If we were to ask any Christian what legalism is, the mainstream answer would be, “Legalism is the belief that we are saved by works.” However, let’s keep the term as defining faith plus works, rather than works apart from any form of faith. For example, if an Evangelical Christian is asked, “What is the difference between you and a Roman Catholic?” The answer would most likely be this: “I believe we are saved by grace; a Roman Catholic believes they are saved by works.” This isn’t entirely true.
Looking back at history, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, he didn’t immediately rally a cry against the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of justification. We can summarize the doctrine of justification by these words: “God accounts and deems a person as righteous before Him by the imputed (transferred) merits of Jesus Christ.”
Now, the Roman Catholic Church never established their exact thoughts on how this event of justification came to pass. There was no monolithic statement which declared what the church thought about this, or how it was carried through. The process by which God made a sinner righteous before Himself was not yet established and etched with ink in the mind of the Roman church. Given the dark period of the Middle Ages, this was simply overlooked. Add to that the ignorance and restriction of Bible study and we end up with man-made doctrines.
In the sixth session of the Council of Trent, the Church of Rome anathematized the Reformation doctrine of “Sola Fide,” salvation by faith alone, apart from any sort of works as a basis for a right standing before a Holy God. After being captured by his followers on the aftermath of the Diet of Worms (Luther’s trial before ecclesiastical authority and even the Roman Emperor) he spent time on the Tower of the Wartburg Castle. Luther spent his time here deeply meditating and studying the book of Romans. While delving into the sacred pages of the Apostle Paul’s magnum opus, and with Aurelius Augustine’s commentary by his side, Luther’s soul was enlightened by the invincible light of Christ. Dr. Martin had been born again. During this time, Luther understood that salvation could not be earned by walking the Scala Sancta (Holy Stairs) in Rome, nor by priestly absolution in the confessional, not even by sleeping outdoors in winter in order to atone God’s righteous demands. By reading Romans 1:17, Luther felt as if he “entered the gates of Paradise.” He finally understood how God justifies the sinner, by faith alone in Christ’s merits imputed to our behalf.
Rome denied what Luther had rediscovered. Confronted by this long-hidden truth, the Pope’s institution was forced to retaliate by either accepting what Luther knew as true or opposing it. In Trent, Rome gathered her best theologians to counter what they saw in Luther’s teaching as disastrous for both the power of the Church, and for the morality of the people. If works were not necessary (Rome assumed) then everyone could live as they please and simply claim to have saving faith. Trent laid down the hammer by stating that justification cannot be received by simple faith but needs works in order to be right for God to deem us as righteous.
So why do I say all this? Rome does not believe that sinners are justified by works. They believe in the absolute necessity of faith, but they also believe in the absolute necessity of personal merit or works. Is this Legalism? Yes, but Legalism goes so much further than just that.
Legalism is so much more than simply trying to earn our salvation by our efforts. To define Legalism as simply as that would be akin to saying every single Muslim is a terrorist. Go back with me to the Garden of Eden. Why did God command Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree? Every sort of speculation has been tried to answer this age-old question. Was it a bad apple? Was God afraid that Adam and Eve would become smarter than He is and steal His throne away? Was it a red apple instead of a granny smith? We can know one thing for certain, He wasn’t playing games on them. He wasn’t setting a trap for them. He wasn’t tempting them either. This was a command. The command could have also been “don’t step on the grass,” but God chose to prohibit them from one single tree in a garden that was flooded by trees of every kind, all good for food. So why the command?
God had entered into a gracious covenant with Adam and Eve. They were the crown of His creation. They were capable of willingly obeying and trusting their Creator. God’s command was rooted in love. It was an outworking of His very own character toward His beloved children. It is as if God said, “I have made you. I desire for you to know and enjoy me as you are meant to. Trust Me for who I am, and all will be well.” Creation was perfect at this moment. It could not possibly get a smudge of dirt from within, but it could from without. Satan, the first fallen angel, God’s most powerful creature had taken the form of a serpent, a cunning and smart animal which God declared to be good.
The woman was roaming around while her husband wasn’t nearby. The one who was supposed to stand as her head and protector was nowhere to be seen. As a lioness haunts a gazelle waiting for the exact moment to strike, so Satan waited for the perfect prey at the perfect moment. Although there was no blood in this attack, there would be much blood shed in the aftermath. The serpent went directly after the woman’s thoughts, after her knowledge of God and her trust in Him. And with the man out of sight, as a coward who assails the defenseless, Lucifer took his deadly bite at the woman’s mind. “Why aren’t you as powerful as He is? You clearly deserve to. Why aren’t you giving out commands and restraining others? Why should someone do that to you? What!? You’re not allowed to eat from any of the trees in the garden? Clearly God wants to hide something from you. Don’t you desire to know as He knows?” these words were eating away at Eve’s innocence. As Satan’s downfall was jealousy of God, the desire he implanted in Eve’s mind was likewise. When the corrupt idea took root at Eve’s heart, the Fall was already on its tracks, the fulfillment simply awaited. All they had was one loving commandment to keep, yet the serpent didn’t directly go after the command. It attacked the source of that command, the very person and character of God.
God’s abundant grace to His creatures was made clear in His commandment. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 3:16b-17). “Of EVERY tree you shall eat.” God delights in showing His grace and love to His creatures. He doesn’t withhold gifts from us either. Rather, He gives us the best. Satan attacked this very truth; “…did God actually say, ‘you shall not eat of any tree in the garden?'(Genesis 3:1b).” Eve was led to doubt God’s veracity. She was guided in her mind to separate God’s Law from his character.
This is what Legalism is; to separate God’s gracious, loving, fatherly character from His laws and commands. If we drive a wedge between this, we end up with cold, heartless rules. We end up with a dictator, not a Father. On the other hand, we are not meant to refer to God as the Father of unbelievers. Outside of Christ, God is nothing but wrath. He is far worse than the most terrible nightmare.
Where else do we do this? How many of us Reformed Christians have often wondered, “How can I share the Gospel, how can I share God’s love in sending His own Son to die for sinners if I do not know who the elect are? Can I tell them ‘Christ died for you?’” We have all questioned this, but we still stumble on whether we should say it or not. We are to offer Christ as crucified and risen to every unbeliever we share the Gospel with. We cannot demand a prior condition the listener has to meet. For when we do this we are fundamentally saying, “God does not allow you to come as you are, you need to feel remorse for you sin first. You need to taste a little bit of repentance first. You need to feel the weight of your own wretchedness before you dare to plead for Christ’s blood.” I know I have done this. However, God does not love us because Christ died for us, for Christ was sent for us precisely because God loves us. The most famous verse of the Bible might as well be John 3:16, “For so God loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
This is how we ought to offer Christ. If we do it upside down, we have separated the gift from the Giver, just as we separate the Law from its Giver. Many Christians look at the heavens with doubting eyes as to whether we are truly owned and loved by God, especially when we sin. We believe we must meet a condition in order to be eligible as a child. We believe we are still to work at earning God’s approval of us. We see the Law as the means to achieve God’s favor and not as a means to honor and love Him, and whenever this same Law accuses us, it mercilessly beats us down to the ground and does not offer a helping hand.
But now that we are married to Christ, let us not see the Law as the old spouse who abused us. For Christ fulfilled the Law, the latter has become our instrument to thank and please the Former. We are to honor it and use it to love God and show our gratitude. God doesn’t negotiate with us by telling us to keep our part and He will keep His. He willingly took on flesh, lived, died and rose again for us while we were still sinners, and He even provides our loving response to Him.
This is how Luther saw the gates of paradise swung open. This is what Rome and every sort of false religion fails to see and continues to reject. The opposite of this was implanted in Eve’s mind and led her to lose her trust in God, and she and Adam carried the whole human race into oblivion. A bad understanding of this is what drives many of us to despair of God’s favor toward us. Christ is offered to us and everyone as a crucified and risen Savior, One who fulfilled the Law only out of love toward His Father, and on our behalf. How can we doubt that what Christ fulfilled is bad for us, namely, the Law.
“So the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good”.
- Romans 7:12
Written by Paul Tkaczuk, @reformed.wretch