"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


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  • « Keep the Faith Tony! | Main | Karlberg on the Mosaic Covenant and the Concept of Works »

    What is Legalism?

    Legalism could be definied as any attempt to rely on self-effort to either attain or maintain our justification before God. In Paul's Epistle to the Galatians he warned them sternly about such false understandings of the gospel when he asked the offenders: "After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" (Gal.3:3). Legalism always seems to have one thing in common: it's theology denies that Christ is sufficient for salvation. That some additional element of self-effort, merit or faithfulness on our part is necessary. As an example, those who erroneously teach that a Christian can lose his or her salvation are, in essence, denying the sufficiency of Christ to save to the utmost. They believe sin to be greater than Christ's grace. But Christ's righteousness which he counts toward us is not only effecient for our salvation, but sufficient. His once for all sacrifice put away sin for all time in those He has united to Himself. His salvation also means that he not only saves at the beginning but preserves us to the end, sealing us in His perfect righteousness whose blood "reminds the covenant God" not to treat us as our sins deserve. Any attempt to add our covenant faithfulness as part of the price of redemption after regeneration is an "attempt to attain our goal by human effort" and thus a complete misapprehension of the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must, therefore, reject any and all attempts to maintain a judicial standing before God by any act on our part. Salvation is of the Lord.

    Bill Baldwin has put together a brief definition of legalism which I think is helpful:

    1. Using the Mosaic covenant as though it is the covenant between you and God.

    2. Attempting to be justified by one's own works.

    3. Attempting to be sanctified by one's own works

    4. Suggesting that our worth or worthlessness, our self-esteem and self-satisfaction or lack thereof, rest on our own works.

    5. Any attempt to please God judicially, or any supposition that our sin as believers has resulted in his judicial displeasure. [My note: any post-salvation attempt to maintain our judicial standing before God through good works, covenant faithfulness, merit etc..]

    6. Teaching that we conform ourselves to our judicial standing in Christ (righteous and perfect) by our own works.

    7. Attempting to attain godliness by a systematic change of behavior
    8. Obedience that does not spring from a renewed heart

    a. As of an unbeliever who has no renewed heart

    b. As of a believer who has a renewed heart but whose righteous behavior does not spring therefrom.

    9. Any supposition that externally righteous acts have any value on their own, even as conduct that prepares the way for either

    a. A renewed heart (preparationism as regards justification),

    b. The softening or further renewing of an already renewed heart (preparationism as regards sanctification. Note Romans 12:2-Transformation occurs through the renewing of the mind), or

    c. Any other work of the Spirit.

    10 . Suggesting that faith is irrelevant in the accomplishment of some (or all) good works.

    11. Trying to be justified by works that are created and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    12. Attempting to gain assurance of salvation solely or primarily on the basis of the sign of outward works

    Other Helpful Resources
    Keller On Preaching in a Post-modern City ; Part II; by Tim Keller
    What Is Legalism? by John W. Robbins

    Posted by John on June 20, 2006 01:55 PM


    Briefly, where would you place the requirement and/or necessity of keeping the Sabbath regularly in this discussion?



    Can you expound on what Baldwin means in number 9 with the word preparationism? Escpecially with b. and c..

    how would this apply to the southern baptist recent resolution on acholhol?



    It's so common today to hear legalism restricted solely to works-based justification, whereas such passages as Galatians 3:1-6 teach that works-based sanctification is just as legalistic. Very helpful post.


    I would say that obeying God is not related to legalism. Rather it is trusting in our obedience, merit, faithfulness, rather than Christ, for our acceptance/justification before God. Sabbath Worship, therefore, should spring from our renewed heart as something we want to do to bring God glory ... we meet together in Church because we delight in it, not simply because it is our duty that our justification depends. And thus not something we do in the hope God will accept us (something we aleady are in Christ).


    Balwin in #9 seems to be saying that externally righteous acts do not prepare us fro a renewed heart, further sanctification and further works of the Spirit. Rather our faith and righteous acts spring from a renewed heart.

    As for your question on alcohol I don't know anything about what Souther Baptists ruled on it. You'll have to fill me in.

    Hope this makes sense...

    Well to be broader, what, in light of this post, are we to make of denominations that place restrictions on their adherents in behaviors that are outside the commands of scripture.

    Like making a resolution to have all adherents abstain from alcohol because of abuses while admitting the bible doesn't prohibit it?


    Indeed, another form of legalism could be defined as adding to the law of God those things which God has not required. Such moralism often tries to "dumb down" sin to a list of prohibited observable actions. Then such persons can just keep the rules on his list and imagine he is okay, (and usually that everyone else is not okay). This misses the radical natural of God's holiness and and the depth of our depravity, lessening our need on the total sufficiency of Christ.

    Prohibiting alcohol on a churchwide scale would likely fall under this category especially considering that Jesus and the apostles had no such prohibitions on themselves. In fact, there are numerous biblical instances of apostolic imbibing. Such regulations become legalistic when we judge others' commitment to Christ if they do not follow their man-made extra-biblical rules...

    Thank you for this post. I have found myself at times doubting that God would want a habitual sinner like me. I remind myself that it is the righteousness of God and not myself that keeps my standing, but a list such as this is helpful.

    Can I suggest a follow up post aimed at countering such thoughts in the mind of a Christian?

    I agree with your message 'in Christ alone my hope is found'. But I am concerned that the people who often criticise legalism are not really saying dependence on the law is wrong but are rather saying don't pursue holiness because it can only be achieved by the work of God in you (a big mistake). In contrast Jesus said sanctify them in truth, which is the word of God (John 17).

    I agree with you and want to affirm that salvation is totaly dependent on the grace of God. In fact it is our security that enables us to face down the powers of this world. I do not have to kill to protect myself because my life is hid with Christ on high.

    Moreover, I know I am not strong enough to resist sin on my own so I pray 'lead me not into temptation'. I pray but I also don't go looking for temptation, I don't say that then go to the pub and with loads of cash on me knowing that I could spend it all and get sozzled (I take less money... thereby reducing the temptation).

    I think there are three major components to sanctification. The first two are exercised through the third.

    1. the Holy Spirit
    2. the Holy Bible
    3. the Body of Christ

    We personally read the Bible and listen to the guidance of the Spirit, but the community of disciples also listens to the Spirit and expounds the Bible for us. We are also inspired by others who we know have great faith for example the martyrs (or just Joe Bloggs). We don't just inspire one another we pray for one another and exhort one another to good works. It is also important that we learn to rebuke one another in love.

    I agree with the thrust of your post but I want to add a note of caution because we should be committed to discipleship. Will we follow Jesus from baptism onwards 'with God's help we will'. And with his grace and forgiveness should we need it but not as an excuse for not taking the demands of the gospel seriously.

    The great theologian P.T. Forsyth once wrote, 'you can go beyond God's love to God's holiness but beyond holiness you cannot go'. God calls us to be holy, to be transformed by the renewing of the mind, by sactification in truth, and in those ever so significant verses in Romans 12 we are taught not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought but to submit to one another in love.

    The true gospel does not save us for heaven it saves us for life. It is does not save us to neglect the demands of the law with regard to holiness but to encourage us whatever happens keep running the race for Christ has won us the prize.


    Your points are well taken. But my post was not against obedience or living a holy life. The post was against trusting in these or anything else to attain or maintain your justificaiton before God.

    We believe and live a holy life because God has changed us, put a new life princiciple in us. Turned our hostility for His law to love for Him and his law. Our belief is the reult of the work of the Holy Spirit in us, not the cause. We are covenant children because of what Christ did. obedience and life spring from our new nature, and these feed on the means of grace such as preach, prayer fellowship you mentioned.

    This is critical in our day because many false teacher are teahcing that we need to maintain our own justificaiton before God. When we trust in anything else then we are saying that Christ is not sufficient. While justificaiton and sanctificaiton go hand in hand they are not the same thing. Our obedience is because we have life, not in order to get it. After we are Christians it does not maintain our just standing before God either. But he has put his Spirit in us which cries "Abba Father" and it longs to obey. No true Christian is indifferent about obedience.

    We are all firmly on the Lordship side of the fence here James, but only because Christ did a prior work of grace in us when the Spirit quickened us to a new life are we even able to believe and obey. No one says 'Christ is Lord' apart from the Holy Spirit.

    Solus Christus

    Without a doubt, the common understanding of legalism goes like this "Strict or excessive adherence to law or religious or moral code." This is obviously because of error regarding the law of God. Why arn't reformed writers talking about this these days...?

    Godspeed!,.excellent..thanks 4 that,may God cntnue to empwr us mre wsdm and rvltn.God bless evrybdy.

    Godspeed!,.excellent..thanks 4 that,may God cntnue to empwr us mre wsdm and rvltn.God bless evrybdy.

    I have found that all the dialogue in the afore mentioned bloggs to be very thought provoking. I for one have a great deal of intrest in the subject of legalism as it pertains to traditional and non-traditional views on Theology. My intrest stems from a background steaped in the halls of ecclesiastical instruction and the bias of denominational theology. I do have one question that may take a bit of explaination when it comes to the duality of the two natures that seem to be evident in our temporal exsistence. Here is the question and if you can shed some light on this maybe I can make some determination on the matter. How can we as Christians over come the indeniable truth that as we live these temporal lives, that we will continue to sin and thus, although are nature seem to have two residents, (one is self and the other Christ's)and if there is nothing that we can do to change the fact that through the frailty of our human nature save Christ then why do we labor towards sanctifiaction? I hope you can take a bit of your time to give me your thoughts on the matter and I hope that I have stated my question clear enough to make adequate answer.

    Our Church is about to get a female Pastor (first time). There is a 50/50 thought here in our congregation on whether it's a sin to have one. Legalism Theology, I believe would say yes, many of us need an answer. From our Bible Studies teacher it's what hes saying, we would be sinning to listen to her. We need outside help on this and fast. Can someone make a comment?

    i have enjoy your teaching God bless you

    What a perverse doctrine. Is human agency of no consequence? Will God save my while I am denying him? To follow your logic to the end it must be so.

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