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What is a legalist?

Dan Phillips is raising the question about 'what is a legalist?'. It's a problem and it does need careful answering.

I suppose there are issues around what view of the law we take, which determine what part we think the OT Law should take in the Christian life, and then there are the broader issues of legalism and Christian living.

Phillips raises the question well (by providing some thorough observations of what people say around this area), and it'll be interesting to see what answers come in the comments.

Dominic Smart's article at is worth a look on this topic:
"Legalism isn’t a matter of having rules, structures, limits or instructions in our congregations or individual lives. While they can be overdone, and often are by people of a certain temperament, they are necessary for godly order in any fellowship: God has given many to us in the Scriptures. The opposite of legalism isn’t lawlessness (antinomianism, as some like to call it), which is nothing more than anarchic pride. Nobody is delivered into that. Christian freedom isn’t freedom to do whatever you want: down here none of us is safe to be let loose with such a freedom; up there - well, we’ll be different then! Legalism is primarily a God-ward thing. It’s a way of making and keeping yourself acceptable to God."
ps: Tom, on our previous conversation about what is a human being? - how about kicking off the discussion in the same sort of way Phillips does here.


  1. "Legalism is primarily a God-ward thing. It's a way of making and keeping yourself acceptable to God."

    One thing I can never get my head around when thinking about legalism is how something supposedly opposed to God can be defined as seeking to please him? If no one seeks God why do the same people supposedly seek to please him?

    It seems when people talk about legalism they really mean making God small and me big. Not seeking to please him but seeking to make him pleasing to me.

    As I've been reading Romans recently it appears to me that running through the whole book is the question: who judges?

    Legalism is therefore is seeking to justify yourself in the sense, not of seeking God's favourable judgment on you, but in seeking your own judge yourself favourably by your own law.

    Eeeee... I always seem to comment on these posts but I still haven't got it straight in my mind.

  2. There is sin that looks religious and devout to the observer, and sin that doesn't. What's the difference?

    As I think of it, legalism is the respectable face of pride and self-justification. With the appearance of godliness but nothing more than that. When it's unwitting legalism it remains a rejection of the gospel but masquerades as me thinking I'm pleasing God. And most legalism is probably unintended... (?)

    Your ramblings are always valued.

  3. Hehe it really was a rambling comment wasn't it.

    I suppose that the question is: should we define legalism as legalists defines it, or as God defines it?

    I think one benefit of going behind legalism as defined by Smart to what it really is at root helps to widen the challenge to more people. I know that in my heart I never consider that I have earnt God's favour. However, I often presume upon God's favour upon me, because I'm me. Not because of anything I've done but because I'm Dave Kirkman (Religious conviction on the census: Christian).

    What I'm trying to say is that there is more than one way to be on the religious third way to live (to use Tim Keller's terms). I have no objection to preaching against legalism as often described. What I dislike is the presumption that there is just legalism and Gospel. Legalism is just a symptom of a deep and varied death which lies over the human race. We need to expose it and lay that axe at the roots.

    Damn, I must stop rambling. I could go on all night but still without getting to a point.

    Perhaps you get what I'm saying. I have a problem just saying "I agree" and leaving it at that, even when I do.

  4. Nuance is necessary in preaching against the big house called legalism. As with all error in belief or behaviour the obvious things are rarely held, it's the subtle counterfeits that tend to slip by unnoticed.

    Even the Galatian or Colossian heresies were in some sense subtle on the face of things, though once you shine the light of the gospel on them they're exposed as horrible fakes.

    It's one thing to critique the religion of having to attend church meetings twice on sundays, or daily bible reading or saying grace before meals. What must be addressed is the underlying anti-gospel thoughts, affections etc. Without treating the heart they'll only be replaced by reactions against the problems.


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