When it comes to the biblical theme of Christian liberty, a fine line has to be maintained lest one fall into unhelpful extremes which will lead us into bondage. Those extremes are legalism on the one hand, and license on the other. Both are warned against in Scripture, so it is worth looking at them more closely.
Now this entire debate can become quite complex and involved, especially because a lot depends on how one defines the terms in question. For our purposes let’s use rather elementary definitions. Legalism can be defined as seeking God’s favour by means of rule-keeping and performance-based activities, while license can be defined as the notion that because of God’s grace a believer can more or less do anything he or she pleases.
These definitions are far from complete or acceptable to all, and even if we begin with them, much more groundwork needs to be done. On the question of legalism for example we have what theologians refer to as the distinction between “getting in and staying in”.
That is, it is one thing to determine how a person becomes accepted into God’s kingdom, but it is another to determine how a person remains in it. Of course that in itself raises all sorts of other theological questions, such as, ‘Once saved, always saved?’
It is not my intention to enter into all those deep debates, but I do want to make some introductory remarks about these two L words. Both are discussed in Scripture. Legalism is spoken of in such passages as Gal. 2:11-21; 6:12-16; Col. 2:16-23; and Mark 7:1-20.
If we leave aside the issue of how one is saved (I accept that it is not due to human works or effort, but by grace through faith alone – Eph 2:8-9), then the issue remains whether believers can come under legalism. This is a bit trickier to unpack.
Do some believers live in fear, ever questioning their salvation, seeking to keep various rules to earn God’s continuing favour and approval? Yes, and that is legalism in the life of the Christian. But what many people label as legalism is really nothing more than seeking to avoid license, and seeking to live a godly and holy life.
There are literally hundreds of commands and exhortations in the New Testament for believers to live a holy and righteous life, to do various things, to avoid various things, and so on. Indeed, the link between a love relationship with God and the keeping of God’s commandments is found all throughout the Bible. Consider just some:
Deut 11:1 Love the LORD your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands always.
Josh 22:5 But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you: to love the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to obey his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and all your soul.”
Psalm 119:97 Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.
Matt 12:50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.
Luke 11:28 Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it.
John 14:15 If you love me, you will obey what I command.
John 15:10 If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
2 Thes 3:4-6 We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command. May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.
1 John 2:3 We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.
1 John 3:24 Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
2 John 6: And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
Jude 21 Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.
It should be obvious that our relationship with Christ is more than just an easy ride in which we do whatever we want, but is a commitment to our sovereign God in which we are obligated to obey his commands and do that which is pleasing to him. This is not legalism – this is the normal Christian life.
In contrast to all these calls to keep God’s law as an expression and demonstration of our love for God is the error of license. License is spoken of in places such as Romans 6; Jude 3-16; Gal 5:16-25; and Titus 2:11-13. Antinomianism is another name for this. That term means literally ‘against law’ and has to do with claiming that the believer is no longer subject to any law, but is instead only under grace.
There are some believers who teach that to argue for Lordship salvation is a type of legalism. They say Christ can be Saviour without being Lord. They rightly emphasise that salvation is of grace, and not works, but they wrongly claim that one need not make Christ Lord of one’s life.
The passages I have listed above make it pretty clear that simply putting one’s hand up at an evangelistic service is not sufficient for the Christian life. Salvation is of course a three-part affair. We are justified in the past by what Christ did for us; we are sanctified currently by the Holy Spirit in us; and we one day will be glorified when Christ returns.
Thus it is the day to day walk of the believer which is as much a part of this salvation as the initial ‘getting in’ experience. The ‘staying’ in part is also crucially important. A life marked by obedience, commitment, and denial of self is part and parcel of biblical salvation.
I hear far more teaching and sermons on legalism than I do on license. But from my perspective, as one who attends a number of churches around the nation and overseas, I suspect that the bigger problem affecting the church in the West is not legalism, but license.
While some people are wrongly trying to earn God’s favour in a fleshly and legalistic manner, far more believers seem to have the other problem. They are living loose, shallow, even carnal and disobedient lives, thinking God’s grace has got them completely covered.
Such people need to take very seriously the many warnings found in Scripture. I cannot detail them here, but the idea that we can live any way we please, and claim to call ourselves disciples of Jesus, is an oxymoron, and flies against the data of Scripture.
We are told to give a word in due season, and while we may need to hear sermons on legalism from time to time, my feeling is that we need much more on license. Indeed, for every one sermon we preach on legalism, we may well need a dozen on license and antinomianism.
I leave you with these thoughts:
“People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.” (D.A. Carson)
“Tolerance is not a spiritual gift; it is the distinguishing mark of postmodernism; and sadly, it has permeated the very fiber of Christianity. Why is it that those who have no biblical convictions or theology to govern and direct their actions are tolerated and the standard or truth of God’s Word rightly divided and applied is dismissed as extreme opinion or legalism?” (John Stott)
“When there’s something in the Bible that churches don’t like, they call it legalism.” (Leonard Ravenhill)