Fred G. Zaspel–

Try to imagine it. You are playing a game of Monopoly, and your opponent throws a ten with the dice. Then he picks up his player marker and begins counting his steps. Immediately you realize he will land on the corner — “Go to Jail!” Well, he doesn’t want to land there, so he stops just one step short, on New York Avenue. Immediately you cry foul. But he responds indignantly, “I only stopped one step short. What’s the difference? Don’t be such a legalist!”

Will you feel ashamed? Will you now feel that you have been too persnickety and legalistic? Too careful to obey the rules? Or will you feel that you have been cheated?

To make the point another way, I have never yet met a parent who complained that his child was a legalist because he obeyed too much. In fact, it would be impossible for any parent to imagine how his child could obey too much.

Yet, find a Christian who is careful to obey God in everything, and we won’t have to look far to find another Christian to call him a legalist. What do we make of this?

It’s a word we all hate, but exactly what is legalism? Legalism is that attempt to establish or maintain a right standing with God by means of our own efforts. The Jews of Paul’s day, for example, thought they could be saved by keeping the law. Anyone claiming to be Christian knows better than that, but even among believers there is sometimes found that attempt to maintain a right standing with God by means of personal efforts. They seem to think that having been saved by grace they must maintain that salvation by works. Legalism.

Still more broadly the term is also used of those Christians who insist on extra-biblical standards of behavior and judge godliness accordingly. For some it is zippers instead of buttons. No hair touching the ears for men. No jewelry for women. No slacks for women. No movies. No playing cards. And so on it goes. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. Extra-biblical standards of behavior are used to measure godliness. Legalism.

But we must be careful not to confuse legalism with obedience. Obedience is not legalism. Obedience is obedience. God commands us to obey his Word, and when pressed with those commands we must not cry foul — “legalism!”  No, disobedience is sin, and obedience is not legalism.

On the contrary, any violation of God’s commands is sin, and there are no exceptions allowed. No custom, no family tradition, no “We’ve always done that!” will cover it. Scripture insists that violation of God’s law is sin.

Simply put, we needn’t fear that we may obey our Lord too much. Jesus said that if we love him, we will obey him.

Happily, God has promised in the New Covenant to give us a heart to obey him. And every true Christian has found that obedience to God is not a burdensome thing. This is the work of his Spirit within us to bring us to obey him — not legalistically but faithfully.

We may be more thankful still that God has provided remedy for our sinful disobedience in laying our punishment instead on his Son, in whom we trust.

Let us pray that God will make us increasingly faithful, increasingly obedient to his holy Word, to his glory.

 Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010); Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim.

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17 Comments

  • Legalism and Christian fellowship cannot co-exist but as you right;ly indicate, legalism is not the only hinderance to true Christian fellowship. I like to teach it this way:

    1. When we treat our personal convictions as absolutes from God, we threaten the unity of the Church.
    2. When we reduce God’s clearly stated absolutes to matters of personal preference, we threaten the purity of the Church.

    it helps to understand three categories for setting Christian standards:

    Things clearly commanded
    Things clearly forbidden
    Things permitted (left to free and responsible judgment to the best of our knowledge and conscience)

  • Would you say that legalism, especially when it comes to the gray areas of the Christian life or adding obedience items to the gospel, is a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit to conform us to the image of God? Rules are good when we are immature and need help staying on the road, but rules should give way to a Holy Spirit powered obedience as we mature.

  • “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    He is not referencing the OT Mosaic code. Rather he is referencing a law that has been added after Jesus was crucified.

  • I like your article but I thought I would point out that one short of Go to Jail is not New York avenue, but Marven Gardens. New York is one short of Free Parking.

  • I just responded to ObeyGod.com with the following:

    In your article “Legalism, Grace, and Faith” you say:

    Let’s look at an example of how a Christian might consider use of his “free time”. I do not have any rules that forbid my attendance at a basketball game and I do not believe that such a rule should be formulated or promoted. Rather, let us promote the love of God! If someone says in his heart truthfully before God, “I love God so much, my life is just consumed with him; what can I possibly do for my God tonight?” And if the best thing that that person can think of to glorify God is to attend a basketball game, then he better go and glorify God. If there are many other things that would better glorify God, why would the person want to go if indeed his heart’s desire was to love and please God? I am not suggesting that a person should invent a rule against ever going to a basketball game and that such a rule would then save him. Rather, those who love God with all their hearts consider how best to glorify him. Therefore, it is not my practice to attend sporting events because my motive would not be to love, adore and please God. I know in my heart that there are many other things that would better glorify God…many other ways that I could best spend my time to bring God glory. But if he sends me I will go; I have no rule forbidding it. One time God did send me to a basketball game and as a result someone repented.

    How were you convinced that the true-God (and Not another spirit) was the one that sent you to that game as you were on your way to that game (to teach your convert to “Christ” that if “God” tells him/her that it’s okay to watch Basketball, THEN IT’S OKAY).

    WHICH “CHRIST” IS THAT?

    Your thinking (like the majority of Christians) is opposed to the Mind of the True-God on this issue. See Acts 15:28-29. The New Testament’s emphasis is that: Christians should flee from the idolatries of the land and idolatrous celebrations EVEN IF THE CHRISTIAN HAS POWER OVER THAT IDOL (1Corinthians 8, 10).

    See Ephesians 5:15-16, Colossians 3:1-3, Deuteronomy 6:6-9

    2Timothy 2:22 “Flee also YOUTHFUL LUSTS, but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”

    GraceTruth7.org http://www.gracetruth7.org/

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