About the author


Jane Gibb

Jane and her husband Steve ministered at Trinity Baptist Church in Cairns, Australia for fourteen years before moving to serve as missionaries in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Jane has a bachelor of education. Jane is active in ministry in Vanuatu as well as being a busy mother of six.


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    Jane – this is a difficult subject, you’re quite brave to take it on.

    Defining ‘legalism’ is very difficult and I am one of those who “like to limit legalism to law-based methods of salvation.”

    The false teaching Paul was addressing at the churches in Galatia related to justification and not to progressive sanctification. Law-keeping was being added to faith for justification. If you start reading progressive sanctification into the first four chapters of Galatians I think you end up in strife!

    The verses you quoted – Galatians 3:1 & 3 refer to the completion of salvation. The Galatians ‘began’ (justification/salvation) in the Spirit, their salvation was not going to be completed by the works of the flesh (‘made perfect'[epiteleisthe] -‘to bring something to the place where it is complete’). The Galatians didn’t need to keep the Law to complete their justification or to stay justified.

    You make this statement – “…but the New Testament extends the borders of legalism to the realm of sanctification also.” I would be really interested to see some of the Scriptures that do this. (I take it you mean ‘progressive sanctification’?)

    That all being said, I agree with much of what you’ve written. There can be a serious problem of ‘externalism’ in the Christian life. This is where externals take precedence over the matters of the heart and I think this is what you’re hitting on. Adherence to a set of cultural norms or personal preferences is mistaken for adherence to the precepts of Scripture. Those norms/preferences become a measure of one’s spirituality.

    Rules are very important – keeping the ‘rules’ given by our Lord Jesus and by His Apostles is what it means to “walk in the light”, without that there is no fellowship with God. Our standards for church life need to be gracious applications of those rules!

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    I think externalism is a better term for what you are describing. Strictly speaking, legalism is related to salvation by works or faith plus works, and externalism is related to progressive sanctification. The two things are related though and can overlap, I think Independent churches have a tendency towards externalism, as you point out, and those of us who are part of such churches need to be very aware of this tendency.

    On the other hand, a person can be labelled a legalist for simply using a King James Bible, for example, and so the one who labels such a person as a legalist is actually falling into the the error of externalism, that is, they are judging that believer without knowing his heart. So it cuts both ways.
    Christians have to be very careful with labelling other Christians, especially with such a hurtful and discouraging label as a “legalist.”

  3. avatar

    Jane Gibb

    Thanks for your comments, PJ. You’ve obviously spent some time thinking about this, and your spirit is gracious and measured even though you disagree.

    My first thought about your comments is that you seem to make a distinction between justification and progressive sanctification that is most likely not made in the New Testament. Although significantly different in definition, the two words are part of the bigger picture of God’s salvation that carries us from the new birth into eternal glory. The New Testament seems to present salvation as an ongoing process, beginning with deliverance from sin’s penalty, continuing with deliverance from sin’s power (progressively by sanctification) and ultimately from sin’s presence (in glory). The method of deliverance is always by grace through faith, never by our own works. Any obedience is an act of faith not a work of the law, whether we are obeying God’s command to “repent and believe the gospel” or God’s command to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.” This theme presents itself quite strikingly in 1 Peter 1 when Peter says God’s power is guarding us through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed at the last day (v.5) as well as other references in that epistle. To partition God’s work of justification from God’s work of sanctification is to imply that they are two distinct processes when they are both part of God’s complete work of salvation. That’s what Paul is arguing about in Galatians 3–that having received the Spirit by faith, they are in error to continue in their new lives by the flesh.

    In reference to legalism, I should have said that legalism employs external “MAN-MADE” rules to bring people into bondage. Of course, all of the New Testament teachings are for us to obey. The problem is when people become like the Pharisees and add their own rules to the actual teachings of the Bible. For example, we are instructed not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together”. If I don’t go to every service, have I disobeyed this command? I think not. The key element is my heart’s intention and response to God in relation to this command. The practice of adding man-made rules to God’s Word has caused a lot of pain in the lives of many Christians as spiritual leaders have abused their shepherding role by becoming law-makers and law enforcement officers. That was the point of my opening illustration.

    In consulting with my husband, he suggests that a study of Paul’s usage of the terms “justification” and “sanctification” will make the big picture of God’s work in salvation.

    1. avatar

      Jeremy Crooks

      How much is legalism an attitude vs. a position or a standard?

  4. avatar

    Matt L

    Better a few days late than never …

    I was recently talking to a member of my extended family and we were discussing our churches, ministries, etc. and he explained how he was now so much more comfortable in his new church. Having been raised in a smaller fundamental work he was now involved in a large popular megachurch and really enjoyed it. He explained that growing up he was always “kind of a rebel” and didn’t fit in, and now he was more comfortable as he could dress how he liked, listen to whatever music he wanted, etc. and it was all “OK”.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that there is a big issue with legalism / externalism in some circles, but I just wonder whether sometimes the temptation to label others as such can be motivated by a desire to pursue a lifestyle that lacks discipline and convictions, and this line of argument makes it acceptable.

    Could throwing around the term “legalist” in religious circles sometimes be the modern day equivalent of the mud-slinging terms we oftern hear like “racist” or “bigot” just because someone rationally disagrees with another’s point of view?

    Just wondering out loud.

  5. avatar

    Jane Gibb

    @Matt L– I suppose that using the name “legalist” against others could be a smokescreen for a licentious life. However, in the past few months I’ve talked with many people who do greatly desire a close walk with God but have been deeply wounded by other people whom we could call “legalists.” I haven’t gone looking for this kind of information from anyone; it pops up everywhere in our fundamental circles. The rules that have bound these people and the churches they have attended have left these “spiritually abused” sheep hungry for life-giving truth instead of regulations, They want heart-deep shepherding, not a list of do’s and don’t’s to check off. That’s what this post is aiming at.

    And while we’re throwing around labels, could we apply the term “legalist” to ourselves? I think it’s a monster that we must regularly battle in our own souls.


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