“You’re a legalist!”
Perhaps you have been called this at some point in your Christian life. To be called a legalist seems to be the evangelical version of being called a Nazi. However, can a true Christian really be a legalist?
Charles Ryrie suggests that “Legalism may be defined as ‘a fleshly attitude which conforms to a code for the purpose of exalting self.’ The code is whatever objective standard is applicable to the time; the motive is to exalt self and gain merit rather than to glorify God because of what he has done; and the power is the flesh, not the Holy Spirit.”1Charles C. Ryrie, The Grace of God (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1963), 117.
The Pharisees are prime examples of legalism in the New Testament. They taught the traditions of men over the commandments of God (Mark 7:8–9). While appearing pristine, pure, and pious on the outside, their hearts were putrid before God (Matthew 23:27). Pharisees—with few exceptions—were unbelievers.
Pharisees exchanged or added to the truth of God with their own truth and traditions in an attempt to elevate themselves and merit God’s acceptance. That pursuit, which is self-exalting and absent of spirituality, is at the core of legalism.
Paul was like this prior to his conversion. Philippians 3 describes his pre-Christ days as pursing God’s acceptance and favor through his pedigree, his zeal, and his adherence to the Law. Yet, when he met Christ on the road to Damascus, he realized that those things which he prized were, in actuality, a pile of dung, unable to earn him righteousness before God.
Prior to his conversion, Paul was a legalist, seeking to earn God’s favor, appease God’s wrath, and find God’s acceptance through his strict and self-exalting adherence to the Pharisaical code. However, after Paul was converted, his life changed from seeking to appease God, to seeking to please God.
That is a major distinction to understand. As Christians, our position changes before God in an eternally significant way. We no longer are attempting to earn God’s acceptance; we are accepted in Christ, the beloved one (Ephesians 1:3). We no longer have to fear God’s condemning wrath; in Christ we are no longer condemned (Romans 8:1).
Paul’s position before God changed on the road to Damascus, and as a result, his aim in life as a child of God also changed. He had a great desire to please God in all that he did. However, it was not only a desire to please God himself, but also for other Christians to please God. Notice what he says:
Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to him.2 Corinthians 5:9
For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you . . . that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing him.Colossians 1:9–10
Finally, then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God; for you know what commandments we gave you through the Lord Jesus.1 Thessalonians 4:1-2
Pleasing God is even linked with following certain commandments from God’s Word. The motive for adherence to God’s Word is no longer self-exalting in nature. It is no longer a futile attempt to appease God’s wrath against us. Rather, it is a desire rooted in love and gratitude to please God because of what he has done for us in Christ.
Legalists seek external conformity as a means of appeasing God’s wrath, out of a motive of self-exaltation. Christians seek to obey the Scriptures as a means of pleasing God, out of a heart of love for God.
Therefore, I argue that “legalist” cannot be used as a pejorative against true believers.