Saturday, August 23, 2008

The ever-present dangers of Soft Legalism

With respects to a previous post regarding the seriousness of the doctrine of Sola Fide, and the dangers of works-righteousness aka Legalism, I have came across some interesting quotes which I would like to share on this topic. The quotes come from a book entitled The Future of Justification: A response to N.T. Wright by John Piper (IVP, Nottingham, England, 2008) which is his official response to the error of the so-called New Perspective on Paul. Part of the error of New Perspectivism lies in an inherent legalism which is quite nuanced but at its root is indeed promoting works-righteousness. It is in this context that the error of Soft Legalism is addressed.

The essence of legalism is the belief that our right standing with God is based on, comes by means of, or is sustained by our works — regardless of whether these works are self-produced (hard legalism) or whether they are completely produced by God's grace in us (soft legalism). (p. 152, Footnote 14)

...while legalism involves the view that 'salvation consists of the observance of precepts,' boasting and self-righteousness may, but do not always, accompany this motion. When they do not, we may speak of a 'soft' or 'torah-centric' form of legalism; when they do, we have a 'hard' or 'anthropocentric' legalism. To this, we may add that 'soft' legalists, who try to obey God's law because they believe that God has commanded them to do so, may not believe that they are thereby 'earning' their salvation, still less that they are 'establishing a claim' on God based on their own 'merit'. Surely love for God, or even fear of his judgment, are adequate motives for obedience to his commands. No such explanation as hypocrisy, self-seeking, merit-mongering, and outright rebellion against God need be invoked to explain why religious people would attempt to do what they believe God has commanded them. To think otherwise is to insist, for example, that Psalm 119 expresses the religion of a sham, and that Deut. 30:16 commands it.

Unfortunately, in most definitions of legalism by New Testament scholars, the possibility of 'soft' legalism is not even considered. The 'legalist', for Cranfield, is the one who tries to use the law 'as a means to the establishment of a claim upon God, and so to the defense of his self-centeredness and the assertion of a measure of independence over against God. He imagines that he can put God under an obligation to himself, that he will be able so adequately to fulfil the law's demands that he will earn for himself a righteous status before God.' For Moule, legalism is 'the intention to claim God's favour by establishing one's own rightness.' For Hübner, those who see righteousness as based on works define their existence in terms of their own activities, leave God out of consideration, and, in effect, 'see themselves as their own creator.' For [Daniel] Fuller, legalism 'presumes that the Lord, who is not 'served by human hands, as though he needed anything' (Acts 17:25), can nevertheless be bribed and obligated to bestow blessing by the way men distinguish themselves.'

Such definitions would be innocent enough if they were accompanied by an awareness that 'legalists' of this kind represent only some of those who interpreted Deut. 30:16 as saying that obedience to God's law was the way to life. But all too frequently there is no such awareness. The alternative to faith is not (as it is in Paul) simply 'works', whether they are 'good' or 'bad' — a statement which embraces both 'soft' and 'hard' legalism — but rather the sinful, self-seeking, merit-claiming works of the (necessarily 'hard') legalist. Whereas Paul can contrast faith in Christ with 'the works of the law', and mean by the latter no more than the deeds commanded by the law, the very notion of 'works' is so inextricably in the minds of some scholars with self-righteousness and pride that (as we have seen) the 'works of the law' can only be conceived as sinful. It is no surprising that for such scholars, the 'law' whose works are conceived as sinful cannot be seen as divine, but inevitably becomes the legalistically distorted form of God's law which prevailed (we are confidently told) among the Jews of Paul's day. But — it must be emphasized — in Paul's argument it is human deeds of any kind which cannot justify, not simply deeds done 'in a spirit of legalism'. Paul's very point is lost to view when his statements excluding the law, and its works from justification are applied only to the law's perversion. (Stephen Westerholm, Israel's Law and the Church's Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998], 132-134)

(p. 158-159, Footnote 24)

As it can be seen, soft legalism is seen in the fact that one does works even in a spirit of obedience as part of one's standing before God. And as Westerholm states so clearly: Paul's very point is lost to view when his statements excluding the law, and its works from justification are applied only to the law's perversion. Therefore, it is not even a distortion of the Law that Paul is against, but even the fulfilment of the Divine and Holy Law in obedience for one's standing or justification before God. And that is why King's Kid and all who believe similarly to her are legalistic heretics in the same spirit as the Judaizers. For anyone to demand the keeping of the divine and holy Law as being contributing to one's standing before God (not even necessarily salvific) is to commit the deadly error of legalism, and depending on the consistency upon which this position is held, can damn the person who believed it to eternal hellfire (cf Gal. 1:8-9).

As I have said before, so I will say again, it would do very well for all of us to look hard at the book of Galatians and see exactly what was it about the Judaizers that merited them an anathema from the apostle Paul. All legalists, and in fact many Christians also, have a wrong view of the heresy of the Judaizers. The Judaizers are NOT teaching salvation by works, nor even salvation by faith plus works technically speaking (though in reality it is salvation by faith plus works), but they are teaching salvation by faith plus obedience to the Law.

With this, I would conclude this post there. However, I would be starting some expositions on the book of Galatians on the topic of Law and Gospel, showing forth the true New Covenantal relations between them as stated explicitly by Scripture as written by Paul himself.


Anonymous said...

There is a good article that I read before on the site called, Gospel Driven Sactification. I do believe that is the name of the article. In the charismatic church that I attended for more than 14 years. I was taught a form of legalism, never a justification by faith alone and it lead me to a spiritual crisis. We were told in many sermons that we could loose our salvation and that we needed to be right with God and that lead me to a works-righteousness. I read my bible faithfully, prayed and daily did those things to be right with God, never understanding justification by faith alone by Christ's imputation. Prayer time was a power time, word time was driven to get personal success...I was in turmoil..well until I met Mr. Charles Spurgeon's sermons. :)

Daniel C said...


Yup. I was there too. Charismatism in general doesn't exactly teaches its followers how to rest in the finished work of Christ.

Anonymous said...

Even when it does teach to rest in the finish work of Christ, charismania is usually rooted in word-faith teachings that hinder who Christ is, his uniqueness, being completely God and Man, and not just a man annointed by the Holy Spirit as Copland and others modalistic say.

Daniel C said...


well, perhaps. My own experience was with the New Apostolic version so it was all about signs and wonders and "prayer warfare" etc.

Anonymous said...

The law says 'do'

The gospel says 'done'

In so many churches you just never quite seem to arrive,

in the end, it really is all about what you do.


Daniel C said...


you're welcome, and I agree. We should always focus more on the finished work of Christ on our behalf.