Legalism and License

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)

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19 Replies to “Legalism and License”

  1. I like the nutshell version that John Piper gave in this video:

    No, we’re not under Law which Christ fulfilled in his peerless life, but a Spirit-filled Christian who dies to self walks constantly toward holiness and more and more it’s Christ living within them – as such a Spirit-filled Christian’s life reflects the commandments as they encompass God’s love and truth.

    So as born-again citizen’s of heaven are we confined by the Law? No.

    But when you see a born-again Spirit-filled emissary of Christ on this earth their life is a reflection of the commandments. As Jesus said “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

    Garth Penglase

  2. As you say Bill the Christian life should be marked by”obedience, commitment and denial of self” and it should be a response, in love not fear, to the One who first loved us.
    Anna Cook

  3. I attend a church that is highlighted in Dr. Robert Jeffress’ book ‘Grace Gone Wild’. I have been told I have everything I need in Christ and His righteousness relieves me of 1John1:9 confession of my sins. King David’s prayer would sound hollow here. Little time is spent asking: 1. Do I fear a holy and angry God (ps.7:11); Do I truly confess I am a sinner worthy of no merit and spiritually bankrupted? (Matt.5:3): Do I trust Christ alone for salvation? (2Cor.13:5); Do I keep God’s commandments? (Matt:7:21) and Do I love Christians.(Lev.19:18). John in his first two letters addressed these questions fearful his flock were being conflicted by a perverted gospel.
    Jonathan Foster

  4. John 5:19 says, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

    Are we going to say that we are freer than Christ to that do whatever we want, when we want?

    I find Dr. Constables bible study notes on this extremely helpful:

    He says (Jesus) “began by assuring the Jewish leaders that He was not claiming independence from the Father. He was definitely subordinate to Him, and He followed the Father’s lead (cf. 4:34; 5:30; 8:28; 12:50; 15:10; Luke 5:17). Jesus described His relationship to the Father as similar to that of a son growing up in a household who learns a trade from his father while remaining submissive to him. The Son of God receives authority from the Father, obeys Him, and executes His will. Jesus would have to be God to do this perfectly. It was also impossible for the Son to act independently or to set Himself against the Father as against another God.

    Though we have the status and nature of Christ imputed to us, we do not and never will have the same role. It comes down to relationship: we are either slaves or sons, but we are never the Father.

    The idea that as Christians we are now free “to love and do what we will” is a total distortion of what St Augustine meant. The idea that we are autonomous is a delusion that Bob Dylan expresses well in his song “Gotta Serve Someone”:

    David Skinner, UK

  5. I TOTALLY agree with what Anna Cook wrote. However, I confess I find “fear” of a loving Heavenly Father a difficult concept to grasp fully – cf ‘perfect love casts out fear’ and I do NOT believe that God is angry while KNOWING that he is holy. His anger fell on Jesus at the crucifixion. Can I also ask Jonathan whether he believes he is a new creation in Christ – with more power to resist sin because of the Holy Spirit within him? I have no desire to wallow in license or any form of sin – while acknowledging that I still commit sins and will not see my total sanctification this side of heaven. However – whether legalism or not, I believe I have grown more like Jesus when grace has been preached than when fear has.
    Katharine Hornsby

  6. Thanks Katharine

    Scripture of course does give us two sides to this debate. Consider for example:

    Psa 89:7 In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him.
    Psa 111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.
    Prov 1:7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
    Isa 33:6 He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the LORD is the key to this treasure.
    Acts 9:31 Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.
    2 Cor 7:1 Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
    Phil 2:12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

    But the biblical balance here needs to be teased out, so I may need to write an article on this.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. And even Jesus is described as having the “spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” Isaiah 11:2-3

    Mansel Rogerson

  8. Perhaps some definitions may offer clarity. By ‘fear’ (yirah) as in Prov.1:7 I mean reverence; and by power (dunamis) as in Acts 1:8 I mean ability. I know I serve a Holy and just God who by His very nature (Light) cannot in any way abide the abomination of sin (Darkness) and the wickedness of His creation since the fall. His anger in the face of man’s wickedness has been vented on many in Scripture. Since regeneration I’ve been imputed the ability to operate in the Spirit and love the Law and His Word.This translates into a similar stance made by David. When able I confess my sin,express remorse, ask forgiveness, desire repentance and believe our loving God has heard and restored me. God I feel sees my heart and has gifted me with a saving faith including His shepherding and completion of my sanctification.
    Jonathan Foster

  9. (I accept that it is not due to human works or effort, but by grace through faith alone – Eph 2:8-9)

    You believe in being saved by faith alone even though James 2:24 states – “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone”?

    I read an analogy recently but am not sure it fits here…

    Suppose a particular rich uncle said to his nephew, “I will give you a million dollars if and when you graduate from college, are married, and name your first child after me.” When the young man meets those conditions, will he have actually earned the million dollars? No, it was a gift. He simply received it by meeting the conditions. So it is with the grace of God.

    Your thoughts?

    Doriel Josic

  10. Whilst agreeing with Katherine that to share in the sufferings of Christ is impossible without the power of the the Holy Spirit, I believe that we should have a holy fear for those who are not saved, especially for our loved ones.

    David Skinner, UK

  11. Thanks Doriel

    It is not a bad illustration, and it seems to be more or less correct, theologically speaking. Bear in mind that thousands of books have been written on the complex issues of faith and works, grace and law, etc. So I am not about to do it justice here with a short comment! I do think there are conditions for getting in, and for staying in. But yes ultimately it is all of grace. But the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility cannot here be properly discussed. Maybe I will write another article soon!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  12. There is a fine line between acting in a way that our Lord expects a mature disciple who has been accepted already to behave and behaving in a certain way purely to gain acceptance by our Lord. From the outside, the two look very similar, I suspect.

    Bill – I think you are right in suggesting that some of the criticism of “legalism” comes from those who are more comfortable with “license”. The Carson quote is very much to the point!

    I suspect also that some of those who go too far towards the “legalism” side criticise others because they are unwilling to allow some who are young in the faith to grow up. Making disciples does not end with conversion. At conversion, one has only just begun.

    John Symons, Kenya

  13. How much I agree with John that making disciples does not end with conversion. It is necessary to get ‘the young’ (in terms of becoming Christians) into a study of the Word of God and a growth in the knowledge and love of God by fellowship and prayer.
    Katharine Hornsby

  14. This is indeed an interesting topic & one I would like to hear more from you about.

    From time to time I received in my letterbox or on the street little leaflets telling me that I need to say a prayer like “Lord Jesus I confess I am a sinner. Please come into my heart and save me now” or words to that effect. The leaflet assures me that if I do that I am now “saved” or “born again” and will go to Heaven, whereas a few minutes earlier I was bound for Hell.

    Each time I get one of these leaflets I get this strange sad feeling that people think that the God of the universe grants or denies the gift of an eternal existence based on such a trivial idea of repentence.

    My belief is this: That ones salvation or otherwise is decided by God on the day of judgement, as that person’s life and deeds are presented to Him.

    People who have led the good life following and believing in the example of Christ can be assured of a favourable judgement, or maybe bypass judgement, just as someone entering an exam room well prepared knows they will pass the exam.

    But what of other people? How are they judged by a fair and equitable God. Countless people have lived & died through history never even hearing about Christ. Or only ever hearing a distorted version of Christ & the Gospel. Or people who die as babies or very young children. Or people of other faiths or even no faith who do great acts of good in life.

    Does God deny life to a person for not “believing in” or “accepting” someone they have never even heard of? What of a sinful person who confesses on their deathbed? Do they deserve eternity more than a fundamentally good person who does not?

    It seems to me that a God of great justice could not act as arbitrarily as dispensing Heaven or Hell based on a two-line “salvation prayer”.

    David Williams

  15. Thanks Daniel

    You raise a large and complex issue which cannot easily be dealt with in a brief comment. My short answer is we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Protestants refer to this as justification, but that is just the beginning of our Christian journey. The rest involves gradual sanctification through obedience, denial of self, etc. So I am no friend of cheap grace either.

    But it is a complex discussion, depending of course where one comes from theologically. Maybe I can pen a whole article on this soon.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. Thanks Bill. I have one question. Are the commands our Saviour died for & said to obey, the same as the commands in the Torah or is there a new testament set?

  17. Thanks Yvonne. Ah, but that is no small question you ask there, and no small answer can be given! It deals with a number of key issues:

    -How are we to understand the OT law for NT times?
    -What continues from the OT to the NT, and what discontinues?
    -Is the church the same as ancient Israel?
    -What is the relationship between law and grace?
    -Can we speak of three main types of OT law (moral, ceremonial, civil)?
    -If so, is it mainly just the moral law that carries though today, or all the other laws?
    -If all the laws (a full 613 of them), it gets quite hard to keep them. For example, the ceremonial laws deal with things like offerings and sacrifices made in the tabernacle and/or temple. We have neither today, so it is a bit hard to fulfill those laws!

    So the issues get very complex indeed, and different Christians have different spins on all this. I tried to deal with some of the issues elsewhere, eg:

    After you have a look at those three pieces, feel free to return and ask more questions!

  18. Great question by Yvonne, was about to get further clarity on that too as an in discussion with a Christian who says we are to keep the Sabbath Holy so therefore we are to attend worship on Saturday not Sunday, however the 4th commandment says to ‘remember the Sabbath to keep it Holy’, maybe you have covered this Bill so I’ll read those notes too!!

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