And They Call It `Legalism'

Dudley Ross Spears
Alvaton, Kentucky

Have you ever heard someone define and discuss “legalism” in religion? What definition can you remember that was given? Was “legalism” dealt with as a disease or a blessed virtue? I am sure that the answers to these questions depend on the pre-disposition of the one who dealt with “legalism” in religion. It is like that thing that is “different things to different people.”

J.P. Sanders, who defected to the digressives of the Christian Church in the early 50’s described legalism like this:

Legalism sees sin as a violation of the written code. The code may or may not have relevance to man’s need; it may be simply arbitrary requirements revealed by God. Man’s disobedience to these rules becomes an affront to God . . . . Paul under legalism, was wretched because he was honest enough with himself to know that he could not fulfill any law which God would give. The fault, he said was not in the law but in his own fleshly weakness. He went on to say that not only his flesh, but no flesh, could be justified by law. Under legalism he had to fulfill the law to be justified, but he could not fulfill it, so that the law was to him constant death and condemnation. In Christ he found freedom from legalism though a new basis for salvation: his relationship to God through inward faith. Now, as a son, he worked harder than he had as a slave not to fulfill legal requirements, but in response to the love that had set him free . . . .

Legalism begins with a God who is Judge, loving his law and wanting it kept; prophetic faith begins with God who is Father, loving his children and wanting justice and mercy for them (Voices of Concern, pp. 41-43).

It is truly said that lots may be learned about the disposition a man has by the way he defines things he does not like. That is true with those who define “legalism” and do not like it. They automatically are repelled by the very word and, when they define it, they make it “two-fold more the son of hell” than they think it is already. Saunders is like the aged doctor who was pestered by a patient for a remedy for an ailment the good doctor really could not find and finally he gave the man some pills. The patient asked if the pills would relieve the ailment and the doctor said, “No, they will give you fits, and I can cure fits!” Those who are anti-legalists create their own disease in order to “cure” it.

Why is it that those who are anti-legalism never cite proof of their assertions and charges? They can charge some anonymous “legalist” with glibly teaching that the only thing that is important is keeping the law of God.. Who are these anonymous monsters? Where is the basis for a statement like Saunders made, Paul found freedom from “legalism” “in Christ”? If anyone thinks that Paul thought or taught that “in Christ” we are free from keeping laws and obeying the statutes of law, please consider Paul’s own words: “to them that are without law, as without law, not being without law to God, but under law to Christ, that I might gain them that are without law” (1 Cor. 9:21). More could be said about such passages as Romans 8:2-3; Galatians 6:3 and others.

What is the other alternative these anti-legalists offer? I have heard some of them cry for years that “legalists” are just “anti” everything and never offer any constructive program to follow. Where is the alternative to “legalism” offered by those who despise “legalism”? Is it antinomianism? This is the idea that no law is binding on man. Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, defines it, “In a wider sense it is applied to the views of fanatics who refuse to recognize any law but their own subjective ideas which they usually claim are from the Holy Spirit” (page 48). In the antinomian world there is no standard by which to measure anything, judge anything or know anything.

Will the anti-legalist offer subjective faith or “prophetic faith” as an alternative to “legalism”? Just what do they mean by “subjective or prophetic” faith? Now this cannot be that faith that comes “from hearing and hearing from the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), for that is an objective faith that requires obedience (See Rom. 16:26) and obedience sounds too much like “law keeping.” What would “prophetic” faith mean? It cannot mean apostolic preaching, for it was through that that Jesus said men should believe, i.e., believe what was preached (John 17:20-21). No, it is neither apostolic preaching nor even the words Jesus taught that can be meant by “prophetic” faith. It has to be something else.

The anti-legalistic approach to faith is not new. In fact, the roots of the concepts of a so-called “prophetic” faith go no further back than some German theologians a century or so ago. See if this does not sound similar to the anti-legalism concept of faith. Do you know who said, “Faith is the highest passion in the sphere of subjectivity.” How about, “The sphere of faith is the paradoxical, more specifically, Jesus Christ, the Supreme Paradox. Faith is holding the paradoxical with the passion of inwardness.” Try, “The goal of faith is the transformation of the individual.” If you said, Kierkegaard, you get an A-plus. Kierkegaard was perhaps the very first to really break with the idea of faith based on accepting the fundamental truth of the revealed word of God. He has influenced nearly every neo-orthodox modernist or liberal in the theological world since. The above quotations are from his book Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

I am not saying that Saunders and others like him are disciples of Kierkegaard or any other theologian. Their ideas of what faith is and what is really important in life are not from the word of God (the Bible) but from the influential dogmas of Kierkegaard and some German theologians like Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Reinhold Niebuhr and others. This must be the way of it for they are opposed to a faith based on the revealed word which requires obedience to the commands found in that word.

“Legalism,” they think, is an attitude toward law that drives one to keep the law regardless; if any single, minute point of law is overlooked, one loses all righteousness with God and is condemned to eternal punishment unless the law by which forgiveness is extended is obeyed before death. It is really difficult to think men are honest when they caricature the “legalist” in such a manner. What probably happened is that the anti-legalist wanted to justify an opinion or was involved in something contrary to God’s revelation of His will and happily denounced a “legalistic approach to the problem” and adapted to the situation or opinion. The anti-legalist must have one characteristic that is ever dominant – adaptability. If he is caught in a position that is condemned by the Bible, he just adapts his understanding of the Bible to cover that and say, “anything that makes me miserable and wretched because I am condemned by the Bible is wrong because no man can fulfill the law as God gave it – the fault is God’s and not mine -He made me this way and He gave the law anyway and so I have found new freedom in Christ from such a legalistic concept.” With every new problem, an anti-legalist has to adjust and adapt and change and alter and on and on until he has no real footing on which to stand.

They may call it “legalism” but they know not of what they speak. I can find dozens of definitions of “legalism.” All of them emphasize a particular distasteful point the definer did not like. In fact, I am making a collection of them. None of them like the idea that God gave us a law in Christ, under which we must abide. All of them refer to “legalism” as opposed to God’s grace and mercy. Their concept of “legalism” is a system of slavish obedience with no tincture of love, mercy and justice. It shows how far from divine law and command men can stray.

The anti-legalist thinks that all “legalists” are fearful of Biblical scholarship and must at all costs preserve the world against intelligence. There follows a fair specimen of what is meant:

I believe that several centuries ago, when it began to be suggested that the earth moves around the sun, one Christian theologian repudiated that notion, quoting some such passage as Psalm 93:1, “the world is stablished, that it cannot be moved.” None of us today would use that as a reason for rejecting this commonly held astronomical belief. Nor do we suppose that this idea destroys the authority and inspiration of the Bible. But we concede that it gives us a clue for defining a little more accurately what we mean by authority and inspiration.

Important researches are continuing in the area of study that is called “Biblical theology.” Many scholars are contributing to this study, on the basis of presuppositions which do attribute authority and inspiration to the Bible, not in terms of the idea of infallibility (emphasis is mine, DRS), but rather in terms of seeing the Bible as consisting of the basic data for understanding the work of God among His people, and especially of that central work, the incarnation in Christ. If we cut ourselves off from this new learning, again we impoverish ourselves (Cecil L. Franklin, Voices of Concern, p. 186).

I felt that Church of Christ folk unnecessarily fear scholarly study of the Bible. They are afraid that acknowledgement of the contributions of historical, linguistic, and archaeological students will somehow weaken the power of its message. They are often frightened by study of the Bible which treats it as, among other things, a collection of various kinds of literature (Charles E. Warren, Ibid., p. 198).

The above two specimens show that the anti-legalist regards “Church of Christ folk” as “legalists” who are really fearful of any scholastic study of the Scriptures. It would be interesting to know just what scholars that two writers have in mind. I know personally the debt that I owe to great Biblical scholars. I have among my books the writings of Heinrich Augustus Wilhelm Meyer, Thd., Dean Henry Alford, Hermann Olshausen, John Lawrence Von Mosheim, and many more. There may be some individual somewhere who still thinks the world is flat and that it is the center of the entire universe but I sort of doubt it. There may be some “Church of Christ folk” who are fearful of any scholastic linguistic study of the scriptures, but I have not met them. Again, the anti-legalist has a case when he is allowed to form it himself, otherwise he has nothing. He opposes his own creation and castigates his own demons. I feel right sorry for such people.

The anti-legalist also thinks that the legalist is too prudish and holy in the moral realm. One of the reasons Dr. Pat Hardernan left the church some years ago is that he thought he could not abide by the “church-made rules” for morality.

The church of Christ seems unwilling to allow individual members to use their own consciences in deciding whether to dance, drink or gamble in moderation. The dogmatism in these matters stems, it seems to me, from the assumption that God has spoken in clear sentences and that He has given infallible understanding of His will. In reality each person, especially ministers and elders, becomes a miniature Pope, with ex cathedra utterances on any matter that either God or the `pioneers’ has vouchsafed to him. Safeguarding the system of doctrine becomes much more important than reflecting Christ’s regard for people and their needs, (Dr. Pat Hardeman, Voices of Concern, p. 99).



The anti-legalist wants no law to restrict his activity in the moral realm – well almost, anyway. Notice that Dr. Hardeman did add that phrase “in moderation” to the dancing, drinking and gambling. I do not know how one dances in moderation, but I am sure that the intellectual anti-legalist knows how. The fact is that if there is no restriction on morality then only society can establish the norm of conduct. Yet, Dr. Hardeman said that these areas of problems in moral conduct should be moderated. Now “Churches of Christ” were to him too unwilling to allow this to be done in moderation, but indeed there should be such an allowance. Just where would one go to find the authority for such an allowance – the allower for the allowance? Do not go to the Bible, for if you find things that seem to say that such things as dancing, drinking and gambling, even in moderation, are wrong, you might become as intolerant and exclusivistic and “self-righteous” as the “Church of Christ folk.”

So, “legalism” is that attitude, the anti-legalist says, that restricts us to the confines of the word of God, the things Jesus and His apostles taught. To say that we are limited to these areas that are bounded by scripture is legalistic and sort of a “patternism” attitude. The antilegalist does not have the power of mind or intellect to know exactly what the truth on any subject is, for he has no set norm by which to know the truth. He cannot really know that Jesus Christ existed or not – there is no exclusive, authoritative and absolute law or history to give infallible evidence on the subject.

The anti-legalist cannot think of there having been a divine pattern or definite order to anything pertaining to the church of which we read in the New Testament.

The ideal church cannot be restored since it never existed. The actual church as described in the New Testament did not have a uniform organization, worship, practice, or faith, in all its congregations. The actual church was plagued by heresies, divisions, immoralities, ignorance, indifference, apostasy, and weakness. It has never ceased to be thus plagued, (Ralph V. Graham, Voices of Concern, p. 136).

This fits perfectly into the idiocrasy of the anti-legalist. Naturally there is no definite form or pattern of the church in the New Testament for we are not bound by rules and regulations. We cannot be happy under such laws and control. We must be free “in Christ” to do as we please. Just here I wonder again about the attitude an anti-legalist has concerning scholarship. No one would be surprised to read Karl Barth or Rudolph Bultmann making such statements, but, to read from such scholars as Phillip Schaff, Augustus Neander or others like them would not lead one to think that the Lord had no plan for the church He built. The anti-legalist has a different set of scholars than anyone else – those who do not support his antinomian view are not scholars, in his estimation. But they say that “legalism” is calling for a pattern of church government, doctrine, worship and work. Again, their idea is antinomian. It would destroy any power there is in the word of God (the Bible) at all.

They call it “legalism” to try to restore the New Testament church. The anti-legalist will say that “a religious group that thinks it has `arrived’ is formalistic and legalistic; it can hardly avoid the concomitants of such attitudes.” Here is another statement from our friend, Graham:

More frequently than not, its (the group that wants to restore the church today as it was in the first century, DRS) fruits are revealed as hypercriticism, arrogance, traditionalism, divisions, decline in spirituality, legalism, formalism, authoritarianism, uncharitableness, unethical treatment of those among its members who disagree with its orthodoxy, and witch-hunting . . . . But their authoritaritan “blue-print” principle of the Bible is not carried out consistently. They gloss over the Biblical teaching regarding women’s hair, women’s silence, women’s veil, and women’s subjection. They have no teaching regarding singing when sad or alone, only when one is cheerful or worshipful (see James 5:13). They ignore the Biblical examples and teaching regarding love feasts, ordination of church officials, deaconesses, the holy kiss, the orders of virgins and widows, wine in communion, church councils, the examples of the one cup in communion, solo singing, and mutual ministry. They are unwilling to follow Paul’s example of religious fraternization with non-members for the sake of evangelism (Ibid., p. 138).

Now just in case you may have thought the anti-legalist does not love the legalist or the “Church of Christ folk,” think again. He may be telling us something that we really need to attend to. While I emphatically deny that it is “legalism” to want to restore the church of the first century to the world now, I can appreciate the criticism if it is true of us when we are bound by traditionalism, when we are arrogant and when we are plagued by formalism. Sure, the man has a point, but he has done the proverbial “throwing out the baby with the dirty bath water.” There is no need for such action.

The anti-legalist who wrote the last quotation again misses the mark a mile when he says that we refuse to follow the examples he mentions. We imitate every one of them and let those who thinks to the contrary be advised that we “Church of Christ folk” follow every example in the New Testament. Even as fearful of scholarship as we are reported to be, we use intellect and reason to know which ones are bound on us now and which are not. Incidentally, nearly every one of the authors in this collection, Voices of Concern – a Study in Church of Christism, said that one thing which caused them to leave was the inability to know when examples were binding and when not and they could not accept what they considered man-made regulations for determining the binding force of examples. If they have the right relationship to the one who saw that the examples would be given, they would not have that problem. That is not in the purvue of this article, but it is a study that needs to be made over and over again.

The anti-legalist also calls it “legalism” when one thinks that “righteousness” can be obtained by obeying the commands of God through faith in Christ. The anti-legalist adapts to the erroneous Calvinistic concept of “imputed righteousness.” Here is just one good example from Roy Key.

More and more I studied the books of Romans and Galatians for in them I caught gleams of light in the dark. Fresh air right from the windows of heaven seemed to blow in my face. I would catch my breath, wondering if we really had a Gospel as good as Paul seemed to say. It was too good to be true.

Nightmares came no more. My dreams were haunted with glory. As Paul described the “righteousness” which God gives to the man who has none of his own but does have “faith in Jesus Christ,” my heart thrilled as it never thrilled before. Here was one who had not done the necessary work required by law (I knew this one to be myself), but he had believed in Christ. Here was my certainty. Though unworthy of God’s gift of redeeming love, I knew that my whole trust was in Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord.

What did Paul say of this one? He quoted David’s pronouncement of blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin” (Romans 4:6-8).

My heart almost burst with joy. My eyes and soul spilled over in gratitude. To think that I was really accepted not on the basis of my perfect obedience to law, but through faith in Jesus Christ the thought was incredibly glorious! Roy Key, Ibid., pp. 118-119).

It seems that the anti-legalist would like to picture the legalist as thinking that upon faith in Christ and certain acts of obedience, the obedient believer puts God under obligation to “pay off” in righteousness, or better still, that the obedient believer is righteous solely on the merit of that obedient faith. Now there may be a few of those sort in the church and out of it as well, but I do not believe that fairly represents those who deny the Calvinistic view of imputed righteousness. No, it is not a fair picture, for there are hundreds of faithful Christians who know that on the basis of their faith in Christ, God imputes to them, i.e., He accounts them as if they were righteous, when He sees the quality of their faith.

It is called “legalism” when one denies the error of the imputation of righteousness of Christ to the believer. The same old song has been sung by the denominationalists for years. They have accused faithful saints of believing in a meritorious works type of salvation or they may call it “water regenerationist” or some such misrepresentation. Whatever it may be called, it is purely the invention of the anti-legalist.

There are many more things that could be said about the view an anti-legalist has of “legalism” but suffice it to say that “legalism” itself is a term that the anti-legalist has conceived and brought forth into the religious world. There is no real definition to the term, for it can be adapted by the liberal and modernist to fit whatever he wants to castigate. It is a “red herring” sort of term designed to inflame passion and persuade negative feelings toward the complying with what the Bible teaches.

The so-called “legalist” has a few advantages over the aatr-legalist. The “legalist” can tell you the truth and know it is the truth. He knows that God’s law revealed in and through Christ is a reality. He knows and can tell you with the authority of the one and only Lawgiver (James 4:12) that the Law of God is binding. He can tell you that your faith in the one who gives the Law is tested, scrutinized and sifted by the respect you have for the laws God has given. He can tell you that he is not under any set of manmade laws in regard to his hope of eternal life, but only under the law of Christ (1 Car. 9:21) which impels him to show genuine love for others (Gal. 6:3). He knows that the law under which he serves his Lord is a perfect, i.e., complete, law and by it ha expects to serve God all his life and be judged by that law is the last great day (James 1:25; 2:12). No -anti-legalist living or dead could ever say such things.

The so-called “legalist” does not want you to accept his own experience in religion, his own subjective faith, his own notions or anything of the sort – he does not ask you to accept what is “reasonable” or received by the traditions of men. He will not ask you to familiarize yourself with the theories of out-dated theologians and psychiatrists or psychologists. He points you to Him who said, “He that rejecteth me and receiveth not my word hath one that judgeth him, the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (John 12:48).

I close with a quote from Addison H. Leitch. It is to the point of this article.

For those who tell me not to be a legalist, I can only answer: “Do you want me to be an illegalist?” The law stands, and the ethic of love is not to be a denial of the law, but the heart of the law and the positive possibilities beyond the law. I do not become illegal or immortal for love’s sake, but I become legal and moral for love’s sake and then go beyond the law in grace, Winds of Doctrines, Leitch, p. 62).



How about you my dear friend? To slavishly serve drudgingly all your life as a galley slave is one thing in reference to God’s law – to serve your God based on the faith that His law has planted in your heart and bask in His mercy and grace, striving always to enter that land beyond the river of life is another. The Bible teaches the latter and if that qualifies one for wearing the epithet of “legalist,” so be it. God help us all to understand more of His law and live more perfectly within it. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments and his commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:3).

Truth Magazine XXIV: 37, pp. 602-605
September 18, 1980