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Liberated from Legalism 1

posted by Scot McKnight

Freedom.jpgI want to begin a series on how Galatians helps us see that we are liberated from “legalism.” This series will normally not be a midday series, but today it will be. I should have posts on this topic both Thursday and Friday. I will begin this series by defining legalism, and then freedom, and then examine the elements that liberate us from legalism.

After years of teaching Galatians and pondering legalism in Paul’s mind, I’m convinced many get confused about what the word “legalism” means. Thus, folks say “That’s legalism!” So some rubble needs to be cleared out first. 
How do you define legalism? What is a good illustration of legalism for you?
Legalism is not believing in the importance of law or rules or authorities; it is not rules themselves; legalism is not even following kosher laws. More often than not, this sort of definition of legalism — equating it with rules — comes from someone who has been told to do something they don’t want to do. (As a teenager telling her parents that a 10pm curfew is “legalism.”)
So what is it?


My big sketch of the meaning of legalism is this:

Legalism is any practice or belief that is added to the gospel that compromises the sufficiency of Christ as Savior and jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit in moral guidance.

Legalism then is the charge against you or me, often sensed at the deepest level, that we are not accepted by God in Christ and indwellt by the Holy Spirit.
I’ll continue this Thursday, but let me put this on the table: one can “add” something — say church membership or Sunday school attendance or a stipulation about what time for a teenager to get home at night — and not at all be compromising Christ or jeopardizing the Spirit. So, it’s not simply about having rules or laws or regulations. 
Everything in Paul’s letter to the Galatians aims at Galatians 5:1: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery.” Or, one could translate it: “Christ liberated us into liberation!” Legalism aborts liberation or side-tracks liberation or blunts the glory of liberation, but it’s not because of the idea of liberation. Legalism does this to liberation because it attacks Christ and the Spirit.


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MatthewS

posted March 2, 2010 at 12:34 pm


Looking forward to this.
“Legalist” is a byword; the guilty do not self-identify as such. The people I consider legalistic will deny part 1, that they have added anything to the gospel. But the consistently send the vibe of part 2, that you are God’s second-best.



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Andy Holt

posted March 2, 2010 at 12:45 pm


I love Galatians! Scot, I think your definition of legalism is excellent, with the key phrase being “added to the gospel.” It’s one thing to say, for example, “Christians ought not to drink alcohol.” It’s another thing altogether to insist that you must swear off alcohol forever in order to be saved.



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Peggy

posted March 2, 2010 at 1:17 pm


I look forward to this, too, Scot.
Thank you for this definition. This is what I have come to hear as the “Jesus and” approach. As if the love of God, shown through Jesus and shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, is something that we have to feel unworthy of before we can receive it.
I was just listening to Alan Hirsch’s talk to church planters last week in Atlanta … where he says that the problem with the church today is that is must make people feel bad before they can make them feel good.
The transformation of the lost (and even the saved-yet-still-in-bondage) comes from understanding and receiving the “prodigal” love of our Heavenly Father … setting us free from the “messages” that destroy.
It is a continual source of deep sadness in my heart that the forms of “church” being perpetuated engage in varying levels of bondage rather than rejoicing and sharing the good news of the freeing love of God.



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David B. Johnson

posted March 2, 2010 at 1:19 pm


Scot,
This series will help me in a number of pastoral ways. Thanks.
What about the issue of identifying God’s people? Isn’t the “legalism” in Galatians about what marks us out as the people of God (i.e. Jewish circumcision vs. inclusive baptism)? In Galatians especially, is there not a link between soteriology and ecclesiology? This seems to come up in our church community, when issues likes politics or third-tear doctrines become what makes someone “one of us.”



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Joey

posted March 2, 2010 at 1:34 pm


I’m really excited about this topic.
Scot, are you familiar with the network that has been meeting from the Holiness denominations and movements? It’s called the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium: http://www.holinessandunity.org/
These are denominations who have typically been ones accused of legalism as they’ve championed many an unnecessary rule. I’ve had the privilege of attending these for about three years now. Though I wouldn’t call myself a “holiness” sort of person they are very enlightening conversations. Every year they have a panel of “young” pastors who have a different take on holiness and legalism than that of their predecessors.
I digress…
A phrase I always come back to when it comes to the issue of freedom and legalism is this: “All things are permissible, not all things are beneficial.”
The true litmus test for morality is relational – the Law of Love. Would it be inappropriate to say that legalism is anything that enforces rules and regulations that don’t directly impede the Great Commandments?



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T

posted March 2, 2010 at 2:16 pm


Looking forward to the series. Don’t want to be a downer so soon, but the initial definitions strike me as too vague to be especially helpful. I’m sure they’ll get fleshed out, though!
I wonder, too, if many of the discussions around “legalism” are a result of a failure to ask better questions–whether by the accused or the accusers? The “Am I in or out?” question has gotten a little too much attention (at least from me!), or at least too much attention in isolation from the larger biblical narrative, and I often find arguments on either side to assume a reduced gospel. The more I ask about all that God wants in the grand scheme, and what he has done and continues to do towards those ends, the more legalistic concerns or attacks melt away. My concerns shift from my (or someone else’s) status to Christ’s goals, and how I am or can working with or against him in them.
I do like a quote from Dallas Willard on this subject, though: “Grace [or the gospel] is not opposed to effort; grace is opposed to earning. Effort is an action; earning is an attitude.”



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Dave

posted March 2, 2010 at 2:24 pm


This topic is certainly a passion of mine. I have thought of legalism as being similar to being bureaucratic. My definition for that has always been ?when the form containing the information is more important than the information on the form.?
I look forward to this.
Dave



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Richard

posted March 2, 2010 at 2:25 pm


@ 6 T I like that distinction from Dallas Willard- “Grace [or the gospel] is not opposed to effort; grace is opposed to earning. Effort is an action; earning is an attitude.”
Thanks for sharing that.



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Geoff

posted March 2, 2010 at 2:34 pm


Thanks Scot. Looking forward to this series. Your definition of legalism is interesting to me. I honestly have not really thought about it much and was rather surprised to realize, if I’m honest with myself, that my first thought of defining legalism would fit into one more about rules.
Followed your blog for awhile, really enjoy your writing. Thankyou for your “voice” in my own journey.



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Josh Rowley

posted March 2, 2010 at 2:47 pm


Legalism is subjecting oneself or others to a master other than Jesus Christ.



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JoanieD

posted March 2, 2010 at 2:51 pm


Joey in #5 writes, “A phrase I always come back to when it comes to the issue of freedom and legalism is this: ‘All things are permissible, not all things are beneficial.’ ”
I would have a problem with that. You may think this is a far-out example, but do you think it is “permissable” to use heroin as a recreational drug? This came up seriously on another blog and some folks said that anything in permissable, including drug use, because of the freedom we have received through Christianity. I believe that our bodies are inhabited by the Holy Spirit and there are things that we can do to and with our bodies that can prevent us from being aware of the direction of the Holy Spirit.



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Vaughn Treco

posted March 2, 2010 at 2:59 pm


Scot, I, too, will be eagerly following – and perhaps even participating – in this thread. Toward this end, here are a couple of initial observations/questions:
It seems to me that critical to the first part of your definition of “legalism” is the ability to distinguish between the gospel and the “adequacy jeopardizing addons”. I will be looking toward your reflections concerning how we might be able to iedntify and maintain this/these important distinction(s). This seems especially true since the second part of your definition of legalism is experiential.
Regarding the second part of your definition: Is it possible that a person is objectively “not accepted by God in Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit”?



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Your Name

posted March 2, 2010 at 3:22 pm


Scott,
You mentioned: the adequacy of the Spirit in moral guidance.
Absent any such guidance in the NT, how can we expect such today?



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Darren King

posted March 2, 2010 at 3:26 pm


Definition #1: When one worries more about adhering to the letter of the laws that are meant to protect and encourage the goodness of God’s creation than the very spirit behind those laws.
Definition 2: When worship becomes about adherence to laws as opposed to a love of God and fellow man.



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Ed Taekema

posted March 2, 2010 at 3:31 pm


I disagree with this definition … I don’t think legalism is adding something to the gospel … rather it is a counterfeit gospel. The danger of defining legalism as an addition, is that you run the danger of saying that so and so is a legalist because they are doing x or y … Christians are all about doing x, y and z and doing them for all they are worth from the energy of Christ. Legalism is not about what we do it is about where our actions come from.



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Scott Leonard

posted March 2, 2010 at 3:33 pm


Scot-Do I understand your definition to include a Christian striving to live righteously in his own strength apart from the power of the Holy Spirit?



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Joey

posted March 2, 2010 at 3:44 pm


@13 – I think Ekklesia has a lot to do with this.
@15 Ed Taekema – It is only a counterfeit gospel if it is being presented as the litmus for salvation or sanctification. Often times legalism is a lot more innocent than that (but just as powerfully evil). It is usually more cultural than theological. Not to take away from your point though – it is not “innocent” as in “not wrong” but as in “not intended to replace”.



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Ed Taekema

posted March 2, 2010 at 3:50 pm


@Joey,
The more I think of this, the more I think that legalism should have something to do with the word legal … In my mind it is making a legal claim for something. In the case of the Gospel, we don’t have a legal claim … we are dead! The Gospel is that we can be made alive in Christ… It seems to be to ‘authentically legalistic’ (weird idea) you would have to have some basis for attempting a legal claim … ie convert to Judaism, which is what Paul was fighting in Galatians. Just a thought …



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Richard

posted March 2, 2010 at 3:51 pm


@ JoanieD 11.
I hear your concern but the phrase in particular is from 1 Corinthians 6:12. And your concern is addressed by the second half which is that it wouldn’t be beneficial to the one doing it (physically or relationally).



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Pat

posted March 2, 2010 at 3:57 pm


I like your definition, Scot; particularly that “legalism then is the charge against you or me, often sensed at the deepest level, that we are not accepted by God in Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.” I think what offends me so much about legalism is the way in which people are dehumanized by it.



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MatthewS

posted March 2, 2010 at 4:01 pm


Does this definition speak to marker doctrines? Concerns such as whether men have long hair or if people drink alcohol?
PS Dang! 2nd time today I lost my post and had to retype. Firefox 3.5.5, it says you won’t lose your text, but it ain’t so.



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Scot McKnight

posted March 2, 2010 at 4:16 pm


Vaughn, yes, I agree; it requires some discernment.
Ed, that’s a false dichotomy: by adding, it makes it counterfeit. Adding is seen in Gal 3:1-5 and counterfeit in 1:6-9.
Scott, that would be a part of it if the earning means we trust in ourselves instead of Christ.
MatthewS, yes, it could include marker doctrines — depending on impact.



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Ed Taekema

posted March 2, 2010 at 4:28 pm


@Scot McKnight
I’m not so sure that Gal 3:1-5 is adding … definitely sequence (first one way then the other). I think the main issue in Galatians is still whether salvation comes via a legal claim not. Paul’s claim is that it is not via a legal claim.



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Scot McKnight

posted March 2, 2010 at 4:33 pm


Ed, “having begun … are now seeking completion”: the Judaizing tendency was to add Moses to Christ and Spirit. That verse, along with the force of the themes in the letter, show that the problem was that the Galatians believed and got the Spirit and saw God at work, then the opponents came in and got them to think they had to complete their conversion by adding on top of their faith the fullness that comes from Torah observance.



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AHH

posted March 2, 2010 at 5:04 pm


I like Darren #14’s definitions.
I’m surprised nobody has brought up “tithing” as something that, while it can be advocated as a suggestion for good stewardship, is often promoted (even in churches that are otherwise largely free of legalism) in a pretty legalistic way.



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Scot McKnight

posted March 2, 2010 at 5:22 pm


Darren, well, yes, in part, but I think you are referring more to externalism. Legalism, as defined in Galatians — or as constructed on the basis of what Galatians says — is more about “subtraction by addition”: losing Christ and grace by adding something to the gospel.



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Ed Taekema

posted March 2, 2010 at 6:48 pm


@Scott McKnight … whether we are adding or subtracting to/from salvation by grace … I think that the definition offered is still not telling me much about what is being added or removed and I think it should.
I can be legalistic about many things besides salvation and without it being additive. For example, Prosperity Gospelers are very legalistic in their insistence that God is obligated under the covenant to bless their businesses …
The law connection is important to the term’s definition I think. I look forward to how you will deal with this in connection to Galatians.



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John W Frye

posted March 2, 2010 at 7:16 pm


The insidious form of legalism is caught in this part of Scot’s definition: “…and jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit in moral guidance.” A well-known teacher of Christian principles actually encouraged Christian men to live under the Levitical purity laws regarding sex, using the Old Covenant laws to regulate new covenant believers! This in the face of Paul’s strong declaration that New Covenant followers of Jesus have the Holy Spirit to both guide them and empower them in the area of sexual purity (see 1 Thess. 4:3-8). I heard this with my own ears and was shocked. Moses was being called in to suppplant the Spirit. Blatant legalism…the continuing Galatian error.



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angusj

posted March 2, 2010 at 7:34 pm


Somewhat like Darren (#14), I understand legalism in a general sense to mean doing stuff to earn (or maintain) God’s favor. To me it’s synonymous with ‘works’ righteousness. It denies grace and stifles the Spirit. We aren’t acting out of love.
In Galatians, the ‘doing stuff’ was doing Torah stuff (circumcision, sabbath observance, temple worship, food laws). Today, it’s church on Sunday, Bible study, quiet times, tithing, evangelism etc. When we do stuff primarily* because we should, it’s legalism.
*Primarily – because our motives are usually mixed where some are healthy and some are not.



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Scot McKnight

posted March 2, 2010 at 7:49 pm


angusj,
Very common approach to legalism. I’m not so sure Paul saw things that way. He seems much less concerned with “motive” (to earn salvation) than with “impact” (jeopardizing Christ, Spirit). There’s a huge difference here because the point for Paul is not so much to check your motive but to inspect your system: does it exalt Christ or does it minimize Christ?



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Joey

posted March 2, 2010 at 8:49 pm


Scot, this is more a question than a challenge – Wasn’t Paul’s decree that folks who are teaching circumcision should “go the whole way and emasculate themselves” an issue of motive? Wasn’t part of their concern the issue of being identified as Jewish as the way to be identified with God, aka motive? Or is that an issue of impact as well?



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Scot McKnight

posted March 2, 2010 at 8:53 pm


Joey, just what to make of Paul’s famous cutting remarks is not clear; he is exasperated and lets them have it. On motive, the issue here is one of “earning meritoriousness before God through works.” That’s what I mean by motive. While this has been the Reformers’ view, and I have respect for that view, I see almost no presence of this in explicit form. It has to be read into the words to see it. Why nothing explicit? (I call this the anthropological issue. I think Paul’s theology here is less anthropological and more salvation-historical and soteriological.)



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angusj

posted March 2, 2010 at 9:48 pm


I’m afraid the nuances of motive vs impact are lost on me. My (lay) reading of Paul is that he’s equally concerned with right thinking, right motive, and right action. Perhaps I’ll get a more nuanced understanding as this series progresses. I look forward to reading more.



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Ernest Manges

posted March 2, 2010 at 11:00 pm


I’m about to give a lecture on legalism here at Cebu Graduate School of Theology in the Philippines, so reading this blog and comments is very timely!
May I add this: one common form of legalism is when I try to force a personal application of Scripture that the Spirit has brought to me onto all my fellow believers.



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phil_style

posted March 3, 2010 at 5:36 am


Joey, #31,
I think Paul’s probably just ‘avin a larf with his emsaculation remarks.



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derek leman

posted March 3, 2010 at 7:31 am


I hate it when I come late to a party. Legalism is telling non-Jews they have to become Jews and live commandments given only to Jews in order for them to be acceptable to God. Another form of legalism is an over-emphasis on the shall-nots and a neglect of deeds of mercy.
By extension, then, legalism is the idea that God only loves or has mercy on those who conform to a set of standards.
This is not to be confused with the idea that God gives extra reward, blessing, answer to prayer, etc. to those who are righteous, keeping commandments and doing works of mercy. It is true that righteousness begets greater blessing in this life and the one to come.
Rather, legalism is the idea that God’s love and mercy must first be earned through conformity. I would also venture that legalism is neglecting deeds of mercy and making the avoidance of prohibited things the measure of righteousness.
Derek Leman



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gingoro

posted March 3, 2010 at 7:33 am


Great Blog!
Your definition of legalism is what I tend to think of as weak or moderate heresy of which I see legalism as a subset that involves guidelines, rules that while they may be helpful to some, do not really reflect scripture. I think an earlier comment summarized it well:
“May I add this: one common form of legalism is when I try to force a personal application of Scripture that the Spirit has brought to me onto all my fellow believers.”
Dave W



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Scot McKnight

posted March 3, 2010 at 7:54 am


Derek,
Is legalism, then, only a sin for Gentiles? At first you moved in that direction, and then you shifted to a more religious definition.
If it is for Gentiles, then I have trouble making sense of Paul’s reading of Jewish conversion (2:15-21, where dying to the Torah with Christ occurs) and Paul’s understanding of the role of Torah in history (3:15-26).
We’ll no doubt have this conversation again as this series develops.



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Jonathan Brink

posted March 3, 2010 at 10:37 am


Scot, I would add that legalism is defining a specific act that must be fulfilled in order to receive God’s love, so in essence its a return to the law. The problem isn’t that it exists but that we don’t like letting it go. The law is a very comforting thing for some people because its hard and fast.



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Ted M. Gossard

posted March 3, 2010 at 10:02 pm


I look at divisive issues as at least bordering on legalism. What unites us? Christ by the Spirit, and through the gospel. It shouldn’t make a piddly difference that I lean the opposite way you do politically, but I sure have seen people discounted because of this within the fellowship. Full acceptance by God must mean full acceptance by each other. Or not either.



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Ernest Manges

posted March 3, 2010 at 11:07 pm


Calvin warns against “Tough giants who want to play the tyrant, and put our freedom under their control.” (1st Ep of Paul to the Corinthians, J. W. Fraser, trans., pp 176-181).
These “tough giants” attempt to use their feelings of being offended concerning a behavior that is a disputable matter (Rom 14.1). Calvin properly says Paul in 1Cor 8 is warning to those of us who feel freedom in an area to not tempt those who are confused about the issue. But those who are not confused but merely offended may not use this text, nor Rom 14-15 to limit freedom of others on behaviors that are not clearly forbidden by Scripture.



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Scott Leonard

posted March 3, 2010 at 11:12 pm


My son and I are memorizing Galatians right now, and it is a clear and powerful mandate to recognize that Paul’s revelation was directly from Jesus (sorry, Mr McLaren) as well as a deadly pronouncement against any gospel that dillutes the ‘dangerous’ grace of the cross. My friend has a wonderful T-shirt that aptly says, “Don’t ‘Should’ on Me!”



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James

posted March 9, 2010 at 11:13 am


It’s only legalism if you are performing a commandment because you think it will save you and, conversely, if you believe that failing to obey the commandment will automatically cause you not to be saved.
At the end of the Book of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations (all non-Jewish people) “teaching them everything I taught you”. Since I can’t find anything in the teachings of Jesus that contradicts the first two-thirds of the Bible (the OT or Tanakh), then what he taught was the Word of God; a set of commandments and God’s preferred lifestyle for the “already redeemed community”. If, for example, I choose to keep a Saturday Shabbat, it’s not legalism but rather obedience to God and a response to the teachings of the Messiah. After all, Jesus himself said, “If you love me, you will obey me”. Obedience to the commandments then, isn’t legalism; it’s a response of love to the one who loved us first.



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James

posted April 19, 2012 at 12:21 am


What are limits of my freedom, am I able to do what I want to or do I walk in the foot steps of Jesus. Jesus made it very plain that He followed all of His father commandments.

I love your answer. Thanks!



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