Hard and Soft Legalism

Copyright Tony S. Reinke, 2007There is a very interesting quote from Matt Perman, one of John Piper’s students, which Piper includes in his book, The Future of Justification. It addresses N. T. Wright’s view that Judaism was not legalistic. Matt argues that there are, in fact, two types of legalism. Speaking of Wright and others he says:

“They appear to be thinking only in terms of hard legalism, which is the notion that either your works bribe God or that they are self-produced by your own effort. But, as you flesh it out, hard legalism does not exhaust the definition of legalism.

There is also soft legalism, which is the belief that your God-empowered obedience justifies you before God, or that you ‘become saved’ by faith but ‘remain saved’ by God-produced works (which includes the idea that final justification is based on obedience). In fact, Sanders acknowledged that the first century Jews believed that they got into the covenant by grace but ‘stayed in’ by works. But he failed to realize that this is legalism. The new perspective—and those taking their initial cues from it—typically conflate legalism and Pelagianism, seeming to think that because they (or the first century Jews) are not Pelagians, they therefore cannot be legalists. It needs to be made crystal-clear that these are distinct issues. You can utterly reject Pelagianism and yet be a legalist. You can be a Calvinist legalist, an Augustinian legalist, a believing-in-grace-empowered-works legalist. . . . This is perhaps the central issue of the debate and is probably a big part of the reason that they are going wrong. The essence of legalism is the belief that our right standing with God is based on, comes by means of, or is sustained by our works—regardless of whether those works are self-produced (hard legalism) or whether they are completely produced by God’s grace in us (soft legalism). . . .” (Matt Perman, cited in John Piper, The Future of Justification (p. 152).

Reading that quote, I realized that with the emphasis of people like Wright on the need for us to demonstrate that we have changed in order for God to finally justify us in the end has an interesting effect. It is ironic indeed that in trying to claim Judaism was not legalistic, it is possible to argue that the new perspective has created a new form of what Matt calls ‘soft’ legalism.

In fact, if first century Judaism was not in any sense legalistic this would be most remarkable. Surely they would have been the only religious group in the history of the world who escaped its ugly stain. Anyone with much history within the evangelical movement should appreciate that, for all our talk about grace, we have all too often succumbed to the deceptive allure of legalism. This would most likely not be obvious in a review of our doctrinal statements and other written documents, but would be true nonetheless.

Book photo courtesy of Tony S. Reinke, The Shepherd’s Scrapbook. Used by permission.

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About Adrian Warnock

Adrian Warnock is a medical doctor, and a writer. Since 1995 he has been a member of Jubilee Church London. Adrian serves as part of Jubilee's leadership team alongside Tope Koleoso. Together they have written Hope Reborn - How to Become a Christian and Live for Jesus, published by Christian Focus. Adrian is also the author of Raised With Christ - How The Resurrection Changes Everything, published by Crossway.
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