gospel-Centered Christians: these Christians are my favorites, because we care about right doctrine and everything written by John Calvin. However, if we’re not careful we can look down our noses at those believers, usually Arminians, who haven’t quite figured out the right way to think about God.

    5. Revolutionary and Organic Christians: these people are disillusioned with the traditional church and think that the most committed Christians are those who attend house churches. As with the missional and gospel-centered Christians, they are often suspicious of those who attend large “seeker” churches.

    Dr. Witmer, is working on a new book that will explore these ideas even further that’s due out in the Fall. This insight from Osburn is also helpful:

    “Evangelists, pastors, teachers, ministry leaders, church planters, and missionaries have a public platform that makes it easy for them to present a model of discipleship that looks an awful lot like them. Their self-congratulatory stories and natural built-in bias toward God has called them to do can leave the rest of us wondering what’s wrong with us” (p. 173).

    Again, the book is “Accidental Pharisees.”

    Given the fact that I’ve had several students in my office this school with tears streaming down their faces because they have received the message in some “missional” churches in New York City (often indirectly) that the finished work of Christ is not enough for them to be fully acceptable to God (unless they are fully do works of mercy and service in the city) that we need to examine what we are reacting against and what we are communicating. At least for me, the tears I saw this semester represented real pain and confusion about what the Gospel says about their standing before God this is causing many of us to take a step back and ask new questions. Larry Osborne, I recently discovered, write about his a while ago but there was little reaction.

    If anyone is interested they can read Dr. Witmer’s post here>

    1. JohnM says:


      The message received is not always the one intended, and while the sender bears some responsibility for how it is recieved surely so does the receipient.

      Is it that your students who “received the message…that the finished work of Christ is not enough for them to be fully acceptable to God” were explicitly given that message, or is it that this is the way they took the message they received?

      Either way I personally don’t identify as missional and I’m not defending the messengers necessarily, but I think the answer to my question might make a difference as to whether or not we ought to consider the accused legalistic and pharisees. I wasn’t there and I don’t know. Just wondering.

      “Accidental Pharisees” does sound interesting to me.

      1. Aaron says:

        Again, I think we’re missing it a bit here. . . we don’t have to call anyone a “legalist” or a “pharisee”. But, we can and should say that certain teachings or emphases are a “legalism”, or could lead to “phariseeism” or “legalism”. That’s what I read from Anthony Bradley. And, yes, that doesn’t mean that the message intended was one of legalism. It means that it’s been understood that way, and could honestly be taken that way.

    2. Ray Ortlund says:

      Thank you, friend, for your thoughtful comments. It is disturbing when people are bearing burdens Jesus never meant for them to bear (Matthew 11:28-30). There might be multiple ways to understand their distress. Personally, I would explain it in terms of legalism in other ministries only with unmistakable evidences.

      Thanks again. God bless.

  7. Michael says:

    It is quite easy for a Christian to become legalistic in a subtle way without at first noticing it. It is also easy for a Christian to become lawless in a subtle way without at first noticing it. These are merely the consequences of us being messed up people (sinner) in a messed up world.

    What is important is having these things brought to our attention by shining the light of the Scriptures into every nook and cranny of our lives. Luther recognized the solution and wrote:
    Nothing is more effectual
    against the devil,
    the world,
    the flesh,
    and all evil thoughts
    than to occupy oneself
    with the Word of God,
    talk about it
    and meditate on it.

  8. Ian Smith says:

    I used to live in Tokyo, Japan near the Arakawa River… all the signs in English said ‘Arakawa River.’ I found out later that kawa is the word for river in Japanese–so all the English signage effectively said ‘Ara river river.’

    When people in the know talk about missional or radical Christianity, they are really talking about Christianity. One concern I have as someone involved in international cross-cultural missions is the undiscerning use of the word missional and how that affects people’s understanding about reaching the unreached of the world. Instead of telling people they need to be missional, we need to tell them they need to be disciples of Jesus.

  9. the Old Adam says:

    Legalism is everywhere. Couching itself as ‘the gospel’.

    When the gospel is held out as something that we should, ought, or must be doing to be acceptable to God…or to be a ‘better Christian’…they we have just been hit by the stick of ‘the law’.

    The gospel is that we are forgiven for Jesus’ sake…period.’

    Now that we DON’T have to do anything….what will we do?

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Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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