What is legalism? The charge of legalism is so carelessly flung around today that people have no idea what the term means. It’s become a catch phrase to write off any teaching of God’s moral law.
There are three ways this term is being misapplied and abused to attack churches that have remained confessionally Protestant.
First, churches that are serious today are characterized as legalistic. In fact, any church that is serious or formal anymore will “stand out like an organ stop” (quoting David Wells) and be labeled as those who are joyless and legalistic. People are equating legalism with formality, as if freedom means casualness before God. I’m reminded of the Lord’s complaint against Israel,
For My people are foolish, They have not known Me. They are silly children, And they have no understanding. They are wise to do evil, But to do good they have no knowledge.” (Jer 4:22)
It seems to me that legalism is making obedience to God’s commands, or man’s commands and attempts to please God as necessary for justification or final justification. First legalism makes obedience antecedent to the new birth, which is impossible while we are dead in trespasses and sin, or as a requirement for final justification, which is also impossible as long as we are in this life. Eph. 2, Rom. 7 We are commanded to have faith, believe, repent, and obey God’s commands in Scripture but this is impossible if we are dead in trespasses and sin, and even in this life. It is only when, through the new birth, we are able to see our sin and misery and are driven to Christ, in despair of our own righteousness, that we are justified in Him. Only then can we can begin to obey God, not as antecedent to acceptance before God, as a causal condition, but as a consequence of the new birth, so that our obedience is from love and gratitude to God who alone has done everything to save us, and provide for our perseverance by the indwelling Holy Spirit who will never leave us. Therefore any teaching that says our justification, current or final, depends on our obedience as, “doing our part” is legalism. It is a denial of the gospel. It is looking to our own obedience for justification before God, rather than trusting that God has done it all so that now “there is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Rom. 8:1. Of course it is only by obeying God’s actual commands in Scripture that we can obey Him as living sacrifices Rom. 12:1 Any practice, by which we try to please God, not commanded in Scripture, is a second type of legalism. It is will-worship (Co!. 2:23) and therefore actually displeasing to God, as disobedience–such as, making the golden calf, offering strange fire as Nadab and Abihu, and the example of Uzza who tried to steady the Ark of the Covenant without God’s permission. Obedience to God’s abiding moral commands, in Scripture, as living sacrifices, in love and gratitude to God, who has done it all, so “there is now no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” is not legalism, it is the norm for the Christian.