What is Legalism in Christianity?

What is Legalism in Christianity? May 23, 2024

The charge of “Legalism,” or of being legalistic, can often come quick and hard in Evangelical churches, sometimes in a fairly legalistic manner, as in: “oh, you’re just being legalistic!” Another favored synonym for the act of “being legalistic” is to call someone a Pharisee or accuse them of acting “pharisaical.” While there is such a thing as legalism in the Christian life, there is also its opposite. The antithesis of legalism was best summed up by Bonhoeffer as “cheap grace.” My own pastor prefers the term “sloppy agape.” These terms capture the idea of God’s grace being not only free but, in some way, owed to us; as if we deserved His favor and, as such, could continue about business as usual without any pursuit of Christ or His commandments (John 14:5).

Thus, we have a spiritual and psychological dynamic that requires clarification. For accusations of legalism may or may not hit the intended mark. If they do, then something important about the grace of God has been reaffirmed. But if they don’t, then something important about the Law of God has been denied. So, we have to ask the question seriously: “What is Legalism in Christianity?”

Defining Legalism

Paul Tillich, a theologian one would hardly describe as “legalistic,” nevertheless gives a valid and incisive description of Legalism in his magnum opus:

Legalism in the sense of legal formalism can become, like certain types of logic, a kind of play with pure forms, consistent in itself, detached from life. If applied to life, this play can turn into a destructive reality.

Tillich, Systematic Theology, 90 [emphasis added]

Tillich, the great synthesizer of critical theory and Christianity, is pointing out, in his somewhat convoluted language, essentially the same thing that Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians:

4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ towards God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

As well as what Jesus says to the actual Pharisees:

23 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

The idea in all of these is not that the Law itself is bad. By no means! The Law is good. It is, after all, given to us by God and exists for our benefit (cf. Mark 2:27). However, there is a form of the law, namely, its propositional form, or its “lettering” that must be applied to real-life circumstances. It cannot be played around with in the realm of the purely abstract, because life doesn’t happen in the abstract. Life takes place not only in the mind, with immaterial concepts, but also in the body, with physical and emotional experiences.

Thus, to live wisely requires that anyone applying the law, as found in its propositional form, takes into consideration the entirety of an actual person with actual experiences under actual circumstances. However, because the form of a law is often easy to articulate, as in the logical statement: “if x then y; x, therefore y;” or the moral statement: “all abortions are murder; murder is wrong, therefore abortion is wrong,” we can think that the application should be equally easy.

But what makes things difficult is the application of form to life. The application of the form of the law, here the moral Law, to a real-life situation requires some component– less tangible, and more esoteric– to be done successfully. That component is wisdom. As such, justice often comes not through an impersonal, uninformed application of the Law to a particular circumstance, but through a careful, considerate and measured communication of the Law into a real situation. Again, this does not mean that the form of the Law is irrelevant to a particular circumstance, and, as such, doesn’t need to be applied. The question here is how to translate the form into practice, not whether to translate it. And so we must know the letter of the Law before we can apply it in spirit.

Balancing Legalism and Emotionalism

As such, while Tillich admits that “Form armed with power can become a terrible organ of suppression in a social group,” and that “legal formalism and totalitarian suppression are intimately related,” he also points out the converse, namely, that reactions to legalism can miss the mark:

Emotional reactions against legal formalism misunderstand the structural necessities of law.

And, while form can “destroy the inborn vitality and creativity of every new being and new generation,” still

Emotional reactions against conventional formalism are…explosive and catastrophic. They have a ‘blind spot’ with regard to the supporting, preserving, and directing power of convention and habit.

Tillich, 90-91

In short, the formal aspect of the Law, as well as the application of it with wisdom and grace, are two necessary sides of the same coin. To disregard legal formality would be to disregard the “supporting, preserving and directing power of convention and habit.” Without the form of the Law, and the authority of the Law, everyone does what is “right in his or her own eyes” (Judges 21:25) which leads to chaos and disorder, both in the individual psyche and in social life. For the rightness one does in his or her (or they’s) own eyes is itself not based in the Law or Reason but in pure emotion:

Emotion without rational structure…becomes irrationalism. And irrationalism is destructive in two respects. If it attacks formalized reason, it must have some rational content. This content, however, is not subjected to rational criticism and gets its power from the strength of the emotion which carries it. It is still reason, but irrationally promoted reason, and therefore blind and fanatical.

Tillich, 93

For an example of this kind of emotionalism, we might think of contemporary critical theory and current social justice activism. Whether it be critical race theory, gender theory or queer theory, all of these variations of Marxist thought are considered by their proponents as unassailable and, as such, asserted to be beyond rational criticism. Thus, the only thing that carries their political agenda is “the strength of emotion.” As such, they become “blind and fanatical,” tyrannical in their irrational pursuit of so-called justice.

Tillich goes on to describe a second kind of destructiveness of emotionalism:

If, on the other hand, irrationalism empties itself of any content and becomes mere subjective feeling, a vacuum is produced, into which distorted reason can break without a rational check. If reason sacrifices its formal structures, and with them its critical power, the result is not an empty sentimentality, but the demonic rise of antirational forces, which are often supported by all the tools of technical reason.

Tillich, 93-94

The other side of irrationalism is the synthesis between emotion, the demonic and technology: in other words, apart from the structures of the Law, one devolves into amoral paganism and techne, or the pursuit of power through spiritual technique, i.e., into magical thinking. This is why the Law in its formal sense cannot be abandoned. It must be applied, but applied in the right way.

Yet even the perfect Law of God, when applied by sinful human beings who fail to account for the real life of real people, can turn into a tyranny of form over function. This is why Christians must always look to Jesus, the perfecter of the Law, and the perfect applier of the Law, as their example:

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Matt 11:28-30

What Is The Balance Between Law and Grace?

From Legal Form To Concrete Application

In the Christian life, therefore, legalism properly understood is the application of the moral Law of God without regard to the real-life circumstances and conditions surrounding the person who is breaking that Law. What legalism is not, however, is the dismissal, downgrading or denial of the rightness or goodness of the Law. Jesus says it best in Mark 2:27-28 regarding the law of the Sabbath:

27 Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28

The law is made for us and for out good. Paul puts it this way:

So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.

13 Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.

The law is holy, but man is not. When we operate in the spirit of Christ, however, we can apply the law through the medium of grace. The grace of God did not nullify the Law through Christ’s death, Christ’s death fulfilled the Law on our behalf. Thus, the one who lives “in Christ” is set free from the Law, but the Law itself is not changed. Being set free from the Law means we are set free from our inability to pursue its righteousness. In other words, our new identity in Christ empowers us to do the Law that we once could not do nor which we wanted to.

This is a fundamental Christian truth that many in the Church today fail to grasp, or perhaps explicitly reject. Even the current Pope of Rome struggles to articulate this necessary dogma of the Faith, when he claims that the human heart is “fundamentally good” and that there are just “some rogues” and “sinners” out there, somewhere.

The key component, then, to living according to the spirit of the Law, and not the letter of the Law, is taking into consideration the concrete circumstances of a person’s actual life before one applies the Law. For example, a man who was severely sexually abused as a child may struggle with sinful patterns in adulthood that, while still immoral, are understandable in light of that history. A woman with a history of being treated like a “princess” and repeatedly spoiled by her parents may struggle with pride and a sense of entitlement. Another may struggle with anger, another with gluttony and yet another with pettiness. What ultimately will matter in the life of the Christian is the willingness, the intent, of the person to continue to pursue God and His commandments in spite of failures along the way.

For God judges the heart of men and women, not merely their external acts. And so too must we as Christians seek to understand our own hearts and the heart of those who seek to serve Christ–never abandoning the requirements of His commandment, but also always taking into account the person before us trying to live them out in the real world.

About Anthony Costello
Anthony Costello is an author and a theologian. He has a BA in German from the University of Notre Dame (1997), an MA in Apologetics (2016) and MA in Theology (2018) from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He has published articles in academic journals such as Luther Rice Journal of Christian Studies and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. In addition, Anthony has made chapter contributions to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell and has published several articles for magazines such as Touchstone and made online contributions to The Christian Post and Patheos. Anthony is a US Army Veteran, former 82D Airborne paratrooper and OEF veteran. You can read more about the author here.
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