R. C. Sproul, Jr. has wisely observed that there are several ways to use the term legalist. I find his major points worth considering.

Legalism is practiced by preaching a false gospel.

Amplification and Illustration.

The Bible warns against being a legalist. Legalism became a concern in the New Testament Church over the issue of the ceremonial Law. Should the rituals and sacrifices of the Old Covenant be honored and enforced in the New Covenant? Paul found himself having to address the Galatian heresy which stated that, having trusted in Christ, it was still necessary to follow the Old Testament Jewish ceremonial Law, including that of circumcision. Paul became so exasperated with such teaching that he wished those who wanted to insist on circumcision be castrated.

“I would they were even cut off which trouble you.” (Gal. 5:12)

“I wish those people who are bothering you would add castration to their circumcision.” (Gal. 5:12, Holy Bible: Easy-to-Read Version)

“I wish the people who are bothering you would castrate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12, New Century Version)

Legalism is practiced by adding to God’s Law.

Amplification and Illustration
When God told Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Eve added to the Law of God by saying they were not to touch it. (Gen. 3:3) When the Pharisees added to the Law of God, they laid on people a heavy burden. “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” (Matt. 23:4) It is not more pious to add to God’s Law, it is less pious.

Legalism is a term that can be misused and so care must be taken.

 Amplification and Illustration
Sometimes, when a faithful minister of the gospel exhorts God’s people to obey God’s law, he is called a legalist for his exhortation. This is an abuse of the term, and a misuse. Usually it is an antinomian that is quick to call a Christian with standards, a legalist. When a person teaches that the Moral Law of God is still binding on Christians today, the antinomian might insist that we are under grace, and the Ten Commandments are no longer binding on the Church. Then the antinomian will say, “You are a legalist to teach that Christians must obey the Moral Law of God.” Leading Dispensationalist, such as Lewis Sperry Chafer taught that not everything Jesus taught, such as the Sermon on the Mount, is “for the Church.” The 19th century, Anglican clergyman E. W. Bullinger, claimed that only the prison epistles were binding on the Church. If a person accuses a person of being a legalist simply because they want to obey the known will of the Lord as stated in Scripture, then they are being antinomian, and are out of line.

Legalism is practiced when the Scriptures are viewed as a Rule Book that will simply restrict and restrain us.

Amplification and Illustration
The Bible is designed to reveal to mankind God, His plan of salvation, and the Saviour, Jesus Christ. The Bible is given to show individuals how to have a relationship with the living Lord. However, if that view of the Bible is set aside for a legalist understanding of Scripture, then there will be no joy in reading Scripture, and the way of salvation may very well be lost or disregarded. To believe the Bible imposes duties to obey without any delight in so doing is damaging to the soul. God is viewed as a Celestial Killer of Joy.

The truth of the matter is that when God calls His people to obedience, His call is to an abundant life. “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) God’s Law is not a burden. Jesus said, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). The call of God is a invitation to joy. “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.” (John 15:11) If Christians will read the Bible from this perspective, each chapter pursued will be read with pleasure to find the gifts of God for the people of God.

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