Legalism and the Rhetoric of the Gospel

‘Legalism’ is a term that has various shades of meaning. On some occasions, ‘legalism’ is a term used to refer to attempts to merit or earn one’s salvation by adherence to moral rules, on other occasions it can refer to the imposition of a burden of man-made requirements upon people, undermining their God-given freedom. These are not the only forms of legalism, however. Legalism also has to do with the way that we present the requirements of God to people.

Such legalism is particularly a problem within the context of the ethics of the New Covenant. Whilst I find many traditional Reformation ways of relating Law and Gospel deeply problematic, failing to pay sufficient attention to the underlying redemptive and covenant historical developments, I am nonetheless convinced that many of these approaches continue truth that we jettison at our peril.

We tend to adopt a certain form of ‘legalism’ with young children, which is important as part of their development. You tell a two year old to do one thing or not to do another; you don’t give them much choice in the matter, nor do you provide them with many reasons for the commandment. However, as the child grows up it is unhealthy to continue to adopt such an approach, as it prevents the child from developing mature moral agency.

There is a sort of analogy between this and the way in which biblical ethics works. At the very basic level there is a place for rules and commandments, but in many respects they are there to be transcended. As we enter into the New Covenant, part of what it means for us to no longer be under the Law is that we are freed to act as full moral agents by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Legalism, then, need not involve a lack of theological justification for a commandment, nor an attempt to merit salvation. There are legalistic ways of expressing perfectly biblical ethical norms. This is a deep failing in many areas of fundamentalism, where even biblical moral norms are repeatedly expressed in a legalistic way that is gospel-denying, undermining the freedom of the people of God (this legalism is often accompanied by the legalism of adding to or undermining God’s commandments, e.g. no dancing, going to the cinema, no wine in communion).

Such legalism does not recognize the authority that the Scriptures accord to the Christian as a creative and free moral subject. Giving a theological justification for commandments does tend to grant a degree of authority to the person who is being commanded as a moral subject. When the child is told to do something by his parents and asks them why, that question is all too often the sign of resistance and rebellion. However, there is a stage when the right to know ‘why’ must be acknowledged, not a concession to rebellion, but as a recognition of maturity. An adult who does not know why he abides by particular moral norms that his parents taught him is not equipped as a fully-fledged moral agent. New Covenant ethics gives us a lot of reasons why we ought to act in a particular way; it does not generally just command us to act in that way rather than others.

When you look at NT ethics there are a number of differences to be observed from OT ethics. NT ethics treats us, not as those who need to be brought under a law, but as those who are freed from such laws, freed to fulfil such laws, by the Spirit of Christ. Christian ethics has a particular form, which focuses on persuasion, rather than on prescription. Compare Galatians 5 and Exodus 20 as good examples of these contrasting approaches. NT ethics addresses as ‘grown-ups’ in Christ, those who are no longer under the guardianship of the Law.

This does not entail a denial of previous content, but it is a movement beyond the ethics of law, into an ethics of freedom. Whilst the Law gives freedom on one level, teaching us how to live aright, on another level it constrains. If the rhetoric of the Law is primarily prohibition and prescription (for our good, certainly, but prescription and prohibition nonetheless), the ethics of the New Covenant are primarily persuasion, exhortation and the like. NT ethics also gives the moral agent a lot more room for creativity in deciding the best way to fulfill God’s commandments.

NT ethics are not generally framed in the form of commandments. Rather, NT ethics involve a particular rhetorical form that recognizes the freedom that the believer has from the Law. NT ethics operates primarily according to a rhetoric of persuasion, rather than an rhetoric of command, something that can be seen in action in Philemon 8-9.

The Church’s chief duty is to cultivate an ethos, not to enforce an ethic. There is a difference. Whilst there are certain things that must always be condemned and ruled out within the Church, our primary duty is not to establish and enforce a long list of dos and don’ts, but to encourage, support and enable people in living out the sort of life that Christ has freed them to live.

The rhetorical form in which we address people with Christian ethics is a matter of great importance. As Oliver O’Donovan observes, ‘Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ Christian ethics must be presented as good and liberating news. Whilst many Reformed people are right to observe a manner in which the Old Covenant Law came as good news, there are key disanalogies to be maintained. The rhetorical form of the Law does not differ from the rhetorical form of Christian ethics for no reason. As Christians, rather than enjoining people to perform certain actions, we beseech them or seek to persuade them. There are occasions when dos and don’ts are appropriate, but if they become our primary way of relating Christian ethics to believe we are in danger of losing sight of the gospel.

A good example of the difference between the ethics of commandment and the ethics of persuasion can be seen in the way that we approach a person such as the pregnant rape victim who is contemplating an abortion. On the particular issue of a pregnant rape victim, it is one thing to say that the right thing for her to do in such a situation is to bear the child. It is another thing to say that to her. There is always a danger of creating a form of ethics that is more about adherence to a certain set of norms rather than a matter of empowering people to live in the freedom of the Spirit for which Christ has set them free.

This is why Christian biographies, models and support structures within the Christian Church can be so important when we face such issues. Rather than imposing a commandment upon the rape victim from without, they create a realm of freedom for the woman in which her choice for the way of Christ is made possible and positively encouraged, without being coerced in any way.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Legalism and the Rhetoric of the Gospel

  1. Seth says:

    Thanks for the stimulating thoughts. I’ll just pose a couple of questions:

    1) How would it complicate your thesis to compare the Mosaic law with Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s gospel rather than with Paul’s teachings in Galatians? Certainly the form that Jesus’ teaching takes in the Beatitudes is significantly different than that of the decalogue, but other teachings are much closer to a commandment form (though there are still, perhaps, interesting differences). Jesus even refers to them as commands in Matt 28: 20 (cf John 14:15).

    2) Even if the NT presents some sort of general shift from an ethics of commandment (infant-stage) to an ethics of freedom (teenager/adult?), might we as individuals still need to move through those stages individually–possibly even alternating back and forth between them from time to time?

    By the way, have you read Jacques Ellul’s _Ethics of Freedom_? It’s a classic work on this subject.


  2. Al says:


    Good questions. A few brief comments in response:

    1. You are quite right to observe the analogies between Jesus’ ethical teaching in some places in Matthew and the commandment form of the OT Law. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is frequently presented as a new Moses. Even the form of the book is reminiscent of the form of the book of Deuternomomy.

    However, there are important disanalogies to be observed. Whilst Jesus gives commandments, there is great focus on revealing the true meaning of the Law and the commandments. Jesus shows that the Pharisees, whilst performing actions of ‘outward’ loyalty to the Law, had misunderstood the meaning of such thigns as the Sabbath laws, dietary requirements and the like. Matthew’s gospel is, in many respects, a revelation of the true meaning of the commandments, as Israel comes of age and becomes more conscious of the vocation that YHWH prepared her for through the giving of the Law. This is a movement beyond the ‘infancy’ form of commandments.

    It should further be observed that Matthew is not to be read in isolation from the other gospels. Each gospel gives a slightly different perspective on the teaching of Jesus, something that is reflected in the commissions found in each book. Matthew’s commission focuses on obedience to Jesus’ commandments; Mark focuses on allegiance to the King proclaimed in the gospel; Luke places emphasis on Jesus as a prophet and his commission draws attention to the need for the community to receive the Spirit to act as anointed witnesses; John’s commission is different again, the Church is sent by Christ as Christ was sent by the Father, revealing the life of Christ to the world. Each of the gospels accents a different aspect of Jesus’ ethical teaching and need to be read alongside each other.

    2. Yes, I think that we do. However, we need to be careful that we do in fact progress through these stages and do not merely remain rooted in a stage of infancy, as we so easily can.

    I haven’t yet read Ellul’s book. I will have to see if I can get it out of the library sometime.

  3. Seth says:

    Thanks for the response. That’s very helpful.

    I do wonder, however, how useful it is to talk about NT ethics as an “ethics of freedom.” (For me, this is just part of a larger problem with the word “freedom”). It seems to me that the NT doesn’t diminish the importance of obedience at all (as the word “freedom” seems to imply). Instead it encourages a more committed obedience by fostering a deeper trust of and knowledge of the one who commands us. Obedience becomes even more instinctive and heartfelt than ever, but it is still obedience.

    Now you might argue that this new knowledge-based obedience is a kind of freedom so that freedom and obedience aren’t really opposed or in tension with one another. But I would prefer to talk about the deepening of a relationship rather than the gaining of freedom. What does the term “freedom” really contribute? We may no longer be “under the law,” but we are still “under Christ.” Whatever that difference may entail, I’m not sure that freedom is the best word to describe it.

    I suppose one can qualify “freedom” in all sorts of ways to try to preserve the term, but I think we just tend to hear talk of freedom as talk of autonomy. But freedom in the NT is always freedom from sin in order to become a slave to Christ.

    Is there any other sense of freedom worth considering?


  4. Al says:


    Thanks for your additional comments.

    I believe that it is appropriate to speak of NT ethics as ‘ethics of freedom’, chiefly because this is the way that they are presented in the NT itself. The Spirit is presented as granting us freedom from the Law, which is characterized as a yoke of bondage. The word ‘freedom’ is an important one in the NT text and at some level or other we have to be prepared to employ such biblical language.

    I agree that the word freedom can be problematic in a day when it is generally understood to mean autonomy. I totally reject the idea that freedom is opposed to obedience. However, I believe that freedom is more than simply obedience. Freedom only comes through obedience, but it cannot be reduced to obedience.

    In some respects the Law is like the stabilisers on a child’s bike. As the child submits to having stabilisers they will gradually learn the manner in which to ride their bike. The stabilisers are there to be removed once the child has learnt the basic lessons. From that point forward they still have to observe basic rules of balance and the like, but they are given a freedom that far exceeds that which the child with stabilisers enjoys. Legalists are like those who want to put stabilisers back onto the gifted cyclist’s bike or refuse to ever remove the stabilisers.

    You speak of freedom primarily in terms of freedom from sin. However, it seems to me that the Scripture goes beyond this sense of freedom to speak of something more. The period of the Law is characterized as a period of being under guardians prior to the coming of freedom. Here the Law is not seen as the ‘Law of sin and death’ but merely as the Law that the people of God are subject to in their minority. Freedom is not so much deliverance from sin as the responsibilities and privileges which are given to one who has arrived at a new level of maturity.

    Now that the people of God have ‘come of age’ in Christ they are given the freedom that comes with maturity. They are given the house and car keys and their own credit card. They are trusted to be grown up enough to organize their own time and finances. This is a freedom that only comes through obedience, but it still represents a significant movement beyond the sort of ‘freedom’ that was enjoyed under the Law. In the gospel the people of God are addressed as grown-ups (even in the commandments), rather than as children.

    I have argued in the past that the Scripture presents us with a development of biblical authority and that, in the New Covenant, Scripture is increasingly to be seen as something that authorizes us, rather than as something that primarily exercises authority over us (see here and here). I think that such a perspective can help us to understand some of the ways in which the language of freedom is appropriate.

    Hope that this helps clarify my position.

  5. robert p says:

    Hi AL.
    According to Ray Comfort (and probably Spurgeon, Finney and other revivalists) the OT Law should be strongly asserted to produce conviction of sin, awareness of God’s righteous requirements, with the hopeful result of Godly fear and awareness of a day of Judgement. Only then, to repentant hearts, should the Gospel of grace be preached.

    “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”

    BUT personally instead of hellfire+brimstone, I’d prefer a more gentle approach to winning souls.

    Interested in your thoughts.

  6. Seth says:

    That does help, thanks Al.

    The links to your previous posts were helpful too. If we place this discussion about freedom in the context of your previous post on the ontology of Scripture (the one about the need to hear and inhabit Scripture via the liturgy), then I think I can better explain some of my reservations.

    The Church that I see is like an adolescent who has been given some freedom and ends up throwing a party while the parents are out of town. We haven’t used our freedom wisely. We haven’t inhabited Scripture. We don’t even know the Psalms!

    Our new stage of freedom and maturation has been “inaugurated” but is far from being lived out as a practical reality. I doubt that the Church can, in its present state, just start being the free (kingly, mature) church it is supposed to be without going through a long stage of more basic discipleship (and discipline).

    My guess is that we could say the same of most individual Christians too (including myself). To use an analogy of Wright’s that you pick up on: if the Bible is like a Shakespearean play and we are actors who are supposed to freely/maturely improvise a 5th act, then we had better spend some time as apprentices learning the previous four acts. Then we will be in a better position to live out our freedom.

    In the meantime, I am more comfortable speaking of our freedom in much the same that way we often speak of eschatology: as a tension between the already and the not yet.


  7. Al says:


    Thanks for your question. I am personally very wary of any attempt to make any particular approach to evangelism normative. I don’t believe that we ought to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to evangelism. The gospel is multi-faceted and certain aspects of the gospel message will be more prominent when we present it in certain situations and certain other aspects will become more prominent in others. I find James Jordan’s thoughts on the subject (summarized at the beginning of this post) quite illuminating on this issue.

    I also fear that such an approach to evangelism relies too much on a exegetically suspect reading of the Pauline epistles, most particularly of verses such as Galatians 3:24. Such approaches to evangelism have traditionally often been accompanied with a certain set of psychological stages that the potential convert must be led through. I have yet to see any convincing argument for the scriptural character of such a method.

    Such approaches place far too much weight on the significance of initial conversion. The attempt is made to ensure ‘sound’ conversions and to make certain that faith is genuine and not temporary. However, in Scripture far, far less weight is placed on initial conversion. The important thing in Scripture is perseverance and growth. The Sower sows the seed liberally, even where the ground will prevent the seed from bearing the desired fruit.

    I see no reason why a potential convert need be presented with hell and divine judgment immediately in order for them to come to faith. It is certainly not wrong to do so, but people can be converted without knowing a single thing about hell or the Law. The important thing is that we water and encourage the growth and survival of the seed of the Word that has taken root in the convert, not that we ensure that the ground is good before we ever plant the seed.

    In addition to all of this, I tend to be suspicious of method-based evangelism, simply because we are dealing with human beings. I am inclined to favour approaches to evangelism that are creative, flexible and which try to address people where they are, rather than trying to place them onto the conveyor belt of some evangelistic method. Such evangelistic methods have the tendency to produce clones, as they often fail to address the potential convert as a unique person, demonstrating the way that the gospel speaks into their particular situation. Rather, they simply give a generic message, which falls quite far short of that which I believe to be biblical evangelism.

  8. pduggie says:

    “The Church’s chief duty is to cultivate an ethos, not to enforce an ethic.”

    Awww, can’t it be both/and?

  9. Al says:


    I believe that the Church is also called to enforce an ethic. My point is that this is not the Church’s chief duty. Cultivating an ethos is the more important and primary task.

  10. robert p says:

    Thanks for your insights. Certain evangelism techniques have always made me feel uncomfortable, inauthentic, and like a clone. I feel better about cultivating human relationships (community) rather than propositional logic (legalism).

  11. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.