We’ve been talking recently about some of the answers of a survey that the Barna Group did, specifically questions around should we share the Gospel, should we evangelize, and should we try to change people’s convictions about faith and religion and God, and lastly, should we try to change people’s convictions about anything. In other words, is it judgmental to disagree with someone?

We’ve talked about this topic many times before. I think one of the things that might be behind disagreement being termed judgmental, especially in religious context besides just misunderstandings of Matthew 7 and chapters like that, is a misunderstanding of legalism. I actually think that when you try to say, “Well, you shouldn’t do this, you should do this,” to some people, that sounds like legalism.

That’s something we don’t want to be. We don’t want to be legalists. Depending on the kind of faith background or denomination or age you grew up in, you might have actually experienced some legalism, but what has happened in my opinion and from my perspective today is that we have termed way too much legalism that’s not actually legalism.

This came to mind on Saturday night as I was sitting in event at my church and listening to Dr. Don Whitney speak and do a question-and-answer period. If you’re not familiar with Dr. Whitney, he’s kind of the foremost expert on personal spiritual disciplines. He’s a professor at Southern Seminary. I’ve actually had him before as a professor, and you should definitely check out his books Personal Spiritual Disciplines and Praying the Bible.

But he was asked a question about how disciplines, personal spiritual disciplines like reading the Bible, praying, fasting, meditation, how do we avoid legalism in doing those? What it brought to mind is that we are confused I think as a generation, especially younger people today, about what legalism is, so I want to talk about that.

There are kind of two types of legalisms that we should be aware of, and the first is believing our works can earn or merit salvation, and that we are good people simply because of the outward acts that we do. I think of the Pharisees, at least some of the Pharisees here. Jesus castigates them. He comes down on them harshly because he says, “You all tithe, you give a 10th of your spices even, of your mint and your dill, and yet, inside, you’re twice the son of Satan.” He calls them whitewashed tombs. They look good on the outside, and inwardly, because of their hearts, they’re actually not righteous people. In other words, they’re also not saved. They don’t have salvation in that case. They’re not true people of God. They think that righteousness is simply outward conformity to a standard of behavior. That’s legalism, in some ways, believing that our acts, our works can earn or merit salvation on their own and in and of themselves.

Now, I’m not saying works aren’t important, we’ll get to that, but there’s a difference, and Jesus gets to this in some of the Gospels. He talks about this idea that the heart actually matters, that the heart behind your action is very important. It actually can make the action good or make the action bad. The same action done by two different people, depending on where their heart’s at, one could be a good action and one could be a bad action in some ways. That’s really important.

He also gets at this idea that even if our actions are the right kind of “actions,” if our heart’s in the wrong state, there are certain crimes, certain sins that are heart sins alone. For instance, lust. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, Yeah, it’s right. Don’t commit adultery, but also don’t look at a woman to lust after her. The state of your heart, the desires of your heart actually matter too, not just your outward conformity to the law. You could be in the presence of a woman not having adultery and think you are keeping the law, when actually, because of your lust, you are breaking the law. That’s what Jesus is getting that. That’s kind of the first idea of legalism, believing that our works can earn or merit salvation or that faith alone is not sufficient for salvation.

Now, some people would say, Roman Catholics (a part of them), that we do need faith for salvation, but what they would say is faith is not sufficient for salvation. There’s a big difference there. That’s a form of legalism. If your works contribute to your salvation, then that is a form of legalism. This is what the Galatians are dealing with at the Church of Galatian, why Paul writes his letter. They were saying, “Yes, you need Jesus to be good in God’s eyes, to be a Christian,” if we want to use that term, “but you also need to be circumcised. Your works contribute to your salvation.”

People today sometimes would say you have to be baptized and it’s actually part of baptism where you become a Christian. That’s a form of legalism. That’s the first type of legalism, believing our works can earn or merit salvation or that they are required, maybe in addition to something else, to earn or merit salvation, in order words, that faith alone is not sufficient.

But there’s another type of legalism, and it’s important for us to understand the differences. Some people are very clear that our works do not contribute to us actually gaining salvation. They don’t contribute to our justification in God’s eyes, to us being righteous and declared righteous in God’s eyes; however, they would actually though bind someone’s conscience with non-biblical moral rules. That’s the second kind of legalism, when we bind someone’s conscience, when we say they have to do something that’s not laid out or derived from something in Scripture.

That’s important. I want to unpack that for us because, for instance, there are prohibitions in Scripture against all sorts of things. There is a prohibition in Scripture against getting drunk. There is a prohibition in Scripture against adultery, in fornication, and from that, some people have tried to distill down other things we should or shouldn’t do.

For instance, because the Bible says, “Don’t commit adultery and don’t lust,” we would also say, “Don’t look at pornography.” Jesus doesn’t say not to look at pornography, but he does say, “Don’t look at a woman to lust after her,” and that would rule out pornography. We can, by extension from the clear statements of Scripture, come up with other moral rules that everyone should follow. We can’t just say, “Well, Jesus didn’t say anything about pornography so it’s okay to watch it.”

In the same way, because Jesus teaches us about what marriage in Matthew 19, one man, one woman becoming one flesh for one lifetime, by natural and just logical extension, everything outside of that that is sexual activity is wrong in God’s eyes, and it’s not just wrong, it’s actually bad for us. It’s not good for us. We’re not living how we were designed to live. We’re not going to flourish in it.

Because of that, things like pornography, things like same-sex marriage, things like child abuse, things like rape, everything outside of that definition is wrong because we have a definition, and by natural extension, we can come up with other things that are wrong for the same reasons as what the Bible says is explicitly wrong. That’s really important for the same reasons.

That’s an example of some areas of behavior that we have come to determine and see are wrong in light of what Scripture says, but we can also misstep there, and this is important, and this is where legalism comes in. Some people have said because the Bible says not to get drunk, you should not drink. In fact, it is wrong to drink. There, we have gone further than Scripture does because it is possible to drink and not get drunk. But you’ll notice this is not parallel to our previous conversation about what marriage is and activity outside of that because any sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong by the Bible’s definition; however, drinking outside of getting drunk is not wrong.

If we say that it is, we have gone further than Scripture goes and further than the natural implication of Scripture goes, and we have become a part of legalism. We have tried to apply a legalistic rule, something that is not explicitly laid out in Scripture or naturally derived from it such that the original conditions, the original reasons for why you shouldn’t do that thing still applies. Some kind of stereotypical older examples may be you shouldn’t play cards because cards may lead to gambling, you shouldn’t dance because dance might lead to premarital sex. Well, there’s nothing wrong with dancing. Many notable figures in the Bible danced. There are sensual ways and sexual ways and non-sensual and nonsexual ways to dance, but simply dancing itself is not bad. It’s not morally evil. The Bible doesn’t prohibit it, and so if we say, “Because dancing might lead to something else,” or a certain type of dancing might lead to something else, “you shouldn’t dance,” we have applied a legalistic rule that the Bible does not allow us to righteously apply to someone else.

That’s really important. What you hopefully have realized so far is there are two types of legalism. We can believe that our works earn or merit salvation, in other words, faith alone is not sufficient, and we can also apply non-biblical standards and standards that are not accurately derived from Scripture to other people and say, “You have to do these things or that’s sin.” That’s also legalism.

But what you may notice is there is still a whole range of things the Bible says we have to do, and they’re sinful if we don’t. It’s not legalism to say, “You can’t murder someone.” It’s not legalism to say, “You can’t rape someone,” or, “You can’t steal.” It’s not legalism to say, “You’re to worship God alone.” It’s also not legalism to say that certain type of sexual activity is off limits or that gossip is wrong or that being angry with a brother is wrong. There are many things laid out in Scripture that we should do and to not do them is sinful, and there are things that we are told not to do, and if we do them, it’s sinful.

Just because we are under grace, you might say, and for the Christian, let’s just say that you have been saved, that doesn’t mean that you can’t sin anymore. It doesn’t mean that the prohibitions of Scripture don’t apply to you and the exhortations to do certain things in Scripture don’t apply to you. There are still rules for the Christian. Is there grace when we fail? Yes, but some of us just don’t even try, and we chalk it up that grace will just cover it. I think of what Paul ask. He said, “Should we keep on sinning so that grace will abound?” Just the way he wrote that sentence in Greek, the construction says no, and then he gives the strongest no there can be and says, “May it never be.” Grace is not a reason to keep on sinning.

This comes back full circle when we talk about disagreement and judgment and that sort of thing. Saying that someone has to live a certain way isn’t legalism. It’s just simple Christian obedience, assuming the scriptures support what we’re saying. That’s really important that we understand legalism and obedience are different. Legalism is believing that our obedience can merit salvation. Legalism might also be thinking that our obedience to non-biblical commands is essential, that everyone should do this thing that is not laid out in Scripture or naturally derived from it. That’s legalism with regards to obedience, but simple obedience to what Scripture teaches is not legalism, it’s holiness, assuming our heart is in the right place.

The Pharisees oftentimes were doing the right actions, and if their heart had also been doing them in worshipfulness to God, it wouldn’t have been legalism, it would’ve been worship, but it was legalism because their heart wasn’t and legalism because they applied non-biblical standards to other people and legalism because they believed their works could actually merit God’s favor, apart from a heart that beat for him.

I think it’s also important for us to understand, some people do more righteous deeds than others. There’s a whole tribe today that doesn’t really have a category for that, but there is the category in the Bible of the righteous person, and there is the category in Scripture of the person who is less righteous, even if they are a Christian. Now, as a Christian, positionally before God, all of us have been equally credited with the perfect righteousness of Christ. We can’t add to that, but some of us legitimately do more righteous deeds than others.

The fact that Paul writing to Timothy would say, “Train yourself for godliness,” implies that you can grow in godliness, that you can grow and become more Christlike, and by extension, that you may not grow as much as someone else, that you might not grow and that you need to grow. If you can grow in godliness, you can be more godly, more righteous than you were today. Not positionally, remember, we are all equally righteous because of Jesus’ righteousness, but in terms of what we do, we can be more godly or less godly. If we are following what the Bible says to do with a heart that wants to do that for God, we are going to grow in godliness, and that’s the point of the Christian life, to grow in godliness, which means to grow in Christlikeness.

But we also have to remember, and we can’t become puffed up or cocky here, that even the desire to do these things comes from God. I think of Paul writing in Philippians 2. He says, “So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed not only in my presence, but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence.” He tells them to work, “For the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort for the sake of his good pleasure is God.”

God is bringing forth in us the desire to do the good things and the effort to do the good things. We don’t even really get to take the credit for our own good works. They are results of our salvation. They’re results of the indwelling of the Spirit and the Spirit’s continued work in our life but we must do them. He tells them to work, and then so that they will feel confident in working and conquering the sinful flesh and sinful world. He says, “The Spirit in you, He is going to help you work. He is going to work through you.” That’s really important for us. It’s not legalism to tell people to work out their salvation if they have the proper categories to make sense of that, and as we have covered.

I’ve been alluding to a different strain today of thought that in some maybe younger circles as the majority where we think the law doesn’t apply to us, where you don’t have to do certain things, and just because the Bible says it, well, if you say that someone has to do it, that’s legalism. Actually, what that is, is a non-biblical idea called antinomianism. It’s this idea that there is no law. Anti means against, nomos in Greek means law. This is what James in James 2 is writing against, this idea that you can just claim to be a Christ follower and never evidence it by your works. “That’s not saving faith,” James says. He even says, “Can this type of faith, the type of faith that’s not marked by obedience, can it save you?” He says, “No, it can’t.”

There is a type of faith that trusts Jesus and actually is not the mark of someone who is saved because the mark of saving faith is actually works. People trust Jesus for all kinds of things they won’t get. People trust Jesus for a new car. People who follow the prosperity gospel trust Jesus to make them healthy, wealthy, and wise. You can trust Jesus and not be a Christian. I mean, I can trust a car to float me across the ocean, and that doesn’t mean it will. It’s the wrong type of trust. There is a saving type of trust, a saving type of faith, and non-saving type of faith, but saving faith is marked by heart that loves the Lord, and it’s marked by actions, obedience to the revealed will of God in Scripture.

We can’t just say that because we’re under grace now that we can just do whatever we want. No, we should actually have a desire to follow God more than we did, and going back to what Philippians 2 says, because God has given us His Spirit to give us the desire and the effort to walk in His ways. We should have more confidence now to want to do the things of God, and if we don’t, we should check ourselves.

As Paul also says, “Make sure of your calling in election. Check yourself to make sure you’re in the faith.” We need to do that. Our actions should testify to the fact that we love God. We love Him by obeying His commands in part and by having hearts that beat for Him.

So, legalism, two types, believing our works can earn or merit salvation, in other words, not faith alone, and also, binding someone’s conscience, applying non-biblical rules to someone and saying everyone has to follow them. Now, this is already long, but I must just say in wrapping up, I do think there’s this category for what you might call personal legalism, and it’s probably better called discipline.

I’ve had a friend who kind of corrected me on that, and I think it’s probably wise, but you might say, “You know what? It’s not wrong to go to a PG-13 movie. I’m just not going to do that. That’s not a good environment for me.” You might say, “It’s not wrong for people to drink, but I’m not going to go where people drink because I might be tempted to get drunk, and I don’t want to do that.”

For me, personally, I can’t have sweets in the house because I struggle with eating too much of the wrong things. I can’t do that. Is it wrong to have sweets in your house? No. If I were to tell everyone you can’t have sweets in your house, that would be legalism, but if I say for myself, personally, for my pursuit of holiness, this is something I need to do and I have that standard that I’m regimented in for myself, that’s not legalism. It becomes legalism if we apply our personal standards to everyone else.

I hope this has been helpful. I hope you feel encouraged to want to live in obedience to God, realizing that the Spirit is energizing us in that work. Let’s be clear on what legalism is and what it isn’t. I’ll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.

2 thoughts on “Episode 193 – Is It Legalism To Say An Action Is Right or Wrong?

  1. Hi thanks for this. I was brought up with the idea of on a Sunday you should not do certain things, ie shopping or swimming as it’s the Lords day. As I got older I made my own decisions about those things. But recently my son who is in a wee football team was asked to play in matches that are on a Sunday. My reaction was to say he can’t on a Sunday even though it doesn’t clash with church. But I can’t help but wonder is my idea legalism. I know I would think nothing of letting him have a kick about in the park on a Sunday afternoon. Then there’s a part of me that just doesn’t want to go to matches on a Sunday because its a more restful day and I don’t want my child over time to pull away from church in the future if things clash. I also know that being a Christian is about so much more than the 2 hours at church on a Sunday. Any thoughts?

    1. Hi Beth,

      I grew up similarly (don’t go to the store, don’t do laundry, etc. on Sunday). I’ll try to lay out some principles that will hopefully provide some help as you work through this decision.

      1. The Sabbath was Saturday, yet most of the conversation today revolves around what to do on Sunday. Sunday is not the Sabbath.
      2. The rules around the sabbath were for the nation of Israel; they did not apply to those outside of it. We are not the nation of Israel, so they do not apply to us.
      3. So, there is nothing inherently wrong with recreation, work, or rest on Sunday (or Saturday for that matter).
      4. The local church should be a priority for every christian and christian family. We have a privilege of coming together in a foretaste of heaven as a church. We should prioritize this over almost everything else. Not out of obligation, but because we want to.
      5. Prioritizing the church gathering is also a way of teaching our families about its importance.
      6. Practically, most people are busier than ever, and we all would probably benefit from less activities and phone time and instead from more time together with people.

      So, I don’t think it’s wrong to play football on Sunday. But I wouldn’t miss church for it. And I’d want it to fit into a balanced week (on average) where we still have time in the rhythm of the week for rest and time in community.

      Finally, here’s an older video I made which may help. The practical part start at about minute 5 or 6. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.