The Many Faces of Legalism

Some forms of legalism are more obvious than others, but there are at least five types of legalism to note

Christians must, in fact, do something to be sanctified. However, to make sanctification all about a list of good deeds and disciplines is to undermine the work of the Holy Spirit in a legalistic attempt at holiness. God’s love for me does not wax and wane based on my daily performance, the strength of my faith, or the depth of my sorrow for sin. It is legalistic to assume that I can do more on my own so that God’s affections for me might increase.


A number of years ago, I defined legalism as, “an attempt to win God’s favor apart from the finished and sufficient work of Christ on behalf of sinners.” This is a doctrinal legalism which undermines the gospel. There also exists a practical legalism that is often ignored or misunderstood—a legal root that is at the heart of every one of our sins (1 Corinthians 15:56). Legalism exists in every heart, and most of the time it’s a subtle way of talking about God and how He relates to His people. Doctrinal legalism distorts the gospel, and practical legalism stands in the way of our communion with God and with one another. Some forms of legalism are more obvious than others, but there are at least five types of legalism to note:

1. Legal-Works

The rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22) assumed he could “inherit eternal life” by law keeping, and even assumed that he had done so when Jesus presented him with the second table of the law. “Teacher,” he said, “all these I have kept from my youth” (10:20). The question of what he must do to inherit eternal life, albeit understandable, possesses, in his mind, a necessity to work for his salvation. He did not understand the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. If salvation is based upon work, each man will look to himself and determine that he’s good enough, and if not, he should keep trying harder. Jesus’ point, of course, was to show the young man that he had, in fact, not upheld the law to perfection and indeed, no matter how hard he tried, never would.

This is typically the most blatant form of legalism to identify (doctrinal legalism), and is akin to all other religious systems that exist. Working harder and doing better to earn God’s favor is the default position of all mankind, and it takes an understanding of how free God’s grace truly is to break the chains of self-righteous efforts for salvation.

2. Legal-Holiness

Sanctification is a vital part of the Christian life. Every believer should desire to become more like Christ—to become more holy that we might have a greater enjoyment of life with God. However, the pursuit of holiness can easily become a pursuit to retain salvation or favor with God. By faith, we have been saved, but to maintain our right standing before the Father, we have a lot of work to do! John Owen calls this, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by way of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness.”1 There’s no doubt that sanctification comes through the diligent and regular use of the ordinary means of grace.

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