What is legalism?  The charge of legalism is so carelessly flung around today that people have no idea what the term means.  It’s become a catch phrase to write off any church that is doctrinal—a word also much of an embarrassment to people today. 

There are three ways this term is being misapplied and abused to attack churches that have remained confessionally Protestant. 
First, churches that are serious today are characterized as legalistic. In fact, any church that is serious or formal anymore will “stand out like an organ stop” (quoting David Wells) and be labeled as those who are joyless and legalistic. People are equating legalism with formality, as if freedom means casualness before God.  I'm reminded of the Lord's complaint against Israel,
For My people are foolish, They have not known Me. They are silly children, And they have no understanding. They are wise to do evil, But to do good they have no knowledge." (Jer 4:22)
Just before israel impending judgment for apostasy, the Lord tells us that the worship became full of sheer "siliness".  No word could better capture the feel of today's worship than siliness. We have forgotten the Lord's warning, "By those who come near to me, I must be regarded as holy."
Second, legalism is being carelessly used to attack people’s liberty.  I have noticed the reverse problem of striking at a brother’s liberty because he wants to, for example, offer his first-fruits in the way that he dresses or looks.  "They make all their people dress a certain way at that church.” Broad characterizations and generalizations are made this way and lumped together as a “legalistic” when, in fact, practices of people are often birthed out of genuine gratitude for the grace given. In other words, marketing mega churches keep kicking the traditional churches as legalistic in matters of Christian liberty—they wear ties, they sing out of a song book, etc. 

Third, and most dangerous, the charge of legalism is made against those who are sincerely trying to honor the law of God out of
gratitude. Now none of these people would advocate that Christians should murder, steal, commit adultery, etc; but when a Christian wants to, for instance, keep the second commandment and not make images or have icons for worship, since it is expressly condemned in that commandment, well, that is now legalistic.  Or, if someone says, “I want to honor the fourth commandment and keep the Sabbath day holy” this is the kind of stuff being labeled as legalistic, when in fact, it is a law of God. See what we do?  Freedom is on "our" terms.  Christians are to honor the expressed law of God not as a way to earn anything, but as a way of demonstrating gratitude for so great a gospel.

The modern day church is really antinomian (no law at all)—and this appears to be what people mean when they say they are not legalistic like those other churches.  What they are saying is this: we won’t require anything of you if you come to us. This is all an escape tactic for people who are running. God's law is totally disregarded, and the consequences of this are evidenced in the way people approach him in worship. 

The paradoxal thing here, however, is that to disregard the law of God this way, for instance, in how we are commanded to worship, actually forces church leaders to create their own inventions and impose their own ideas on the people (i.e. conversations with God, videos, dramas, liturgical dancing —the list is really endless here). We think of Isaiah’s words, “Who has required this from your hand, to trample my courts.”  So the one making the charge of legalism needs to look at the plank in his own eye for attacking people who are sincerely trying to honor the Lord’s expressed will. Disregarding the law of God, and imposing ones own inventions upon people in worship is de facto doing what Jesus condemned in Matthew 15, “in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

The freedom that we have is freedom within the bounds of the law of God to honor it as a way of gratitude.  People today are making the assumption that freedom is freedom to live outside the law of God.  Simply put, “If you come to us, we won’t require anything of you.”  We need to properly define legalism as putting yokes over people for their justification before God in addition to faith in Christ. Yes, it’s a problem, and wrong. But this doesn’t rule out a life of obedience to God’s law as a way of gratitude for the grace given. Therefore, we should always ask people what they mean when they charge a church as being legalistic.

So if honoring the law of God earns me in general the charge of being legalistic, I respond by saying, “you are in error not knowing the Scriptures.”

And if this earns me the charge of having a bad reputation in the city, I humbly respond by saying that I am in good company; Elijah was called a “troubler in Israel”, and Jesus himself was “hated and despised by men”. The sad thing is, however, that in both cases, those men who attacked Elijah and Christ for speaking the truth, were the shepherds of Israel.


  1. Excellent, excellent points, Chris! As a URC minister in the area myself, I find it quite interesting that we would be labeled as legalistic. One thing I would like to know is why this particular individual thinks this. Legalism is a very, very serious charge. Is the message that is being proclaimed from URC pulpits one of "faith plus works"? That's legalism. But I've never heard that coming from a URC pulpit before. Perhaps the one calling the URC legalistic should let us know where he has heard "faith plus works" from a URC pulpit. Or, is this person charging us with legalism because we believe in the abiding validity of the Ten Commandments and because we believe that we should worship the Lord "with reverence and awe because our God is a consuming fire"? (beliefs, by the way that the church of Christ has held throughout the centuries).

    Interesting, isn't it, how any time you stand firm for the truth, you get labeled as legalistic? Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

  2. There are so many things wrong with the attitude towards church, God's law, and even what responsibility Christian have in the world these days. Are we to "live and let live" as society is shouting at us at every opportunity? Is the church free to worship however they "feel" is right? The biggest issue here is not in convictions but in knowledge (doctrine). This same thing has been happening throughout all of history, old testament (Israel), new testament, and up to the present age.
    Hosea 4:6
    My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.
    Christ has called his people to pick up their cross daily to follow him. Do we do this to earn anything? No, we do it out of love for our savior, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and as a witness to others.
    The new testament epistles are full of doctrine. Warnings of a false gospel which has a form of godliness but denying its power. What is this power that this gospel denies? The changed life that we have in Christ Jesus! Without this, what have we been saved for? To do as we please? No, but to be pleased to do the will of God, and be reconciled with our Lord. The old man is put to death and we become a new creation. Should we then try to be like the old man again?
    If the church looks, feels, acts, and thinks like the world, are they really separate from the world (a new creation) as Christ has called it to be?
    It is time to quit playing the harlot as Israel did, and prepare ourselves for the Lord’s return.
    Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

  3. Wow. Amazing post. Do you mind if I print it off and put it on our back table at Church?


  4. Hi Wes, Sure! And you are welcome to revise the local references/wording to make it appropriate for your congregation.

  5. Thanks Jason for the Biblical warnings--we should indeed read our Bibles, as you point out. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

  6. Pastor Gordon, I think it is wise not to publish ad hominem attacks and yet hope, for the sake of this persons’ soul, he will come to realize what he is saying and feel free to express his differences with more acceptable Christian candor. I expect the anonymous person who charged the Lynden URC with legalism is himself a professing Christian? I would also expect that he is sincere in his attempt to avoid legalism as an expression of his desire to be obedient to God? However, his desire appears to be most misguided by attempting to please God outside of God’s revealed will – his word.

    The Lynden URC attempts to approach God based upon God’s revealed will, as many other Reformed churches have done throughout history in like manner. So in condemning the Lynden URC with legalism he is in fact fighting against God’s revealed word.

    I think Pastor Gordon has identified well, in his post above, that this person and others like him who desire to throw off the demands of Christ, have other standards, man-made standards, in which to approach God - apart from God’s word.

    Jesus Christ is the Perfect Example for the Christian. Christ was obedient to His Father and knew the sweetness of being assured of His Father's love on the evidence of His active and passive obedience.

    At the same time, Christ separated Himself from the legalists of His day so that He cannot in any sense be numbered with them. Hence it cannot be legalism in and of itself to seek to be obedient to God or to derive a certain kind of assurance from that obedience.

    If this accuser of the brethren has convinced himself that he is free from legalism but labels the Lynden URC as such, has he not derived that assurance from the fact that he has obeyed God's call to avoid legalism according to some definition of legalism? It begs the question – who is his God and how does he define as legalism?

    Is God’s word his standard? How does he derive assurance from being obedient and at the same time label the Lynden URC as legalistic?

    Does he believe he has the freedom to approach God with anything he wills? What limits have he set for himself according to his definition of legalism? Is his obedience based upon God’s revealed word or on what is popular and acceptable in Christian society today?

    I would encourage him to re-evaluate his foundation (rock or sand) and especially think upon these false charges. Who are you fighting against?

  7. I’m just a little confused. Did the anonymous person actually say that the URC was legalistic? I mean, what if they weren’t saying that the URC was legalistic? What if they were trying to understand better or trying to discuss something and were just misunderstood?

    -Sasha D.

  8. Hi Sasha D.,

    If this were the case, I would be happy to answer any questions that this person may have--but none were asked. At any rate, it provided me a good opportunity to address what I believe is a serious misunderstanding over the word legalistic. Thanks!

  9. Right on Chris... Thank you.

    You've put together some good points.


  10. This is a very interesting blog. THis post and our CTK comments. You may disagree with how CTK leads others in worship, yet one of their best qualities is their involvement in our community and aboard, and how they are reaching out to others in this community.

    How does URC reach out to the least and last in Lynden?


  11. Dear Bernard,

    Thank you very much for the good question. You ask, "How does URC reach out to the least and last in Lynden?" We are committed to faithfully preach Christ and his gospel each an every Sunday, in both services. This is what Christ commissioned his church to do. If a church is not faithful in this commission, it's futile to boast about work abroad--if a man cannot take care of his own house, how will he care for others on the outside? Too many pastors boast about flying here and there, having this ministry and that ministry, and yet they neglect the expressed commission of Christ as their own house lies in ruin. As Jesus commissioned Peter, FEED MY SHEEP!

    Second, we have a daily M-F radio program on KARI 550 AM in which a significant amount of time, money, and effort is given to advance the gospel to the "least and last" as you say. You are invited to tune in each weekday at 8:30 AM on KARI 550 AM--in fact, this weeks message in on Christ's salvation of sinners, not the righteous. Visit us on the web at www.lyndenurc.com and click on Abounding Grace radio for 4 years of cataloged gospel radio messages. We have a variety of other ways we advance the gospel abroad, but believe the primary means of grace, Word and Sacrament, honors the Great Commission of Matt. 28 as we strive for this locally. Consider yourself invited! Best, CJG

  12. to Bernard et al to equate social or community action and programs with training up the saints to run the race that is set before them by teaching and preaching the Good News with power is at best misguided and at worst spreads confusion to the body of Christ - Its never the works that we do as fruit bearers for the Kingdom that should encourage any boasting - if the Gospel is being con temporized and sublimated to the degree that works and what we do as undeserving sinners supplant the preaching ( such as at CTK) and exposition of God's Holy Word we are leaving ourselves open for His judgment - The Word must reign supreme in the true church - Does the Word reign in your church ? I pray that it does !

  13. Hi Bernard,

    In your contrast between worship and evangelism, I think both are represented as foolishness to the world (I Cor. 1:18-21) when done in accord with God’s will. When done outside of God’s prescriptive will, many evangelistic methods will be most appealing to the world and gain many converts.

    In my opinion, God will ultimately bless the method that most glorifies his name and agrees with his will according to his decretive will. Strive to enter in at the strait gait (Luke 13:24)

    CTK does not worship according to God's command and they have many converts.

    God has even said he that he will cast out many that work outside his will (Matt. 7:21) even though this represents most of the people who enter via the broad gate (Matt. 7:14). Many are called but few are chosen (Matt. 22:14).

    These statements should have us striving, wanting and desiring to approach God as he has commanded, in life, in evangelism and in worship. He is not crowned unless he strive lawfully (2 Tim. 2:5).

    In other words, the outreach methods used in our community and abroad must agree with the law of God in truth and be done according to his will. Subsequently, we should be leading people to the truth in worship. We should know what this looks like.

    I know I have found this audio-cast below helpful, hopefully you will too.
    Manipulation, Lying, and Evangelism

  14. I believe that today our feelings are seen as much more important then the truth. These terms such as judgement and legalism are thrown around much to freely and people ought to look up the correct meaning of a word before using it! I see nothing wrong with any true man of God visiting any other church and writing a critique so long as it done for the right reason. The right reason being false teaching.

    Furthermore when you look up the word legalism, as with many words there happen to be a few different meanings. Legalism if you follow one of the meanings may not be such a horrible thing. The meaning I am speaking of is "close and strict adherence to a law." Call me legalistic then because I believe we should all live in close and strict adherence to God's law. The second meaning I found was the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works. I know first hand from being raised in a reformed church that legalism is not something to accuse this denomination of. I prayed before I wrote this comment and would encourage others to do the same and be sure that any comments you leave are done so out of love and not out of malice.

  15. Just to clarify the points here. So pastor Chris, is it safe to say that I'll never see URC serving the homeless down town bellingham or something like that?

    If you're not involved in the community how do you reconcile Jesus' actions when he ate and associated with sinners? He taught them in that context by going to their homes.


  16. Dear Bernard,

    I really think that you are shifting the issues at hand, please address the concerns raised in the posts. It's a little disingenuous to try and discredit the points of the post by diverting our attention to things that have nothing to do with what was written. So how you jumped to this stange assumption is beyond me. Nevertheless, my answer to your diversion is as follows: We have a number of things we do in the community, but I refuse to justify our ministry to someone who does not understand the crucial difference between the means of grace in WORD and SACRAMENT, and the acts of thankfulness that follow as we are salt and light in the world. In other words, you're acting as if your own good works in being salt and light in the community (working at food shelters, feeding people dinners, etc.) take a higher seat than the LORD’s great condescension to save sinners through the preaching of the gospel. Your view of the ministry of the church is skewed as you are confusing and elevating your acts of kindness with the church’s commission to preach and baptize.

    Bernard, by grace we provide something even more fulfilling, we spread a feast every Lord’s Day, not with the food that perishes, but with living bread--bread which, if anyone eats, he will live forever. We have gone to the highways and byways to invite all to this feast of Word and Sacrament. You also, Bernard, are invited to come, taste and see that the LORD is good, but you will have to realize that the needy are not all the others “out there”, but that such a need begins with you as you "come" to Christ and receive him in the Word spoken (Rom. 10).

  17. Dear Nicole, Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. Yes, you are correct in observing that legalism here refers to salvation/justification by works. And you are correct that Reformed churches historically have never taught salvation by works. Your prayerful interaction was an encouragement as we all should learn to reply not out of malice, but genuine love for the truth of God's Word. THANKS!

  18. Why when all of our works are as filthy rags in the sight of a Holy God do folks continue to point to them as credentials of righteousness - feeding the homeless is a result of bearing fruit in Christ after we have worshiped Him in spirit and in truth - not concurrent with - Yes Jesus did eat with publicans and sinners ( different from feeding the homeless ) but he did it without self righteousness or accusation - he also did it in vast difference from the Pharisees who did all to be seen and honored of men

  19. Mr. Darcy Manderson (Two-Lips Apologetics)May 3, 2011 at 5:19 PM

    "To the least of these you do unto me." -Jesus. I see this misquoted by people who say we should feed and clothe the homeless ect. But if one looks at the verse in context there is a key word left out. "To the least of these..."Brothers"(Christians or Saints)...you do unto me" we are only commanded to do these things to believers and most likely those in your local church body. I do think we should feed the homeless as an outreach but when we do, we are not doing it as unto Christ.
    Well spoken Chris in your response to Bernard.

  20. Hi Chris,
    For the sake of those who are wondering what the church's responsibility is toward the poor and needy, could you clarify in what ways this may be accomplished, without it being a 'social justice' emphasis within the local church assembly? I totally agree that the mandate is to teach/preach the good news of the gospel, salvation in Christ alone, but do you also advocate that some of the tithes/offerings received goes towards mission work...that includes helping others with basic needs..perhaps in 3rd world countries, or where there has been some sort of catastrophic event?

  21. Again, thank you!!! These are the very issues we are struggling with today, even with members in our own federation of churches. (Canadian Reformed). This string of comments have been so helpful in clarifying what is at the root of this movement and what is at stake.Coosje

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  23. Just a bunch of legalists!