What is “Legalism”?

“What is the opposite of ‘legalism’? ‘Il-legalism’?”

~ Garner Ted Armstrong

The Worldwide Church of God (WCG) website has a reprint of Appendix A of Kingdom of the Cults, by Walter Martin, 1997 edition. It supposedly documents the journey of the WCG from “cult” to “Christianity” by repudiating “heresy”, including “legalism”. The problem with terms like “cult”, “heresy” and “legalism” is that they are often nebulous, misinterpreted, ill-defined and in the eye of the beholder.

Heresy, of course, is false doctrine. This blog often examines doctrines and beliefs and points to the Bible as the source of what is or is not heretical. We could dwell forever on false doctrines. As stated in my book review of Tim Challies’ The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, we learn how to discern by concentrating on what is true and comparing statements and beliefs to the standard of true. While studying falsehood can be beneficial, it does not prepare you for the next big falsehood that comes along. Studying the truth empowers you to recognize falsehood.

I have previously dealt with the topic of “What is a Cult?” It is an emotionally charged subject for some, no doubt. However, we must honestly admit that there have been times in the past where cultish practices were taking place. Yet, if you have any doubt about this, I suggest you read my Helium article on “Basic rights every church member should expect from his church“, where I examine the Biblical view of what rights, if any, a member has.

So, I want to now concentrate on legalism. Future articles will delve into practical aspects of legalism.

Just what is “legalism”?

The dictionary definition of le⋅gal⋅ism:

  1. strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, esp. to the letter rather than the spirit.
  2. Theology.
    a. the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works.
    b. the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.

~ legalism. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved April 16, 2009, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/legalism

If you ponder both of these definitions for more than a minute, you’ll likely see a real problem. It’s one thing to say that salvation is not attained by good works. It’s quite another to say we don’t have to follow any laws whatsoever. Being under grace does not mean lawlessness.

However, whenever some try to follow any code of conduct, they inevitably have someone label them a “legalist”. Technically, they would be a legalist by definition 1, but not by definition 2. Even definition 1 is a minefield because following a law “in the spirit” sometimes itself leads to interpretational difficulties.

So, like the terms “cult” and “sect”, we see that the common usage of the words are sometimes in conflict with the theological definitions.

In part 2, “Is God a Legalist?”, I will argue that we should throw out the common definition and stick to the theological definition.

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