Sound Teaching

This is the teaching site of the West Side church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX. Unless otherwise indicated, all materials were written and prepared by Stan Cox

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Are You A Legalist?

The term “legalist” is used quite often in religion, and always in a negative sense.  If someone calls you a legalist, they are not giving you a compliment.

The term is not used in scripture, so we must go to secular sources to define it.  Dictionary.com does so:

  1. strict adherence, or the principle of strict  adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.
  2. Theology
    1. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
    2. The judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.

Looking at the definition above, it would be inappropriate for Christians to ascribe to any of the definitions, save perhaps the last.  Let me explain.

Definition 1: Does God call for a strict adherence to the letter of the law? He most certainly does!  Disobedience to the laws of God is always condemned.  God requires obedience!  “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” (Romans 6:16).

However, the last phrase in that definition, “especially to the letter rather than the spirit”, sets up a false dichotomy regarding God’s will for man.  God’s law is perfect (cf. Psalm 19:7), and so it is not necessary to separate letter and spirit when it comes to obedience.  In fact, God requires we keep the letter of the law, and that we keep the spirit of the law as well.  No one can rightly claim to be acceptable to God without keeping the “spirit” of the law.  If that is the definition of a legalist, then a true Christian can’t be one.  However, no one can please God when disregarding the letter of the law.  The claim that one can disobey the “letter”, and remain true to the “spirit” is disingenuous.

Definition 2, Part 1:  This is the theological definition.  No true Christian believes we are saved by good works.  The concept is absurd.  As we acknowledge the destructive nature of sin, we are compelled to acknowledge we can be saved only by grace through faith (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9) as “it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

The only question is, to whom does God extend His saving grace?  The common view is that we are saved at the point of faith.  However, this disregards the gospel requirements of repentance (Acts 2:38); confession (Romans 10:10); and baptism (Mark 16:16).  No one can earn their salvation by good works.  But, God bestows His gift only upon those who meet His requisites.

Definition 2, Part 2:  Is judging conducted in terms of the adherence to precise laws?  Well, since God is ultimately the judge, perhaps we should defer to His words.   Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”  In 2 Thessalonians 1:8 he notes that those who “do not obey” the Lord will perish in flaming fire.

Again, a false dichotomy has been established by the definition under consideration.  To accept the necessity of obedience does not mean that one believes he is saved by works.  Two truths that must be accepted:

  1. We are saved by the grace of God.
  2. To be saved by the grace of God, we are required by Him to obey His gospel.

As the term “legalist” is defined, it has no scriptural analog.