Two Kinds of Legalism

I recently highlighted how Sam Storms defines legalism: “the tendency to regard as divine law things that God has neither required nor forbidden in Scripture, and the corresponding inclination to look with suspicion on others for their failure or refusal to conform.”

Some thoughtful friends of mine graciously pushed back on that definition. I replied to one of those friends with this comment:

Thanks for raising this question. So many disagreements dissipate when we carefully define terms.

There are at least two senses of legalism:

1. I grant your point that technically legalism is attempting to obtain salvation by works.

2. But usage determines meaning, so I don’t think we can limit the definition to that one sense since today many people use the word legalism to denote something different than that. Sam Storms fits here; and he’s also careful to say that we can be “legalistic” (as opposed to being “legalists” in the first sense of the term).


  1. John MacArthur on how to serve Christians who are needlessly restrictive
  2. C. J. Mahaney and Doug Moo on legalism
  3. Bob Gonzales, “Confessions of a Recovering Legalist
  4. Dave Swavely on judgmental statements
  5. Graeme Goldsworthy on “Legalism: Evangelical Judaism
  6. How to Disagree with Other Christians about Disputable Matters

law_and_libertyI recently read a new book on legalism, and some of the authors carefully define legalism in a way that includes both senses of the term that I highlight above:

Don Kistler, ed. Law and Liberty: A Biblical Look at Legalism. Orlando: Northampton, 2013. 197 pp.

1. Don Kistler, “Introduction: What Legalism Is, What Legalism Does,” p. 2:

Legalism is behavior motivated by the false notion that sinners can earn favor with God, either before or after salvation, through legal means—obedience, ritual, self-denial, or whatever.

2. Phil Johnson, “Real Love and Real Liberty,” pp. 163–65:

Two Kinds of Legalism

People who like to bind others’ consciences with their own rules and restrictions sometimes defend themselves against charges of legalism with a clever diversionary tactic. True legalism, they say, is the brand of false teaching Paul condemned in Galatians 1—the error of making some prerequisite work or religious ceremony a condition of justification. By that narrow definition, a legalist is someone who believes in salvation by works. Therefore, they say, as long as you formally affirm the principle of sola fide (faith as the sole instrument of justification), you can’t legitimately be labeled a legalist, no matter how many rules you make and impose on people who are already converted.

A better definition of legalism would be one that echoes Galatians 5:1. Legalism is the error of abandoning our liberty in Christ in order to take on a yoke of legal bondage in the hope that this will earn merit or gain favor with God. There are actually two flavors of legalism expressly condemned in Scripture.

[1] First is the one recognized and despised even by the strict fundamentalist with his thick rule-book. It’s the legalism of the Judaizers. The Judaizers wanted to make circumcision a requirement for salvation. They had fatally corrupted the gospel by adding a human work as a requirement for salvation. That is certainly the worst variety of legalism, because it destroys the doctrine of justification by faith and thereby sets up “a gospel contrary to the one you received” (Galatians 1:8–9). According to the Apostle Paul, that kind of legalist is not an authentic Christian.

[2] But another kind of legalism is the legalism of the Pharisees. It’s the tendency to measure spirituality by a list of manmade rules. This kind of legalism is a common pitfall even within the household of faith. At the root of Pharisaical legalism is a belief that holiness is achieved by legal means—living one’s life by rigorous rules and restrictions: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (Colossians 2:20–22). This type of legalism doesn’t necessarily destroy the doctrine of justification like the legalism of the Judaizers. But it does significant damage to the doctrine of sanctification, and it is certainly appropriate to call it what is it: legalism. It is a sinful misapplication of law, an attempt to make law do work that only grace can do. Like the Judaizer’s brand of legalism, it brings people under a yoke of bondage Scripture has not placed on them.

As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Jesus said about the legalism of the Pharisees: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4).

Update on 3/3/2014: Dan Doriani distinguishes four types of legalism.


  1. Paul Matzko says

    The apostle Paul often uses hagiasmos interchangeably when referring to justification and sanctification. Today we create a massive divide between these two phases of being “set apart,” but that distinction is to some extent a legal fiction used to clarify the ordo salutis. So it’s quite logical that legalism would pervert all of hagiasmos rather than restricting itself to the half that Protestants are most comfortable with.

  2. mark mcculley says

    I understand you are making a distinction between legalism for justification and legalism for “sanctification”. (Of course the biblical definition of sanctification is contested, see David Peterson’s Possessed by God, also some of the books by Jerry Bridges. But I would call your attention to another distinction between legalisms. As one of your quotations pointed out, some think if you say “faith alone”, then you can’t be a “legalist”. Some think that, if you give God the credit for enabling you to do the works, then they don’t think you are “legalist”. With the “federal vision” (and Dan Fuller), this means that, if you are predestined to do the works, and if you do the works the right way with the right attitude, then you can’t be a “legalist”. Indeed, folks like Dan Fuller tend to say that “works of faith” to get “sanctified” are the way to go, and mere “gratitude” is a legalistic “debtor’s ethic

    In The Future of Justification: A response to N.T. Wright, Piper credits Justin Taylor and Matt Perman for attention to “soft legalism”

    The essence of legalism is the belief that our right standing with God is based on, comes by means of, or is sustained by our works — regardless of whether these works are self-produced (hard legalism) or whether they are completely produced by God’s grace in us (soft legalism). (p. 152, Footnote 14)

    …while legalism involves the view that ‘salvation consists of the observance of precepts,’ boasting and self-righteousness may,BUT DO NOT AWAYS accompany this motion. When they do not, we may speak of a ‘soft’ or ‘torah-centric’ form of legalism; when they do, we have a ‘hard’ or ‘anthropocentric’ legalism. To this, we may add that ‘soft’ legalists may not believe that they are thereby ‘earning’ their salvation, still less that they are ‘establishing a claim’ on God based on their own ‘merit’. Surely love for God, or even fear of his judgment, are adequate motives for obedience to his commands.

    Unfortunately, in most definitions of legalism by New Testament scholars, the possibility of ‘soft’ legalism is not even considered. The ‘legalist’, for Cranfield, is the one who tries to use the law ‘as a means to the establishment of a claim upon God, and so to the defense of his self-centeredness and the assertion of a measure of independence over against God. He imagines that he can put God under an obligation to himself, that he will be able so adequately to fulfill the law’s demands that he will earn for himself a righteous status before God.’ For Moule, legalism is ‘the intention to claim God’s
    favour by establishing one’s own rightness.’ For Hübner, those who see
    righteousness as based on works define their existence in terms of their own activities, leave God out of consideration, and, in effect, ‘see themselves as their own creator.’ For [Daniel] Fuller, legalism ‘presumes that the Lord, who is not ‘served by human hands, as though he needed anything’ (Acts 17:25), can nevertheless be bribed and
    obligated to bestow blessing by the way men distinguish themselves.’

    Such definitions would be innocent enough if they were accompanied by an awareness that ‘legalists’ of this kind represent only some of those who interpreted Deut. 30:16 as saying that obedience to God’s law was the way to life. But all too frequently there is no such awareness. The alternative to faith is not (as it is in Paul) simply ‘works’, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — a statement which embraces both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ legalism — but rather the sinful, self-seeking, merit-claiming works of the (necessarily ‘hard’) legalist.

    Whereas Paul can contrast faith in Christ with ‘the works of the law’, and mean by the latter no more than the deeds commanded by the law, the very notion of ‘works’ is so inextricably in the minds of some scholars with self-righteousness and pride that (as we have seen) the ‘works of the law’ can only be conceived as sinful.It is no surprising
    that for such scholars, the ‘law’ whose works are conceived as sinful cannot be seen as divine, but inevitably becomes the legalistically distorted form of God’s law which prevailed (we are confidently told) among the Jews of Paul’s day.

    But — it must be emphasized — in Paul’s argument it is human deeds of any kind which cannot justify, not simply deeds done ‘in a spirit of legalism’. Paul’s very point is lost to view when his statements excluding the law, and its works from justification are applied only to the law’s perversion. (Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998], 132-134)

    (p. 158-159, Footnote 24)

  3. mark mcculley says

    Dan Fuller himself makes the distinction between having an Employer and having a Patron.

    Richard Gaffin thinks that
    1.”definitive sanctification” and “progressive sanctification” are also by grace, not by works.
    2. But also that the “grace-works” antithesis is removed once you are “united” to Christ.
    3. If a kinder word for “legalism” is “synergism”, then a kinder word for “synergism” is
    100% “monergism” on both sides.

    p73, Gaffin, By Faith Not by Sight—”Here is what may be fairly called a synergy but it is not a 50/50 undertaking (not even 99.9% God and 0.1% ourselves). Involved here is the ‘mysterious math’ of the creator and his image-bearing creature, whereby 100% plus 100% =100%. Sanctification is 100% the work of God, and for that reason, is to engage the full 100% activity of the believer.”

    1. “Union” is defined by antithesis so that “union” is not justification, not sanctification, not any of the benefits, but rather the presence of the person of Christ (naked, alone, without His benefits?).
    2. “Union” is nevertheless conditioned on “faith”, and faith means not only Christ indwelling but already a “break with sin”, and that “freedom from sin” is defined NOT IN FORENSIC TERMS but in ontological terms.
    3.. The Holy Spirit’s work in us is read into Romans 6. Christ’s “break with sin” by His death in Romans 6 is ignored.
    4. Thus we have this “double grace”, and sanctification is by grace also, not by legalism or synergism. But also in “sanctification”, works by grace are different than works without grace, and thus sanctification by grace is by both grace and works.

    Mike Horton: “It is inappropriate to import the monergism-synergism antithesis (typically belonging to the debate over the new birth and justification) into sanctification. It is better simply to say that we are working out that salvation that has Christ has already won for us and given to us by his Spirit through the gospel. Though in sanctification (unlike justification) faith is active in good works, the gospel is always the ground and the Spirit is always the source of our sanctification as well as our justification.”

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