On Legalism and License

Both license and legalism are extremes to avoid:

I often speak about getting the biblical balance right, and avoiding unhelpful and unbiblical extremes. But let me first say that this is not true of all things Christian, or of all biblical doctrines. Sometimes what appears to be an extreme or appears to be contradictory, is in fact a pair of biblical truths that must both be fully affirmed.

Consider the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. Some might say this is one ‘extreme’ in a sense, as would be the doctrine of human responsibility. So some might argue that we are to hold to just some of each in order to get some biblical balance here.

But this is not the case. Both teachings are fully true and must be fully promoted and adhered to. They may seem contradictory but they are not. They are each quite true, and we must run with each, even if it seems they somehow undo the other. But in other areas, especially associated with the Christian life, there ARE certain extremes that we must avoid.

For example, depending entirely on a popular belief like ‘Let go and let God’ IS as wrong as pushing the opposite view that everything in our growth as Christians depends entirely on us. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, God is at work in and through us, but we also must make proper decisions. We must obey and do those things that we are commanded to do.

A related area where we need biblical balance is in avoiding these two unhelpful and dangerous extremes: legalism or license. Legalism has to do with both how we become Christians and how we live the Christian life. As to the former, those who think their good works and own merit will make them right with God instead of receiving the gift of salvation by grace through faith.

But here I want to focus on the latter sort of legalism. This is where some believers think they must have a list of do’s and don’ts they must avoid, even though Scripture may not demand that of us. Cults especially will often have a list of demands for their followers: abstain from this and that or you are not a true believer.

Of course some things we clearly must abstain from and avoid: murder, adultery, theft, and so on. But legalists will often have a very long list with quite silly things: no coffee and tea, no birthdays or Christmas, no meat, no alcohol, and so on.

One classic text on legalism is Colossians 2:20-23:

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

And of course licence is the false view that because we are justified by Christ, because we are under God’s grace, we basically can live any way we want. Antinomianism is another name for this, and it can come up in various teachings, including the hyper-grace teaching.

But this too is something we must avoid like the plague. And the classic Pauline passage on this would be Romans 6:1-4:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

But since I have already written on this matter on various occasions, let me simply note that Christians far too often do go to the various extremes here, with some times and places seeing a lot of legalism, and other times and places seeing a lot of licence.

Of course when there is far too much legalism going on, either from the pulpits or in believers’ lives, then the remedy is to remind Christians of God’s grace and the liberty we have as believers in Christ. And when there is too much license going on, we must reaffirm the vital importance of God’s holiness and the numerous Scriptural commands that tell us to put away sin and self and strive to become more Christlike.

So where are we at today, in 2022 Australia, or 2022 America? I have no probs in saying that overwhelmingly, we have moved well to the extreme of licence. Sure, there might be various churches here and there with a whole lotta legalism going on. When and where they exist, that must be fought and resisted.

But for the most part it seems it is license that must be strongly dealt with. Whether this flows from poor teaching, or bad teachings such as cheap grace or hyper grace, this is causing a huge amount of problems in the church, with far too many believers living like the devil – or just like the world – which is the same thing.

In a piece I wrote about this topic twelve years ago I said this:

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. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/08/17/legalism-and-license/

In this regard a recent social media exchange with one of my friends might be worth sharing here:

Robert A. J. Gagnon: “Legalism is the least of the dangers facing this generation. For legalism to be an issue this generation must first pay attention to God’s commands, which currently is not the characteristic mark of this generation.”


Myself: Yes exactly. License, often following on from cheap grace and hyper-grace teachings, is the real problem for most contemporary Western Christians. Either extreme is wrong of course, but our problem today is much more with careless, unholy living.

A big part of the problem here is that there is much faulty thinking on what we mean by some key biblical concepts such as love, law, liberty, grace, and related terms. Let me finish with a few key quotes on this, and how we need to get the right balance here:

“True liberty is not the power to live as we please, but to live as we ought to.” A. W. Pink

“When I speak of a person growing in grace, I mean simply this – that their sense of sin is becoming deeper, their faith stronger, their hope brighter, their love more extensive, and their spiritual mindedness more marked.” J. C. Ryle

“The irony of New Testament lordship is that only in slavery to Christ can a man discover authentic freedom.” R. C. Sproul

“If we are not changed by grace, then we are not saved by grace.” A. W. Tozer

“Grace is the mother and nurse of holiness, not the apologist of sin.” Charles Spurgeon

“Grace is not simply leniency when we have sinned. Grace is the enabling gift of God not to sin. Grace is power, not just pardon.” John Piper

“In respect to justification, grace stands opposed to works (Rom. 4:4-5; 11:6). However, in respect to sanctification, grace is the source of works. This simply means that whereas we are saved by grace and not of works, we are saved by grace unto good works. Good works are the fruit, not the root, of God’s saving grace (see esp. Eph. 2:8 -10).” Sam Storms

“Currently we are not only saved by grace; we are paralyzed by it. There is deep confusion. We find it hard to see that grace is not opposed to effort, but is opposed to earning. Earning and effort are not the same thing. Earning is an attitude, and grace is definitely opposed to that. But it is not opposed to effort.” Dallas Willard

In sum, the way to maintain biblical balance in this area is not by taking some bits of licence and some bits of legalism and mixing them together. Both of these extremes are wrong and both must be avoided. A balanced Christian life is one in which we know that seeking to earn God’s favour by human effort alone is wrong, as is living a reckless and carnal life because we are under the grace of God.

[1505 words]


7 Replies to “On Legalism and License”

  1. I am a cult survivor. A cult that demanded automaton christianity and mantra chanting (i kid you not) home groups that were slaves to form over substance. The cookie cutter legalism that pervaded that cult has left me full of distrust of even those church groups I would now, in normal circumstances, embrace. The law kills. The spirit gives life.
    Guarded, suspicious and distrusting am I now where once I was passionate and hungry.

  2. Thanks Peter. Yes I too was once in a very hardcore cult with bizarre legalistic practices: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/27/coming-home-my-testimony-part-2/

    As I say in my piece however, the answer to dangerous and deadly legalism is not to move into dangerous and deadly license. Both will send one to a lost eternity. Both extremes must be avoided, and we must diligently seek the biblical balance of law and love – of rules and relationship.

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  4. Thanks Bill for demonstrating the areas where we have weakened our witness as Christians in the West and often blended in with the worldly values around us -mistakenly thinking more souls will be won if the church copies the world standards and lures n the young ones, by allowing licentious life styles, entertainment and upbeat music to attract the unsaved.
    God word then fades into the background- and worldly ways replace the Word of God and His command for the church and His Body who are to be Lights in a dark place.
    I think its very hard and confusing for younger ones who never have been taught the word in-depth or full counsel of God where sin must be judged and there is a heaven and hell, plus Biblical standards to live by. Without the knowledge of God’s word as a yard stick, and knowledge of the Old Testament and then grace coming in through Christ in the New Testament, many will be confused by the values of world like relativism and not understand the word of God carrying the final authority.
    May pastors, elders and congregations keep guarding the full gospel message and truth, and help many enter into the fold, knowing they are saved by grace; but also that we all are to live as soldiers in his world and not get entangled in civilian affairs, or weighed down by surfeiting and the pleasures of this world but keep striving to get the gospel out and also live as Christ lived les we become shipwrecked or ineffective.
    We need to stay watchful and aware of the snares of this world and any false teaching.
    Thanks for the exhortation.

  5. Amen. I remember as a young Christian coming to the conclusion that some churches were putting their own rules above God’s law and if we can’t even obey God’s law this sort of hierarchy of laws was obviously insulting to God and was an indication of poor knowledge of scripture.

    The law is good if used properly. I was reminded of this recently after coming across criticism of the Islander men in the rugby league who had tatoos but who opposed the LGBT+ promotion. This was touted as hypocrisy but clearly nowhere in the NT do we see mention of tatoos and if people would look they would see this was only a ever a law for Israel whereas the morality laws such as against idolatry, murder, theft, lying, sexual sin etc. are reiterated in the NT and study of the OT shows they were always law for all nations. We know the Apostles were taught how this works because it is what we clearly see in their NT writing.

    Personally I would counsel people against tatoos because I believe they deface what God has created, God opposed them for Israel and there is no good reason, outside of culture, to get them but clearly, as part of a culture not of Israel, they simply are not condemned as sin. The accusation was simply deceitful and false and shows how people will clutch at straws to promote their position.

  6. Sin is sin Michael. Some cultures are wrong. God doesn’t issue cultural exemptions. I would like to see if bill has anything to say on tattoos or people to quote but we can’t say because this is part of a ungodly culture or the remnants of a ungodly culture we can give it a pass. Israel also was to be an example for us and all not just it’s own thing.

    We have TV station here that has Joel Osteen on it on Sundays and in a commercial that it runs every week he says “stand still and watch God deliver you. When you remain at rest almighty God fights your battles”. It seems, from him, the Christian doesn’t need to do ANYTHING as God does it all! Makes me wonder why those poor people in biblical times bothered to do anything when they could have sat back and watched God do it all!

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