Joseph D. McPherson, “What Meaneth The Outcry Against Legalism”

, posted by Jon Gossman

“Legal,” “legalist,” and “legalism” are terms that are in nowise new. They have been used in religious circles and religious writings for centuries past, but never more so than today. In fact, so common is the use of these terms among present day “evangelicals” and “holiness people” so-called, that one would think they must surely be words of scriptural origin.

Most individuals recognize the terms “legal” and “legality” as having something to do with law. Actually, the term “legal” comes from the Latin word legalis and means “agreeable to law.” When used in reference to religious concepts, however, the exact meaning is not easily discerned. This is primarily due to the fact that those who use these terms seldom make adequate explanation of such usage in context with their purposes and designs as speakers and writers. Invariably imparted to readers and listeners, however, is a spirit and impression of abhorrence attached to biblical law and particularly to those commandments that pertain to holy living that the end result regrettably tends to “darken counsel by words without knowledge,” thereby distorting the truth and ultimately fostering antinomianism (a term derived from two Greek words, anti and nomos which mean “against the law”).

In a portion of Sunday School literature was found not long ago one individual’s concept of a “legalist.” This rare explainer of the term defined a “legalist” as a person who believes that salvation is gained through good works. It is well recognized that there are people in today’s religious world who mistakenly believe that they can, by their good works, merit salvation. The disturbing fact remains, however, that many righteous and conscientious people are called legalists who wholly renounce the idea of meriting their salvation by works or any other means whatsoever. It is really doubtful that a narrow definition such as this would be acceptable to all who use this name in an accusative manner against their fellows. This we say because it is observed that virtually any person who believes that there are conditions to be met, commandments to obey, and New Testament standards and principles to which Christians must adhere, will not escape being called a legalist, even while he daily trusts in the merits of Christ and His shed blood for redemption and purchased salvation.

By way of illustration there comes to mind a religious society that existed in eighteenth century England and which had such a passive and inoperative view of faith as to condemn anyone who overtly practiced any religious exercise. Those who endeavored to regulate their lives according to scriptural commandments were, by these people, looked upon as legalists because they supposedly trusted in their own pious living and pious works rather than living by faith. The members of this society, sometimes described as “mystical quietists,” went so far as to discredit Bible reading, prayer and other acts of devotion and piety. Why? Because their view of faith transcended the need of these religious acts.

One who was found reading his Bible was told that he was not living by faith, but was depending upon his Bible reading to merit him salvation and should therefore give it up. Another who was faithful in private prayer was informed that he had not the faith that he ought to have because he depended upon his prayers to merit favor from God. Those who, in a word, fashioned their outward conversation (daily lives) in accordance with the commandments and principles of the Scriptures were told they lacked faith; for they of necessity must trust in their good works when doing them, instead of living by a “naked faith.”

As absurd and unscriptural as the views of this religious society might seem to us, they are not greatly different in principle from the views held by many members of “fundamental” churches today who have cast off a disciplined and scripturally regulated life and who tend to discredit good works together with the necessity of obedience to biblical commandments as “just so much legalism.”

There seems to be at least two reasons for this unscriptural, but prevalent view of faith. First of all, the deceitful heart of the natural man carries with it an inclination toward independence from God and an aversion to His commandments. It is fashionable in these days for self-serving pastors and church teachers to encourage, more or less, either by work or example, just such independence. The Apostle Peter faithfully informs us, however, that “while they promised them [this kind] of liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption” (2 Peter 2:19). So it is that when some speak of their “liberty in Christ” it is not liberty from sin to which they are referring, but rather an liberty to “do that which is right in their own eyes” while at the same time making a profession of discipleship. One was heard to say in his testimony that he was “glad the Christian life was not just a lot of do’s and don’ts.” Now, in truth we must agree that it is not just a lot of do’s and don’ts. It is much more than that, but it does include that! It does include do’s and don’ts. The Apostle John, whose theme was love, nevertheless defined sin as “transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4), and biblical law does include many of both do’s and don’ts.

“Many suppose,” says Dr. Adam Clarke, “that the law of Moses is abolished, merely because it is too strict, and impossible to be observed; and that the Gospel was brought in to liberate us from its obligations; but let all such know, that nothing can be found so exceeding strict and holy as this sermon [on the mount], which Christ lays down as the rule by which we are to walk. ‘Then, the fulfilling of these precepts in the purchase of glory.’ No, it is the WAY only to that glory which has already been purchased by the blood of the Lamb. To him that believes, all things are possible” (Commentary, 5:98-99).

We need now to consider the second reason for so many embracing what St. James calls a dead faith, a faith stripped of works and obedience. This reason is that the true nature of scriptural faith has not been adequately and rightly taught. The consequences are that too many find difficulty reconciling free salvation by grace through faith on the one hand with the necessity of good works and obedience to commandments on the other hand. So it is forgotten that the same Apostle Paul who taught us that we are “saved by grace through faith” and “not of work” also in another place speaks of the Christian faith as being a “faith that worketh by love.” We even hear him declare what some would say was the testimony of a legalist. “I exercise myself,” says he, “to have always a conscience void of offense toward God and men” (Acts 24:16).

One may say, “but how is the reconciliation made between these passages of Scripture?”

In a part of his written works the Reverend John Fletcher skillfully shows us the nature of this reconciliation between faith and works. A small portion of his explanation is here submitted for our help. “The language of the penitent,” says Mr. Fletcher “is ‘Lord, I pray, and hear [thy word!] . . . I give alms, and keep the Sabbath; but after all ‘I am an unprofitable servant.’ [I must ‘work out my salvation with fear and trembling,’ and yet] ‘without thee I can do nothing.’ I cannot change my heart; I cannot root up from my breast the desire of praise, the thirst of pleasure, and the hankering after gold, vanity, beauty, or sensual gratifications, which I continually feel; I cannot change my heart to repent, believe, and love; to be meek and lowly, calm and devout. Lord, deliver me from this body of death; Lord, save or I perish (Works, 1:463).

The Reverend Mr. Fletcher continues by writing that “Christ will have all the glory [worthy of him] or none. We must be wholly saved by him or lost forever; [for although we must be ‘coworkers with him’ by walking religiously in good works; and if we are not, we shall have our portion with the ‘workers of iniquity,’ yet it is he that ‘worketh in us,’ as in moral agents, ‘both to will and to do of his good pleasure.’ It is he that appoints and blesses all the inferior means of our salvation; therefore all the glory properly and originally belongs to him alone]” (1:463).

Well would it be for us if we could always remember that the New Testament condemns only the woks of unbelief, or works that do not spring from grace and from a vital living faith.

In another part of his writings, Mr. Fletcher defines most clearly the nature of saving faith by the following dialogue: “What,” asks he, “is faith? It is believing heartily. What is saving faith? I dare not say that it is ‘believing heartily, my sins are forgiven me for Christ’s sake,’ for if I live in sin, that belief is a destructive conceit, and not saving faith.” After explaining why some definitions of saving faith are “too narrow to be just, and too unguarded to keep out Solifidianism,” he writes “I would choose to say that ‘justifying or saving faith is believing the saving truth with the heart unto internal, and [as we have opportunity] unto external righteousness, according to our light and dispensation” (1:523-4).

This godly man and most able instructor once more explains the scriptural relationship between faith and works by making it plain that “good works, works which necessarily follow [our] free justification, do not serve ‘to put away [or atone] sins,’ but to declare the truth of our faith: ‘insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit” (1:460).

Seeing now that there is no real conflict between true faith and works as well as obedience necessarily produces by a living faith, does not the vital problem exist with those who use the terms “legalist” and “legalism” as a means of destroying righteousness out of the land, rather than with those who are too often accused of a fault where there is none?

“Woe unto them,” says the prophet Isaiah, “that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own sight! . . . Which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him” (Isaiah 5:20, 21, 23).

Mr. Wesley provides a proper perspective concerning this whole matter when he writes these reflections: “I cannot,” says he,” find in my Bible any such sin as legality. Truly, we have been often afraid where no fear was. I am not half legal enough, not enough under the law of love” (Works, 13:20).

He expresses in another part of his writings the view that “the very use of the term [legality] speaks an antinomian (a lawless one) who uses this and like terms. “I defy all liberty,” he goes on, “but liberty to love and serve God; and fear no bondage, but bondage to sin” (12:415).

Mr. Wesley reminds his readers that “God sent his own Son in the flesh that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us. The righteousness of the law is legal righteousness. Says he, “Here is legality indeed!” (12:415).

Once more did Mr. Wesley declare himself on this subject when he gave his advice regarding the use of the term “legality.” He writes that “legality, with most who use the term, really means tenderness of conscience. There is no propriety in the word, if one would take if for seeking justification by works. Considering, therefore, how hard it is to fix the meaning of that odd term, and how dreadfully it has been abused, I think it highly advisable for all Methodists to lay it quite aside” (13:20).

What now can be more clear to us than that Satan has for a long time promoted the use of such terms as “legalist” and “legalism” to turn poor souls aside from the ways of God? Thus we see the moral law repudiated in spite of Christ’s warning to those who “shall break one of these least commandments and shall teach men so.” We see the force and meaning of New Testament commandments reasoned away or lightly esteemed. We see the work of piety and mercy made to look unnecessary. Finally, we see conformity to this world rather than transformed lives, self indulgence and voluptuous living rather than the practice of self-denial.

Have we not learned by sad experience that a full mourner’s bench and an emotional “sharing time” of testimonies are no sure proofs of a Holy Ghost revival? Many there are in the land who will go this far to “say Lord, Lord and [yet] do not the things” which Christ teaches and commands.

We must really hereby conclude the antinomianism (lawlessness, or spiritual anarchy) rather than so-called “legalism” is the problem of today’s evangelical and holiness churches. The charge of “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” can be leveled against present day antinomians much more justly than against those who, because they seek the blessing Christ has promised through faith and loving obedience to His commandments, find themselves denounced as legalists.

The present day Church is crying for faithful and practical leadership among its ministers that the flock be no more scattered in this wilderness of antinomianism. Faithful ministers of the trust are referred to in the Scriptures as “not handling the work of God deceitfully.” In the words of Adam Clarke this means “not using the doctrines of the gospel to serve any secular or carnal purposes, not explaining away their force so as to palliate or excuse sin; not generalizing its precepts so as to excuse many in particular circumstances from obedience, especially in that which most crossed their inclinations. There were deceitful handlers of this kind in Corinth, and there are many of them still in the garb of Christian ministers; persons who disguise that part of their creed which, though they believe it is of God, would make them unpopular; affecting moderation in order to procure a larger audience and more extensive support; not attacking prevalent and popular vices; calling dissipation of mind relaxation; and worldly and carnal pleasures innocent amusements, etc; in a word, turning with the tide, and shifting with the wind of popular opinion, prejudice, fashion, etc.” (Commentary, 6:328).

How heavy lies the responsibility upon ministers and teachers of the Word to instruct others in the scriptural manner of holy living. This kind of instruction by Spirit-energized preachers and teachers will alone destroy the fatal disease of antinomianism found in so much of contemporary Christianity. Preaching or teaching the theological doctrines of holiness as a work in the heart is good as far as it goes, but is wholly inadequate by itself. Those who stop here cannot, with the Apostle Paul, honestly profess “to declare . . . all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

“By this mark” writes Mr. Wesley, “we may always know who are, so far, the true or false prophets. The oracles of God teach that men should repent, believe, obey. He that treats of faith and leaves out repentance, or does not enjoin practical holiness to believers, does not speak the oracles of God; he does not preach Christ, let him think as highly of himself as he will” (Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 884-5).

If a pastor be sincere therefore in his desire to have a holy people, let him endeavor with his family to be a pattern of holy living, showing and teaching the scriptural principles of practical godliness. This is an essential part of the work of a faithful and spiritual shepherd.

The bible nowhere teaches, as some men do, that this instruction is to be accomplished by the Holy Ghost alone. It has always pleased God to call men as special instruments of the Holy Ghost to thus help mankind, and they cannot escape their responsibility to so apply the truth and principles of the Scriptures as will make plain the paths of righteousness for the wandering and scattered flock.

In the meantime, it surely behooves us all, both clergy and laity, to refrain from the unguarded use of those terms which tend to destroy scriptural standards of practical New Testament Christianity and thereby encourage the already alarming progress of antinomianism. In fact, could we not with much spiritual profit and inward blessing “continually spread the table of our hearts before our heavenly Lawgiver” as Mr. Fletcher recommends, “beseeching Him to write it there with His own finger, the powerful Spirit of life and love” (1:100). Surely we should then be enabled to rejoice in the spirit of the psalmist when with gladness he exclaimed, “O how I love thy law! it is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97).


From: McPherson, Joseph D. “What Meaneth The Outcry Against Legalism.” The Arminian: A Publication of the Fundamental Wesleyan Society, vol. 2, no.1, 1981. Web.