Are You Legalistic?
Legalism, Grace, and the Motivation for Obedience
†By Dr. Robert G. Spinney
Note: This message was originally delivered as a sermon.
The oral style has been preserved.
I . Were the Puritans Legalistic?
For several years I served as a professor at a conservative Christian college in the
Chicago area. Perhaps ninety percent of my students had been reared in Christian
homes and went to what we would call conservative, evangelical, Bible-believing
churches. This always made for interesting classes. Although most of my classes
were in American history, if I was quick on my feet, I could get into meaty spiritual
issues, regardless of what subject I was teaching.
Indeed I recall one day in a U.S. history class where we were studying the Puritans.
My students had read Edmund Morgan's The Puritan Dilemma, a delightful
biography of John Winthrop that discussed the founding of the Massachusetts Bay
Colony in the 1620s. This book talked about the Puritans coming to America, their
first years in North America, and their attempt to establish a Christian
It was an amazing story. This collection of godly men and women, most of whom
were deeply committed to the Word of God, left families behind in Europe to come
to an unknown and undeveloped America. That meant that they arrived in a
wilderness with no politicians, no states, and no economy. They had to build a
community from scratch. For the Puritans, this errand into the wilderness was a
So my students read this book about the Puritans.
If nothing else, what the Puritans tried to do was admirable. They tried to be
serious about this holy experiment; they tried to apply the Word of God to every
aspect of life.
I could tell during our class discussion, however, that even though my students had
read this biography, and even though the book gave a favorable portrayal of the
Puritans, my students did not share my love for the Puritans. They didn't like these
guys. They wouldn't come out and say it, but you could tell that they weren't
regarding the Puritans as their spiritual heroes.
At some point in the discussion I stopped, and I asked my students, "Was there
something wrong with the Puritans? You all seem kind of reserved, as if you don't
like these guys." My students were silent. Finally one of my students, one of my
brightest students, said, "Well, you know, the Puritans were . . er, . . . they were
I said, "They were legalistic?"
He answered, "Yeah, they were legalistic."
I looked at my students and said, "Do you all agree with that? How many of the
rest of you think that the Puritans were legalistic?"
Almost every hand went up.
So I went to the chalkboard, and I wrote down the word legalistic. Then I asked my
class, "Would someone define that word for me, please."
So I waited. Finally I baited them. "Just give me an idea; just get us started. What
does that word mean; what does legalism mean?"
No one said a word.
I continued, "How many people have ever used the word legalism before?"
All the hands went up.
I asked, "Do you guys think the Puritans were legalistic?"
Again all the hands went up.
"Can you tell me what it means?"
No definitions were offered.
Finally my one student, my bright student, said with much hesitation, "Well, they
were just like, er, so concerned with obeying God all the time."
As he spoke, you could tell he realized that this wasn't a very good definition.
I asked, "Isn't it good to obey God all the time? What's wrong with obedience?"
Silence. Nobody said anything.
Pointing again to the word I had written on the blackboard, I again asked, "Can
anybody define this word?"
Let me tell you about my students. Even though this was a conservative Christian
college, the students never used the word eschatology, they never used the word
justification, and they rarely used the word sanctification. But they could deploy the
word legalism at the right moments; they knew that word.
Finally after a long period of silence, my good student, my bright student, said, "I
think you've convinced us that we really don't know what that word means."
I suspect that this situation is not unusual. Legalism and legalistic are words that
we Christians use with reckless abandon. Yet I'm not sure that we can define this
word accurately. In fact, I am fully confident that if I were to pass out index cards
and ask the men here in our church to define the word legalism, we would get at
least ten different definitions. But that doesn't stop us from using the word. We use
the word all the time, as if we knew what it meant, and as if we all meant the same
thing when we used it.
I think this is a bad assumption. I don't think the students in my classroom were
that unusual at all. I think they were a typical representation of conservative,
evangelical, Bible- believing Christians in America. We are not sure what legalism
is, despite our frequent use of the term.
II. How we Commonly Use the Word Legalism.
Let me give you some examples of some incorrect and unbiblical ways that I have
heard the word legalism used.
Example 1. We see a brother who is attempting to obey Christ, attempting to do
what he thinks is right, and attempting to apply the Bible to a real-life situation he
is facing. He's careful to obey God's commands. He tries to obey God's little laws.
And he ends up doing something that we don't do, or he refrains from something
that we do. He has unusual convictions or unusual practices. We would never say it,
but deep down inside we think, "He almost seems to obey God too much." We think
he is too picky about obeying God. We think that he takes obeying God too
seriously and that he should lighten up. And we look at that brother and we say,
Example 2. We see Christians discussing what it means to obey some
commandment. I'll take the fourth commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day to
keep it holy." We find a group of Christians discussing what it means to keep the