Eric Douma: Legalism

August 12, 2017

Eric Douma is pastor of Gospel of Grace Fellowship in St. Louis Park, MN and co-host of Critical Issues Commentary Radio. He's a good friend, and my pastor. He joins me this month do discuss a topic that has been coming up frequently in his own ministry, and that comes up often in Biblical Churches around the world: Legalism. Just what is legalism? How does it manifest in our daily lives? How do we avoid it? We also discuss a little about antinomianism, which is the opposite error to legalism.


Outline of the Discussion
  • Two opposite errors that people can fall into are licentiousness (antinomianism) and legalism.
  • Our working definition of legalism: The belief that adherence to certain rules, apart from what God actually demands, will make a person more righteous before God.
  • The Second Temple balustrade was erected to divide the areas accessible to Jews-only from the areas accessible to Gentile converts. It's used analogously for legalism because there was no command from God to keep Gentile believers out of the areas of the Temple complex accessible to the “general public.” In Ephesians 2, Paul explains that the balustrade is broken down,
    and Christ is accessible to all, be they Jew or Gentile.
  • The Pharisees were known for their legalism. They ultimately nullified God's commands.
  • Legalism is dangerous because when it creeps into the church (or the congregations of the Old Testament), it's used to attack God's people. Satan is the accuser of the brethren, and he often uses legalism to do it. It is also an attack on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. A legalist doesn't truly believe that Jesus is able to save him from the beginning to end.
  • Legalists will sometimes separate justification and sanctification, acknowledging that we're saved (justified) by grace through faith, and will use sanctification as the reason for their insistence on adherence to unbiblically strict laws.
  • Romans 3:20 demonstrates that the Law doesn't save, it only brings the knowledge of sin.
  • The Pharisees (and today's legalists) erect rule sets that are stricter than God's Law, trying to create a “buffer”
    or fencing to prevent people from breaking God's Law.
  • The problem with legalism is that it usurps what God demands (faith in Christ alone) for absurdities, and says to God that He must receive those absurdities as payment because Christ isn't sufficient.
  • Binding and Loosing, as found in Matthew 18:18 has nothing to do with taking demonic spirits under our control, rather it is about setting a moral code. That which is bound (required) in Heaven, is bound on Earth.
  • Some examples of moral code with distinctions between Biblical morals and legalism: We can joke, but we're commanded to avoid coarse/lewd joking (Eph. 5:4). We're free to consume alcohol, but forbidden from drunkenness.
  • Our consciences might compel us to avoid things that aren't necessarily forbidden in scripture, and that's okay; but extending those conscientious abstentions to others is legalism.
  • Allowing others to judge us on those areas where we have freedom in Christ is arguably a form of antinomianism. We are commanded to not allow such judgments (Colossians 2:16) – Tolerance of legalism is a form of antinomianism.
  • Hyper-patriotism is a way that legalism is manifesting itself in the contemporary American Church.
  • Hebrews 10:25 states that we are commanded to assemble, but we are free to assemble on any day of the week, there's no requirement that it be either Saturday (Old Testament Sabbath) or Sunday (New Testament Lord's Day.)
  • Legalism can be something that shows weakness in Faith, but it can also cross into the realm of being heresy; legalism can be an indicator of a false confession of faith.
  • An ancient example of heretical legalism is the Galatian Judaisers who mandated circumcision. A more contemporary example would be the claim that anyone who is saved will speak in tongues.
Scriptures Referenced
  • Ephesians 2:14
  • 2 Corinthians 11:3ff
  • Galatians 3:3
  • Romans 3:20
  • Mark 7
  • Matthew 18:18
  • Romans 13
  • Deuteronomy 18:15
  • Psalm 2:7
  • Isaiah 42:1
  • Matthew 10:40
  • Ephesians 5:4
  • Colossians 2:16
  • Hebrews 4:8-10, 8:13
  • 1 Corinthians 9:21
  • Deuteronomy 32:8-10
  • Romans 5
  • Romans 14:1-12
  • Hebrews 10:25
  • James 4:11-13
  • James 5:20
  • Romans 14:23
  • Galatians 5:4
  • Colossians 1:28
Additional Resources
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