Misunderstanding “Legalism”

What is this awful “ism” called “Legalism”? Whatever it is, it must be pretty bad. The very use of the term automatically pictures one who has no love for the Lord, no understanding of His matchless grace, and no concern for a right relationship with God based on faith. This concept of “legalism” pictures one who claims salvation based on his own works by which he supposedly puts the Almighty in his debt. It cannot be denied that some religious individual may view things this way. But there is ample evidence that there is an equally dangerous misunderstanding of legalism on the opposite end.

In a series of articles on “The Gospel of Romans,” an installment entitle “Legalism” has the following.

I have heard preachers admit that they were legalists but I’m sure they had no idea what constitutes legalism. These are those who will say that salvation is not based upon works, but turn right around and say that justification is based upon obedience to a set of commandments. They both say exactly the same thing. To say that salvation is ‘conditioned’ upon one’s obedience to the commandments, and then deny salvation by works is a contradiction. Whenever a reward is offered for meeting certain requirements, the reward is EARNED whenever the requirements are met! Reward is based on ‘doing.’ Justification is based upon faith and it is not a ‘reward’. It is a ‘state’ — a righteous relationship.” — Ensign, May 1991, page 82.

The presumption that obedience to commands of Christ in the gospel and salvation by works “say exactly the same thing” is incorrect. “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). The New International Version reads, “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” “What he does” in this passage is not “faith alone” but not devoid of faith. It is a simple formula. Belief is always alone when stripped of obedience to Christ. Faith is not alone when expressed in obedience.

The real question is whether salvation is conditional or unconditional. The drift of the above quote leaves one with the definite impression that salvation is conditioned upon nothing at all. The anti-legalist presumes salvation by works and salvation by conditions are equal. Since salvation cannot be by works (of any kind at all) it cannot be conditional. Therefore, salvation is the unconditional gift and responsibility of the Almighty God. One who is saved became the sole object of God’s intent to save someone. This is the end result of this misunderstanding of legalism.

That salvation is conditioned upon faith cannot be questioned. But faith cannot save one who will not obey Christ (Hebrews 5:8-9). To the contrary, faith will only save when it is expressed through obedience (Galatians 5:6).

Legalism may be bad — but salvation by faith that obeys the commands of Christ is good — it comes directly from the one source of all that is good. By the way — it is never very good to based a theory on a complete misunderstanding of something like “legalism.” - DRS

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