Legalism is the opposite heresy of antinomianism. Whereas antinomianism denies the significance of law, legalism exalts law above grace. The legalists of Jesus’ day were the Pharisees, and Jesus reserved His strongest criticism for them. The fundamental distortion of legalism is the belief that one can earn one’s way into the kingdom of heaven. The Pharisees believed that due to their status as children of Abraham, and to their scrupulous adherence to the law, they were the children of God. At the core, this was a denial of the gospel.
A corollary article of legalism is the adherence to the letter of the law to the exclusion of the spirit of the law. In order for the Pharisees to believe that they could keep the law, they first had to reduce it to its most narrow and wooden interpretation. The story of the rich young ruler illustrates this point. The rich young ruler asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to “keep the commandments.” The young man believed that he had kept them all. But Jesus decisively revealed the one “god” that he served before the true God—riches. “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). The rich young ruler went on his way saddened.
The Pharisees were guilty of another form of legalism. They added their own laws to the law of God. Their “traditions” were raised to a status equal to the law of God. They robbed people of their liberty and put chains on them where God had left them free. That kind of legalism did not end with the Pharisees. It has also plagued the church in every generation.
Legalism often arises as an overreaction against antinomianism. To make sure we do not allow ourselves or others to slip into the moral laxity of antinomianism, we tend to make rules more strict than God Himself does. When this occurs, legalism introduces a tyranny over the people of God.
Likewise, forms of antinomianism often arise as an overreaction to legalism. Its rallying cry is usually one of freedom from all oppression. It is the quest for moral liberty run amuck. Christians, in guarding their liberty, must be careful not to confuse liberty with libertinism.
Another form of legalism is majoring on the minors. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for omitting the weightier matters of the law while they were scrupulous in obeying minor points (Matthew 23:23-24). This tendency remains a constant threat to the church. We have a tendency to exalt to the supreme level of godliness whatever virtues we possess and downplay our vices as insignificant points. For example, I may view refraining from dancing as a great spiritual strength while considering my covetousness a minor matter.
The only antidote to either legalism or antinomianism is a serious study of the Word of God. Only then will we be properly instructed in what is pleasing and displeasing to God.
- C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992).
I have just completed a series of lessons on legalism, based on the book of Galatians. They are available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription service. For a medium-sized church, lesson subscriptions are only $10 per teacher per year. Lessons correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines as well as the International Standard Series.