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The Destructive Charge of “Legalism” Pinned on Rightful Application of Scripture

June 4, 2010

From the very beginning, men have taken liberty both with what God has said and with His grace.   In Genesis 3 Satan made a way for Eve to justify eating the forbidden fruit.  God’s grace is great.  It is wonderful.  It is mankind’s only basis for salvation.  And yet what?  Men who even call themselves Christians turn “the grace of God into lasciviousness”  (Jude 1:3).  They use their liberty as “an occasion to the flesh” (Galatians 5:13).

Knowing the potential abuse of the grace of God, Paul immediately after so beautifully describing salvation by grace alone in Romans 1-5, starts Romans 6 by asking, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?”  And his answer in v. 2 is the strongest in the Greek language, translated in the KJV, “God forbid.”  Then asking, “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”  God’s grace isn’t license to sin.  So Romans 6:1-2 provides evidence that grace will be perverted in this way, used as a reason for behavior that dishonors God.  It signals a need for awareness of potential corruption or cheapening of grace.

1 Peter 2:16 says:

As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.

Here is another place that confronts the use of liberty as license.  The context is obedience to government, but the principle is axiomatic.  Those to whom Peter is speaking are free.  They’ve been redeemed.   He doesn’t want them, however, to use that freedom as a covering for evil.   The cloak is a veil or a mask, and the mask is covering wickedness.  In other words, Christian freedom is never to be used to cover license.   Just because we have liberty in Christ doesn’t mean that we get to just do what we want.  Someone truly righteous will conform to God’s Word because it says your freedom should be used as a bondslave of God.

Criticism of Adherence to God’s Word

One indication of licentiousness is criticism of a more strict adherence to God’s Word.  You see this type of behavior described in 2 Peter 2 and it will often take on the nature of ridicule (2 Pet 3:3).  A common, modern criticism coming from the more licentious is one of “legalism.”  They label anyone a “legalist” who has stronger standards of holiness and righteousness than what they have.  This strategy may have been around longer, but what marked the official beginning in my memory is the publication of the book “The Grace Awakening,” by Charles Swindoll.  As Christianity has looked and behaved more and more like the world, new defenses are crafted to justify that kind of living.  What drew my attention toward writing this post was a recent essay by Phil Johnson, the executive director of Grace to You.  I want to diagnose his piece as a basis for assessing a type of defense of license.

Johnson chooses to paint separatists with this carpet roll sized brush:

[W]e have attracted more than our fair share of very vocal legalists who are convinced that the person with the weakest conscience (or the Bible college with the strictest rules) should get to define holiness for everyone—rather than letting Scripture define it for us. They believe it is their prerogative to dictate to everyone else what’s acceptable and what’s not, rather than following the principles of Romans 14 with regard to matters that aren’t altogether clear. Those people surface at every opportunity, and they seem to love making a fuss. Sometimes it’s fairly humorous (as in the “Chiquita” kerfuffle a few years ago).

I can assure that what Johnson writes here isn’t true.   With a meanness in the spirit of a fundamentalism that Johnson decries, he slanders well-meaning and godly-seeming folks.  I was involved in the “Chiquita kerfuffle” that Johnson mentions in this paragraph.  He used a picture on his blog of a girl, who was wearing biker shorts.  He has used a few other pictures with women with full thigh.  What was “fairly humorous” to Johnson was his own ridiculing of the men who protested very lightly.  It only got a little rougher for Johnson after he mocked those who said anything.  I wrote this comment:

I’m wondering what I’m supposed to do when I get to the woman in the hotpants standing on the pyromaniacs logo. She seems to be pyro of a different kind.

And Johnson answered immediately with this:

For all the fundamentalist lurkers whose minds are in the gutter, the girl in the picture is wearing shorts, not a miniskirt or hotpants. The dog is the one in the miniskirt.

This is the kind of “legalism” that Johnson had to face, which he describes in this latest post.  To that, he jumps to the idea that we, the legalists, have our minds in the gutter.

Here is how Johnson confronts this “legalism”:

But another kind of legalism is the legalism of the Pharisees. It’s the tendency to reduce every believer’s duty to a list of rules. This is the kind of legalism that often seems to surface in our comment-threads. At its root is a belief that holiness is achieved by legal means—by following a list of “standards.” This type of legalism doesn’t necessarily destroy the doctrine of justification like the legalism of the Judaizers. But it does destroy the doctrine of sanctification, and it is certainly appropriate to call it what it is: legalism—i.e., a sinful misapplication of law; an attempt to make law do work that only grace can do. Like the Judaizers’ brand of legalism, it brings people under a yoke of bondage Scripture has not placed on them.

I’ve read some of these comment threads to which Johnson refers, including the one, of course, that he makes his prime example.  Really he tells a blatant lie.  Perhaps he thinks he has liberty to tell such a lie.  I think it is possible for a kind of legalism to destroy the right view of sanctification, but Johnson doesn’t know at all that the ones he is criticizing hold to such a view of sanctification as he represents.  That doesn’t seem to matter to him.

Look at the last sentence Johnson writes—“it brings people under a yoke of bondage Scripture has not placed on them.”  What?  Scripture doesn’t place anyone under a yoke of bondage.  Scripture can’t do that to anyone.  Scriptural standards, even Scriptural lists of rules, don’t place anyone under bondage.  They could, but God’s law is good.  It is good if it is used lawfully.  That should be the concern, whether it is used lawfully or not.  And immodest dress is bad.  Telling someone about that doesn’t put someone under some kind of legalistic bondage.  God’s grace tends toward modesty.  Informing a conscience with a scriptural standard of modesty will help someone’s conscience.  That’s all good too and all helpful toward biblical sanctification.

Left Wing Legalism:  Making God’s Word of None Effect

Johnson assumes that separatists, whom he calls “fundamentalists,” recognize only a kind of legalism that applies to salvation, the type of Galatians 1:6-9, adding to the gospel, what he calls the legalism of the Judaizers.  He says, however, that these same separatists miss another kind of legalism, that of the Pharisees.  He uses Galatians 5:1 as a text to expose this type of legalism, that he asserts that these separatists, “fundamentalists,” are guilty of, for which “fundamentalists” are “notorious,” and what has essentially destroyed fundamentalism.  Be sure that this is a simplistic, very selective criticism of the troubles of fundamentalism.

Galatians 5:1 does not give any hint at a kind of legalism that adds to the commandments of God.  Johnson twists the verse for his own licentious purposes.  The “yoke of bondage” with which the  Judaizers of Galatia would entangle men was the actual law (5:3-4), and circumcision specifically (5:2, 6, 11).  Circumcision wasn’t a problem.  Keeping the law wasn’t wrong for believers.   It was making righteousness, whether justification or sanctification, based on human merit.  All righteousness comes by grace through faith, even after salvation.  However, it is still righteousness that comes by grace through faith.  Nothing is said about adding anything to the law in Galatians 5.  Johnson reads that into the text in order to criticize people with higher standards of holiness than he has.

It is true that Pharisees were guilty of adding to the law.  Johnson mentions that.  And it is possible for fundamentalists and evangelicals both to add to God’s Word.  Mark 7 is a good passage in this, because Jesus there reveals two types of Pharisaical behavior.  The first is the type to which Johnson refers, the adding kind, which is in vv. 7-8.  However, he doesn’t talk about another kind of Pharisaicalness, taking away from what God said, which is in vv. 9-13.  Jesus sums it up in v. 13: “Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.”  Making the word of God of none effect is the Pharisee behavior of the evangelicals.

You can call reducing the law to a group of rules that you can keep on your own its own brand of Pharisaism, a left-wing kind of legalism.   We are sanctified through the truth and God’s Word is truth.  Jesus was sanctified by everything the Father told Him to do.  In the same way, we are sanctified.  If we reduce scripture to something less than scripture, like Johnson chooses to do, that will destroy sanctification.

The Grace of God

Salvation is by grace through faith alone.  No amount of works will bring justification to anyone.  In the sanctification of believers, it is God who works in them both to will and do of His good pleasure.  God works all things together for good.  God conforms to the image of His Son.  But God is working.  The grace of God will look like God.  The grace of God teaches us to deny worldly lust, not expose ourselves to it and relish in it.

What upset Johnson enough for him to write what he did was the reaction to a certain blog post by one of his partners.  That essay was discussing Lost, a television series that his teammate professed to have watched start to finish.  A few criticized a publication that might encourage others to watch such a television show.  That’s what bothered Johnson enough to write a “legalism” column.  Does the grace of God teach us to watch Lost?  That’s a question.  And I think it’s worth thinking about.  I understand that the Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not watch Lost,” but there might be enough Scripture to guide us as to what kind of watching would honor God.  A criticism of Lost is what Johnson thinks is the greatest kind of destruction of sanctification in human existence (according to his essay).

We don’t stop watching television to be saved.  We don’t wear modest clothing to be saved.  We don’t abstain from alcohol to be saved.  We don’t communicate in a pure and righteous manner to be saved.  But if we’re saved, we will want to live according to God’s Word, to conform to His will.

More to come on this subject.

  1. d4v34x
    June 4, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    I think Phil is biblically right when he makes a case for “others may, even if you cannot”. I think biblically there’s room for that, although not as much as some of the folks there take it.

    What’s most instructive to me, though, is the way some of them seem to have no concern/discretion about discussing those issues in front of folks they know will be offended by them. Not to mention the occassional objectional photo.

  2. June 4, 2010 at 9:50 pm


    They don’t seem willing to discuss them if you are on their right and disagree—that’s legalism. Well, unless they’re on the right.


  3. June 5, 2010 at 7:06 am

    Charges of ‘legalism’ when one is attempting to aspire to holy living is as damaging as true legalism/Phariseeism as defined by Scripture.

    Funny that the show “Lost” was mentioned. My dh and I checked out the first disk of Season 1 a year or so ago because we love survival-type stuff, but we quickly realized that it was nothing but a soap opera with sweaty shirtless men and scantily clad women trying to decide who they are going to sleep with this week. We shut it off in disgust. Back to “Survivorman”.

    SO what are we supposed to think when someone else who professes to follow Godliness tunes in to every episode in breathless anticipation, claiming that it is harmless entertainment? My husband and I lose a significant degree of trust in their judgment from then on. Have we become legalists because we don’t think immodesty and serial fornication are subjects we should find harmless and entertaining? Or because we don’t think those who do are exercising spiritual discernment? It’s discouraging to say the least.

  4. d4v34x
    June 7, 2010 at 7:09 am

    Kent, by discussing those issues I meant parading via blog their participation in those questionable things which they felt they had liberty to do. They want to be able to discuss them in front of people they know are right of them without challenge. Assuming (FSOA) that these are Romans 14/I Cor 8 issues, that kind of behavior fits neither passage. I hope Phil/Dan adresses those passages in their upcoming posts on this stuff.

  5. June 7, 2010 at 11:42 am


    Good comment and true.


    I agree completely.

  6. AvgJoe
    August 22, 2010 at 6:39 pm


    It’s your losing significant degree of trust in their judgment and doubting that he is following after godliness that cause people to call others ‘legalist’. One of the most spiritual and wisest people I know who is a phenomenal soul-winner has gone to a few Nickelback concerts and drinks wine every once in a while. Yes, I may not agree with his choice of music but the guy, for all I know, is following after godliness and being transformed and conformed to the likeness of God and will cast crowns at our Savior’s feet some day.

  7. Reader of Proverbs
    August 23, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Solomon did not agree that the soul-winner you mentioned is wise, but rather a fool.

    “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging, whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.” Proverbs 20:1

    • AvgJoe
      August 23, 2010 at 12:41 pm


      You’re conflating “drinking” wine with being “deceived” by it. Every time the Apostle Paul mentioned wine, he condemned getting drunk, not actually drinking it. We can say that a tasty Filet Mignon is a mocker as well. Nothing wrong with eating it, unless it turns into gluttony, which is just as sinful as drunkenness.

  8. Reader of Proverbs
    August 23, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    According to the verse, wine is a mocker, not Filet Mignon. In fact red meat is never said to be a mocker. But possibly wine has deceived you. In Proverbs 23:31, the book says, “Look not thou upon the wine when it is red”. The Bible is clear in its condemnation of alcoholic beverages. Be wise and avoid them.

    Don’t be an average professing Christian that justifies his sinful behavior, rather be zealous of good works, abstain from the appearance of evil, and strive to walk with the Lord.

  9. AvgJoe
    August 23, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Perform an exegesis on 1 Timothy 5:13 if you believe that the Bible is clear in condemning the consumption of alcohol. I’m not justifying anything, I am leaving it to the liberty that we have in Christ. And the ‘appearance’ of evil you speak of doesn’t not mean the ‘look’ of evil, but rather the ‘presence’ or ‘manifestation’ of evil. When evil shows up, makes itself known, you abstain.

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