West London Alliance Church

Legalism: The Ancient Work of Satan

As part of my reading plan for 2017, I made it my purpose to re-read two books that I read in 2016: A Peculiar Glory and The Whole Christ. Re-reading books is not something I do often; nevertheless, both these books were excellent and I hoped reading them again would solidify some of their content in my mind. I find my mind is such that, more and more, it needs such reinforcement.

In Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ, the author deals with several topics of significant pastoral import: assurance of salvation, antinomianism, and legalism. It is on this last pervasive problem that I would like to focus.

In a chapter entitled “DANGER! LEGALISM”, Ferguson notes the standard, evangelical definition of legalism: “Trying to earn your salvation by doing good works.” This definition is accurate, as far as it goes, but Ferguson notes that legalism is significantly ‘bigger and badder’ than the definition indicates when he writes, “around and underneath [legalism], there gathers a web that extends more widely, which is woven intricately and invisibly to trap the unwary. And the web is always much stronger than we imagine, for legalism is a much more subtle reality than we tend to assume.”

In The Whole Christ, Ferguson admonishes pastors to deal with this wide-spread problem. Ferguson warns, “The root of legalism is almost as old as Eden, which explains why it is a primary, if not the ultimate pastoral problem. In seeking to bring freedom from legalism, we are engaged in undoing the ancient work of Satan.” The root of legalism is exposed in the temptation scene in Eden because it shares the same root as antinomianism (lawlessness). Satan’s conversation with Eve results in Eve becoming suspicious of God which led her into rejecting God’s law. However, Ferguson argues that legalism and lawlessness have this suspicion of God in common. Hence, he calls these two sins “nonidentical twins from the same womb.”

Legalism’s response to becoming suspicious of God is also the same as lawlessness’s: divorcing and abstracting God’s law from God’s good and gracious character. The legalist and the licentious both fixate on the law apart from the Lawgiver. The lawless one will see the law only as something restrictive because it has been separated from the gracious Father it came from. Thus, the law is rejected and the one who rejects is become anti(against)-nomian(law). On the other hand, the legalist, in divorcing God’s law from his merciful and loving character, distorts-in his own mind-what God is like. God has become a hard taskmaster who one must appease by acts of service. God is no longer the God of grace who pours out his undeserved favour on people; rather, his love must be earned through acts of service or paid for by sacrifice.

In encouraging pastors to deal with legalism, he raises the mistake that is often made when dealing with this in others and in ourselves. What is the mistake? Ferguson indicates that the mistake is “prescribing a dose of antinomianism to heal legalism, and vice versa.” However, the cure for the sin of legalism can never be the sin of antinomianism. Likewise, the sin of lawlessness can never be cured with the sin of legalism. God forbid. Rather, as Ferguson teaches, the cure for both is the gospel.

In the “Foreword,” Manhattan pastor Tim Keller explains how the gospel is the cure for legalism (and antinomianism): “Since the root of both errors is the same, the cure is the same­–to lift up the essential goodness of God by recounting the gospel, thereby making obedience a joy. The remedy for both is a fuller, biblical, and profound understanding of grace and of the character of God.

To summarize, the legalist divorces God’s law from the good and gracious God. In doing so, he sees the law as harsh and overbearing. He then reasons, “Only a harsh and overbearing God would have harsh and overbearing expectations.” A god of such descriptions would only give gifts and benefits to those who could earn them or pay for them. Thus I must earn them with good deeds and pay for them with sacrifice. But, the gospel speak otherwise. The gospel reminds us that the laws of God come from one who is gracious and merciful, one who abounds in lovingkindness. The gospel shows the legalist that, in fact, God’s grace cannot be earned or paid for by the legalist. Rather, God would “pay the price” and “earn the reward” through the work of Christ. Then, as the gospel declares, while we were sinners who could neither pay for God’s gifts nor earn his benefits, he would graciously give the gift of faith and repentance, justification, and adoption to the unworthy ones that he had chosen in love. That, is the gospel. And that is the remedy for legalism.


On Wednesday, March 15, 2017, Barton Priebe said:

Hey Jude. Ironically, I am in chapter four right now and am loving this book. Thanks for the post and trust all is well with you guys.


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