Gospel Substitutes Part 4: Legalism


(Eds. note: Joey Phillips writes the fourth part in our series entitled "Gospel Substituets."  He covers the immensely important topic of Legalism.  The first three parts (Formalism, Activism and Mysticism) can be read here, here and here.)


One of the defining characteristics of sin is that it deceives (Jeremiah 17:9). It is this characteristic that makes it so tough to identify for purposes of mortification. Legalism, fourth on our list (developed by Dr. Tim Lane) of Gospel substitutes, is particularly beguiling because obeying rules seems to be a strange thing to be on guard against. Tim Lane describes legalism as “reducing the Gospel to carefully keeping rules, many of which are extra biblical."

Law-keeping vs grace has been a discussion within the church from the beginning. You would think that after Paul wrote Galatians grace would have simply won, and we wouldn’t need to be revisiting this issue of legalism all the time. After all, he was very clear what he thought of the circumcision party (those arguing Gentiles needed to be circumcised to enter into being the people of God) and their place within Christianity. They had no place. Trying to move back under the law was, as Bomani Jones would say, hustling backwards. As cleverly as the circumcision party tried to affirm certain Christian doctrines, they were imposing conditions on salvation. As Benny Phillips repeated a few times during our series on Galatians, as soon as you introduce a condition to salvation, that condition substitutes itself into the place of Gospel.

Paul dealt with the situation vigorously, so why has it continued to be an issue for the church, and more poignantly, why do we struggle with this Gospel substitute as individuals in everyday life? I think there are two reasons why this issue never goes away and is never going away. These two reasons have to do with what Benny Phillips calls "Big L Legalism" and "little l legalism."

Scripture has no problem encouraging, commanding, and calling us to obey all sorts of imperatives despite the fact that our obedience isn’t what saves us. Obedience is never dismissed as irrelevant now that Jesus fulfilled the law. We are going to get to the following passage in our Sermon on the Mount series shortly:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In the next few verses Jesus goes on to say that obedience to God doesn’t just mean avoiding murder and adultery, it also means avoiding the root sins of anger and lust. Jesus never indicates that his coming to save us means God is not interested in our obedience to His word. The clear teaching of Scripture is both that obedience to God’s commands is required, and that Jesus saves us quite apart from anything to do with our obedience to God’s commands. This is counterintuitive. How can saying obedience is required mean anything if our salvation isn’t dependent on it? Welcome to the grace of God. God never relaxes his requirement for righteousness, but Jesus gives us His righteousness.

So the first reason that Legalism finds it so easy to sneak in as a Gospel substitute is because the grace/law relationship seems counterintuitive and it’s very easy to see all the imperatives in Scripture and think obedience to them is what saves us. This is what Benny Phillips called "Big L Legalism."

The more day to day struggle with legalism is what Benny calls "little l legalism." This is what Dr. Lane is getting at when he says ‘we reduce the Gospel to carefully keeping rules, many of which are extra biblical.’ Intellectually we understand that our obedience isn’t saving us, but emotionally and spiritually we behave as though it is. We relate to our fellow believers, and to God, as though obedience on particular issues is an indication of the state of our relationship with God. Here are some questions that may help you determine if "little l legalism" is sneaking in as a Gospel substitute.

  • - Are you more likely to feel worthy of God’s love when you are having a ‘good day’ spiritually than when you have given in to sins and struggles on a ‘bad day’ (Jerry Bridges develops this concept and applies it to the issue of legalism very well in The Disciplines of Grace).

  • - Do other people’s choices on particular applications of God’s word bother you when they fall outside the bounds of what your conscience would allow?

  • - Are you prone to hold it against others when they sin against you in small or big ways? (Sometimes we apply doctrines of grace extremely well in regard to our own sin…and not so much to others.)

  • - Do you like Kevin DeYoung more than Tullian Tchividjian? (Just kidding.)

Those questions are ways of getting at whether we our hearts are creating little extra biblical rules. Obedience becomes a matter of merit and standing rather than the overflow of our worship of God, even if we would never put it in those terms. Being on guard against this temptation means preaching the gospel to ourselves regularly. Reminding ourselves of the truth that our relationship with God is built on the righteousness of Christ, rather than anything we do. Obedience has its proper place as the inevitable response of a heart captured by the grace of God, and it pleases God that our love is demonstrated in obedient worship. But when we start to judge our relationship with God and others on the basis of how obedient we are, legalism is waiting to slip in, disguised as righteousness, ultimately setting us up to be demoralized by sin.

1 Comment

Obedience "disguised as righteousness"...what a powerful phase. That describes much of what I understood as just simply good living when I was younger! And am tempted to still believe now. Thanks for a great post.

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