Legalism is an attempt to win God’s favor apart from the finished and sufficient work of Christ on behalf of sinners. This is a doctrinal legalism that undermines the gospel. There also exists a practical legalism that is often ignored or misunderstood—a legal root that is at the heart of every one of our sins (1 Corinthians 15:56). Legalism exists in every heart, and most of the time it’s a subtle way of talking about God and how He relates to His people. Doctrinal legalism distorts the gospel, and practical legalism stands in the way of our communion with God and with one another. Some forms of legalism are more obvious than others, but there are at least five types of legalism to note:
1. Legal Works
The rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22) assumed he could “inherit eternal life” by law-keeping, and even assumed that he had done so when Jesus presented him with the second table of the law. “Teacher,” he said, “all these I have kept from my youth” (10:20). The question of what he must do to inherit eternal life, albeit understandable, possesses, in his mind, a necessity to work for his salvation. He did not understand the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. If salvation is based upon work, each man will look to himself and determine that he’s good enough, and if not, he should keep trying harder. Jesus’ point, of course, was to show the young man that he had, in fact, not upheld the law to perfection and indeed, no matter how hard he tried, never would.
This is typically the most blatant form of legalism to identify (doctrinal legalism) and is akin to all other religious systems that exist. Working harder and doing better to earn God’s favor is the default position of all mankind, and it takes an understanding of how free God’s grace truly is to break the chains of self-righteous efforts for salvation.
2. Legal Holiness
Sanctification is a vital part of the Christian life. Every believer should desire to become more like Christ—to become more holy so that we might have a greater enjoyment of life with God. However, the pursuit of holiness can easily become a pursuit to retain salvation or favor with God. By faith, we have been saved, but to maintain our right standing before the Father, we have a lot of work to do! John Owen calls this, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness.” There’s no doubt that sanctification comes through the diligent and regular use of the ordinary means of grace. Christians must, in fact, do something to be sanctified. However, to make sanctification all about a list of good deeds and disciplines is to undermine the work of the Holy Spirit in a legalistic attempt at holiness. God’s love for me does not wax and wane based on my daily performance, the strength of my faith, or the depth of my sorrow for sin. It is legalistic to assume that I can do more on my own so that God’s affection for me might increase.
3. Legal Fences
Every Christian should delight in David’s prayer, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it” (Psalm 119:33-35). God’s law is a beautiful, holy representation of God’s immutable character, and should not be despised, but should cause great delight. However, the law has been given as part of “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life…unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (2LBC 1.6, emphasis added). In other words, God’s law stands on its own and does not need man’s help to ensure it is kept.
Building legal fences is looking at God’s settled law, and then erecting fences around it to make sure everyone not only doesn’t break the law but that they never even get close. The further the fence can be built from the law, the further we are from breaking it. Legal fence builders say things like, “Covetousness is a sin; therefore, we shouldn’t watch commercials on television or go window shopping on Main Street.” God never built those fences, the legalist did. Binding a believer’s conscience in ways that God does not is always a wrong and distorted abuse of the law.
The Apostle Paul rebukes legal-fence building in his letter to the Colossians writing, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:20–23). Building legal fences may stop an outward action, but it does nothing to deal with the real issues of the heart.
4. Legal Interpretation
Our Pharisaical hearts are excellent at defining the letter of the law (especially for other people), but Jesus was constantly rebuking the Pharisees for misunderstanding and misapplying its spirit. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is, in large part, Jesus’ explanation of the significant difference between what one may read in the letter, but ignore in the spirit of every law. It’s easy to feel righteous about not murdering anyone, but it’s quite another thing to be told that “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22).
The justice system in the West understands this distinction well, at least in theory. The role of a judge and jury is to hear the facts of a case, consider the applicable law, and determine if the law was intended to prevent the actions from happening that are being tried. Did the defendant murder a victim, or did they kill an assailant in self-defense? While the action may be exactly the same, the spirit of the law dictates very different outcomes, and rightfully so. Spirit and letter distinctions are everywhere in the Bible and are essential if it is to be rightly understood and utilized.
5. Legal Words
Sometimes legalism is difficult to detect because it is couched in truthful language. It is possible to so zealously emphasize the importance of expending one’s time and effort in the things of God that the blessings of God to be enjoyed are no longer assumed to be acceptable. One might reason that God has done so much for believers in giving His Son to live a perfect life, die a sinner’s death, and be raised from the dead that we, by faith, might have everlasting life; so, we have a duty to God to do all that we can for His Kingdom, and nothing should stand in the way. It’s hard to argue with that!
However, the subtle tendency is to assume that everything that’s done in life that’s not directly related to loving and serving God is wrong or unprofitable. Our subtle, practical legalism is often discovered in our condemnation of the enjoyments of common grace. Watching the big game? You should have a prayer meeting instead. Playing a round of golf? Bible study would be far more profitable. Eating a fancy dinner with friends? You should spend that money on missions. In the end, God is an overbearing lawgiver who always demands more and more work from his people and never lets them enjoy the good things He has created.
We are all born with a legal heart, and the Christian life is one of discovering just how legal-hearted we continue to be. It’s not until we understand the right use of God’s law in its intimate union with the gospel that we begin to move away from every form of legalism. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
 John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 7.
Nick Kennicott is a pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Coconut Creek, Florida. He is the president and founder of the Institute of Pastoral and Theological Training in Egbe, Nigeria, and a professor at the Reformed Baptist Seminary. He is a graduate of the Baptist College of Florida, and Knox Theological Seminary, and is completing his Ph.D. dissertation at Faulkner University. Nick is a co-author of the book In Praise of Old Guys. He is married to Felicia, and together they have three children.