By Fred Zaspel–

Try to imagine it. You are playing a game of Monopoly, and your opponent throws a ten with the dice. Then he picks up his player marker and begins counting his steps. Immediately you realize he will land on the corner — “Go to Jail!” Well, he doesn’t want to land there, so he stops just one step short, on New York Avenue. Immediately you cry foul. But he responds indignantly, “I only stopped one step short. What’s the difference? Don’t be such a legalist!”

Will you feel ashamed? Will you now feel that you have been too persnickety and legalistic? Too careful to obey the rules? Or will you feel that you have been cheated?

To make the point another way, I have never yet met a parent who complained that his child was a legalist because he obeyed too much. In fact, it would be impossible for any parent to imagine how his child could obey too much.

Yet, find a Christian who is careful to obey God in everything, and we won’t have to look far to find another Christian to call him a legalist. What do we make of this?

It’s a word we all hate, but exactly what is legalism? Legalism is that attempt to establish or maintain a right standing with God by means of our own efforts. The Jews of Paul’s day, for example, thought they could be saved by keeping the law. Anyone claiming to be Christian knows better than that, but even among believers there is sometimes found that attempt to maintain a right standing with God by means of personal efforts. They seem to think that having been saved by grace they must maintain that salvation by works. Legalism.

Still more broadly the term is also used of those Christians who insist on extra-biblical standards of behavior and judge godliness accordingly. For some it is zippers instead of buttons. No hair touching the ears for men. No jewelry for women. No slacks for women. No movies. No playing cards. And so on it goes. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. Extra-biblical standards of behavior are used to measure godliness. Legalism.

But we must be careful not to confuse legalism with obedience. Obedience is not legalism. Obedience is obedience. God commands us to obey his Word, and when pressed with those commands we must not cry foul — “legalism!”  No, disobedience is sin, and obedience is not legalism.

On the contrary, any violation of God’s commands is sin, and there are no exceptions allowed. No custom, no family tradition, no “We’ve always done that!” will cover it. Scripture insists that violation of God’s law is sin.

Simply put, we needn’t fear that we may obey our Lord too much. Jesus said that if we love him, we will obey him.

Happily, God has promised in the New Covenant to give us a heart to obey him. And every true Christian has found that obedience to God is not a burdensome thing. This is the work of his Spirit within us to bring us to obey him — not legalistically but faithfully.

We may be more thankful still that God has provided remedy for our sinful disobedience in laying our punishment instead on his Son, in whom we trust.

Let us pray that God will make us increasingly faithful, increasingly obedient to his holy Word, to his glory.

Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010); Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim.




  • Thank you very much on distinguishing between obedience and legalism. Often this is too quickly attributed to those who desire to be pleasing to the Lord in every respect. It is interesting that you would never find someone calling “foul” because brother Dale was loving his wife “too much” or was “too serious” about serving her. I do have one question though, that I have yet to find a good resource or response for: has legalism always referred to a maintaining of salvation or extrabiblical “dos and don’ts”? I can see biblically where it would refer to one attempting to justify himself by works but am wondering if you or someone else (another resource?) may be able to help shed some light on the historical use of the word “legalism.” My concern is that it began only in referrence to justification by works and then has been broadened over time to the maintenance and extra-biblical rules; but I am not sure. Thanks again for your time.

  • I think you missed the easiest way to be accused of being a legalist: be a thinking Christian. If you have read more than one book by C. S. Lewis, know the difference between Thomas a Kempis and Thomas Aquinas (no expert on either), then you are obviously an intellectual – just like the Pharisees! They were legalists; you must be too.
    As once put, “Check your brain at the door – ’cause God wants your heart.” And if you are an obedient, thinking Christian… well, no one is ever a total loss. They can always be used as a bad example. From the pulpit.

  • Great post. I think it’s a matter of proper motivation. If we obey because we believe we will ‘get something’, then we become a legalist. If we obey out of gratefulness and out of love for God and the neighbor, then it comes naturally.

    I think we are all mixed bags, though, when it comes to obeying.

    Thankfully, “Christ is the end of the law for all those who have faith.”


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