Rebecca Stark is the author of The Good Portion — God, the second title in The Good Portion series, a series written specifically to encourage women to immerse themselves in the depths of Christian doctrine.

The Good Portion — God explores what Scripture teaches about God in hopes that readers will see his perfection, worth, magnificence, and beauty as they study his triune nature, infinite attributes, and wondrous works. 

Rebecca also blogs at Out of the Ordinary.


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Theological Term of the Week

The tendency to rely on self-effort—doing good deeds or following certain rules and regulations—as a way to gain God’s favor; the belief that a sinner can do some work to obtain salvation or fellowship with God; the inclination to regard things that Scripture has not commanded or prohibited as moral precepts.

  • Scripture that argues against legalism:
    O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by  the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (Galatians 3:1-6 ESV)
  • From the Heidelberg Catechism, 1563:

    Question 60. How are thou righteous before God?

    Answer: Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ;  so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction,  righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart. 

    Question 61. Why sayest thou, that thou art righteous by faith only?

    Answer: Not that I am acceptable to God, on account of the worthiness of my faith; but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, is my righteousness before God;  and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.

    Question 62. But why cannot our good works be the whole, or part of our righteousness before God?

    Answer: Because, that the righteousness, which can be approved of before the tribunal of God, must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.

    Question 63. What! do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?

    Answer: This reward is not of merit, but of grace.

  • From Concise Theology by J. I. Packer:

    Legalism is a distortion of obedience that can never produce truly good works. Its first fault is that it skews motive and purpose, seeing good deeds as essentially ways to earn more of God’s favor than one has at the moment. Its second fault is arrogance. Belief that one’s labor earns God’s favor begets contempt for those who do not labor in the same way. Its third fault is lovelessness in that its self-advancing purpose squeezes humble kindness and creative compassion out of the heart.

    …[F]ar … from enriching our relationship with God, as it seeks to do, legalism in all its forms does the opposite. It puts that relationship in jeopardy and, by stopping us focusing on Christ, it starves our souls while feeding our pride. Legalistic religion in all its forms should be avoided like the plague.

Learn more:

  1. Reformation Theology: What Is Legalism?
  2. J. I. Packer: Legalism
  3. Sam Storms: Legalism Can Be Lethal
  4. Jared Wilson: What Legalism Isn’t (and Is)
  5. Erik Raymond: What Is Legalism and Why Is It So Bad?
  6. Fred Zaspel: Legalism or Obedience?
  7. Mark Dever: Legalism (mp3)

Related terms:

Filed under Isms.

Do you have a a theological term you’d like to see featured here as a Theological Term of the Week? If you email it to me, I’ll seriously consider using it, giving you credit for the suggestion and linking back to your blog when I do.

Clicking on the Theological Term graphic at the top of this post will take you to a list of all the previous theological terms in alphabetical order.

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Reader Comments (8)

Isn't legalism also the enforcement of policies and preferences enforced by church bodies over the freedoms of the individual, whereby the individual is automatically considered sinful and guilty if they freely choose to participate in a non-harmful, yet personally preferred practice? An obvious and famous example is the tendency for certain baptist and pentecostal assemblies to forbid dancing because it is seen as a precursor to sex. Less obvious ones are things like certain church bodies being ignorant of particular forms of music and then ruling against its presence in their assemblies.

I've experienced both of these non compos mentis actions within the church. That kind of top-down enforcement of group preference over individual choice is also a legalism: making a law above and beyond the freedoms of the individual.

March 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKane Augustus

Isn't legalism also the enforcement of policies and preferences enforced by church bodies over the freedoms of the individual, whereby the individual is automatically considered sinful and guilty if they freely choose to participate in a non-harmful, yet personally preferred practice?

Yes, but I think church bodies who enforce those sorts of preferential regulations on the basis that they are sinful usually think that not doing those things is a way to attain holiness (or sanctification). So when I made the definition I was thinking that this sort of thing is included under "relying on self-effort as a way to gain God's favor." I may change the definition to more clearly include this category when I have time to come up with the wording. Thanks for bringing this up.

Less obvious ones are things like certain church bodies being ignorant of particular forms of music and then ruling against its presence in their assemblies.

I'd think this one could be legalism, but might not, depending on the situation and depending on the reasons for ruling against a certain sort of music. This sort of ruling, for instance, could be made simply on the basis of wisdom—what is music that transcends generations, what is most singable, what is appropriate for our particular church culture. They might not be saying that a certain form of music is wrong per se, just that it not appropriate for their worship.

March 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrebecca

Isn't legalism, in its redemptive-historical sense, any attempt to make new covenant believers answerable to the old covenant of law in some way or another? Is a legalist not someone who makes the law, a basis for justification, a source of sanctification, or a rule of life for Christian living?

March 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Thomson


In a word, "yes." And that is part of what is implied in the first two references in Rebecca's article (Gal. 3:1-6; and The Heidelberg Confession, 1563).


March 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKane Augustus


Certainly Galatians rejects the Law as a 'rule of life' ... but the Heidelberg Confession?


March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Thomson


Is a legalist not someone who makes the law .... a rule of life for Christian living?

I don't consider using the law as a source of moral norms to guide the Christian life to be legalism.

I'd think the definition of legalism in the post covers using the law as a basis for justification.

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrebecca

Hi Rebecca

Thanks for response. I was being slightly mischievous. I know you do not consider using the law as a rule of life legalism. My comment was a bit provocative. Though, in truth, I do think any truly biblical definition of legalism must define it as any form of obligation to the OC of Law. In this I believe Reformed thinking to be an example of 'soft legalism'. To make the moral demands of the law as binding on a believer is legalistic for it places one ipso facto under law. This is Paul's point in Gals 5; for Paul in Gals 5 freedom from law is not merely freedom from law as a basis of justification or even as a means of sanctification, rather it is freedom from obligation to its imperatives entirely. Freedom from imperatives like circumcision and indeed every other imperative - for if we see one as 'binding' then all are binding.

It is theology and not Scripture that decides to make law 'non-binding' for justification but 'binding' for sanctification (that is as a moral code). Scripture IMO is clear: we are either answerable to a covenant entirely as it was given and stands or we are not answerable to it at all. Christians are not answerable to it at all for we have died to the world in which the covenant of law functioned. Christ, not the law, is the one to whom we are married and to whom we are answerable (Roms 7:1-6).

Thus in my view, to place ourselves 'under law', that is, make it a binding authority in any way is legalistic; it is 'hard' legalism if we base our justification on it and 'soft' legalism if we make it the basis of sanctified living. In both cases we are awarding it an authority that it ought not to be given.

Of course, as NT believers, we learn from the whole of the OT, including the law. It is all useful for correction, reproof, training in righteousness etc. But that is quite different from saying theobligations of law or any other part must simply be obeyed because they were obligations to those to whom they were given. We must passevery OT ethical imperative through the prism of the gospel. We must consider every OT imperative in its redemptive-historical context before it can train us in righteousness. If we don't then we will all end up living culturally as Jews. Indeed we will find ourselves making some very dubious moral decisions indeed. Neither the law, nor the OT is a simple 'rule of life' for NT believers though we can learn much from it.

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Thomson

To make the moral demands of the law as binding on a believer is legalistic

I don't think moral demands of the law are binding on a believer as Old Covenant law. They are binding because they represent the moral norms God has for human beings. In other words, we aren't "answerable to the old covenant of law" because we are "under the law" as our covenant; but still, we are answerable to God's will for human beings, which we find patterned for us in the Old Covenant.

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrebecca

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