What is Legalism?
If someone were to ask you to define legalism, how would you define it? Perhaps you
would define it as adding to God’s law or making people do things that God has not commanded.
The way I would put it is, “Saying thus says the Lord where he has not spoken.” It wasn’t too
long ago, however, that I came across an interesting definition of legalism - one that I had never
considered. In his book The Whole Christ (which I believe every pastor would greatly benefit
from) Sinclair Ferguson utilizes a definition of legalism from the nineteenth century Dutch
reformer Geerhardus Vos: “Legalism is a peculiar kind of submission to God’s law, something
that no longer feels the personal divine touch in the rule it submits to.” 1 This is a cumbersome
way of defining it, but what it refers to is separating God’s law from God’s person. The law is no
longer seen as coming from a loving Heavenly Father who has our best interests at heart, but a
mere set of rules for us to do “just because.” The way I like to sum up this definition is this way:
It’s knowing God’s law apart from knowing his love.
The justification for this definition comes from Eve’s experience in the Garden of Eden.
When Satan tempted Eve he said to her, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of every tree
in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). It is technically correct that God did not allow them to eat from
every tree in the Garden. God forbid them from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good
and evil. But this is not what God actually said. What God actually said was, “You may surely
eat of every tree of the garden” (Gen. 2:16) and then goes on to give the one exception. Did you
notice the difference? Whereas God said “you may surely eat of every tree,” Satan said, “you
shall not eat of every tree.” While what Satan said was technically correct, he changed the entire
narrative. Whereas God showed how generous he was in giving them every tree except for one,
Satan turns the perspective around and focuses on God’s restriction, thus making him appear as
unloving, unkind, and austere. Satan thus put a dark face on God and separated God’s law from
his loving and good character. This view of God has been embedded in the heart of sinful man. It
was the perspective that the Israelites had in the wilderness who constantly doubted God’s
goodness, claiming that he brought them out into the wilderness only to withhold from them and
kill them. And this was the view that the “wicked servant” who hid his talent rather than using it
to profit his master. He said, “I knew you to be a hard man…do I was afraid” (Matt. 25:24-25).
This view of God as a hard man, not giving but simply wanting to take, led the servant to live in
fear and thus he did not live for his master. This is the legalism to which Geerhardus Vos and
Sinclair Ferguson refers. And, as I will show in my next blog post, it leads to antinomianism.
Antinomianism is the response to one’s legalistic spirit.
This is why we as Christians and especially pastors need to be careful of how they think
and portray God. Do we present God as a hard man who only loves us so long as we are adding
up? Out of a fear or reaction to “evan-jellyism” do we portray God as demanding obedience in
order to escape his coming judgment? Or do we portray God as “eager ready to forgive” (Ps.
86:5) who waits on high to show compassion (Isa. 30:18)? Is our tone like that of Satan who says
technically true things but gives the impression that God is unwilling to be gracious to us and
that life is about us not disappointing God? Do we preach in such a way that demonstrates that
while we were yet sinners Christ died for us - he died for the ungodly? And do we portray God’s
law as good and given for our good and his own glory?
1 Geerhardus Vos, The Self Disclosure of Jesus, ed. J.G. Vos (1926; repr. Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1953),
17. Quoted in Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2016), 83.
Brian Onstead is pastor of Trinity Bible Church in Powell, WY (https://tbcwyoming.com/). He was born and raised in Omaha, NE where he was saved and met his wife Jackie. He then spent three years in San Diego, CA where he attended Westminster Seminary California and the Institute for Reformed Baptist Studies. After graduating in 2015, he moved to Montana where he pastored a church for 4 years. In 2019, he moved to Powell, WY where he currently resides. He and his wife have been married for 10 years and have two young children. You can find his sermons on sermon audio and follow him on Twitter (@brianonstead).
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