The Slippery Slope Of Post-Gospel Legalism

It has been called the greatest enemy of the Gospel.  Just a little ruins everything.  It is sneaky, sly and often goes unnoticed.  It is ingrained in all of humanity.  Yes, we are talking about legalism. 

Most Christians are familiar with the term of legalism.  Who doesn’t like to read about how Jesus went after the Pharisees in Matthew 23, for they were a bunch of tightly wound legalistic nitpicks.  It invigorates us to see Jesus knock their check list clip boards from their hands and rumble their theological law-driven worldview. 

As Christians it is all too easy for us to point our fingers at the Pharisees and say, “I am glad I will never be like them.”  The only problem is that by nature we are them.  A pastor in a sermon once said something to the effect, “We forget that the Pharisees were the good guys!  They were the Bible believing conservatives of the day.  If we were alive during the time of Jesus, these Pharisees would be on our team!” 

The problem with legalism is that it is in tune with our sinful nature (i.e. our old Adam).  As Christians we continually struggle with legalism for it resonates with the old-Adam, it jives with our normal way of thinking and resonates with the worldview of what Ecclesiastes calls, “life under the sun.” 

It is believed by the author, that the average Christian has enough of a Biblical base to recognize the hazardous teachings of Pre-Gospel Legalism.  Pre-Gospel Legalism occurs when: one imposes requirements, hoops or duties as prerequisites[1] that need to be earned, obtained or acquired so that one may receive God's forgiveness and acceptance in Christ.  Pre-Gospel Legalism occurs for the purpose of mankind acquiring salvation, which leads to a man-centered theology.  Pre-Gospel Legalism injects human effort into justification which results in a law-based justification theology.  In Pre-Gospel Legalism, mankind’s legalistic agenda exists before or pre-conditions the Gospel.  As previously stated, the author of this article believes that there is enough of a Biblical base for the average Christian to see the unscriptural truths of Pre-Gospel Legalism, for the average Christian knows that the forgiveness of sins, credited righteousness and eternal life are ascribed to and come from Jesus Christ and Him alone. 

The problem that arises with legalism is not in the area of Pre-Gospel Legalism but in the area of what is called Post-Gospel Legalism.  Post-Gospel Legalism happens when: one codifies[2] the response to the gospel by prescribing what the response to the gospel should mean, when it should happen, how it should happen, how it should be done, how often it should happen and where it should happen so as to legitimize God's forgiveness and acceptance in Christ.[3]  Post-gospel legalism occurs for the purpose of mankind legitimizing salvation, which leads to a man-centered theology.  Post-gospel legalism injects a man-centered narrative into sanctification which results in a law-based sanctification theology.  In Post-Gospel Legalism, mankind’s legalistic agenda exists after initially receiving and hearing the Gospel; the Gospel is post-conditioned. 

What makes legalism tragic and toxic is that one can reject and abhor Pre-Gospel Legalism while at the same time subconsciously slip into Post-Gospel Legalism.  In other words, one can confess a gospel-centered understanding of salvation and simultaneously contradict and undercut this gospel-centered view of salvation with a law-centered view of what it looks like in living out the Christian life.  For example: Jesus accomplished salvation for me and now “I” need to legitimize it; Jesus saved me, past tense, and now “I” must figure out how to live in the present and stay saved; the gospel has given me eternal life and now I need 10 steps so that “I” can live my paramount life in the present day.  Dreadfully, Post-Gospel Legalism can actually bleed back into the foundational truths of our salvation and infect our whole salvation existence in Christ.[4]

Man-centered prerequisites that are prescribed so that one might acquire salvation undercut the finished work of Christ.  Equally as dangerous are man-centered codified responses that are prescribed so that one might legitimize salvation, for this also undercuts the finished work of Christ.  The reason being, anytime mankind takes credit for acquiring or legitimizing salvation, the emphasis is taken off of Christ’s atonement and placed on mankind, the accent mark is moved off of Christ.  It is Christ and solely Christ that acquires and legitimizes salvation for us, anything less waters down or confuses the message of the Gospel and strips away assurance.

In Hebrews 12:2 we see that Jesus is the “founder” and “perfector” of our faith.  Generally speaking, our initial faith is a gift of the Water-Word and we are also sustained day to day by the Spirit through the Word and the Lord's Table.  Quite frankly Jesus saved us, Jesus saves us, and Jesus will continue to save us!  As Christians we need Jesus just as much today as we did yesterday and the day before.  Growth in the Christian life isn’t growth from dependence to independence but rather growth from independence to dependence; it is growth into Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, not away from it.[5]  Pre and Post-Gospel Legalism promote and teach the exact opposite, that we should move to independence so that we can try to establish and perfect our own faith.

The underlining premise in scripture and the Christian life is that it is all about Jesus.  May these sins of Pre and Post-Gospel Legalism be continually exposed and crucified in us by God’s Word of Law.  May God through His Word of Gospel and Sacraments strengthen our faith and protect us from the slippery slope of Post-Gospel Legalism.  May God through His Word and Sacraments sanctify us away from self to dependence upon Christ. 

Jesus is the founder and perfector of our faith.  He has already met the prerequisites and legitimized salvation for us, and best of all… 
            …He gives it to us as a gift! 

[1] Prerequisites such as: one needs to reach a certain standard of moral perfection and rid himself of certain moral vices so that he can obtain forgiveness; one needs to do good Christian deeds in order to exchange these deeds for forgiveness; one needs to improve his socio-economic standing in order to be worthy of receiving grace; etc…
[2] Codified responses such as: one needs to pray for ‘X’ amount of time per day at specific times with a specific formula to validate that they are really a committed believer; one needs to listen only to praise music or only hymnal music because that is the music of choice for faithful believers; one needs to do family devotions in a specified manner from a specific book to be a true family man of God; one needs to evangelize to ‘X’ amount of people per day in a certain evangelism technique in order to show that they are truly disciples of Christ, etc...
[3] Pastor Patrick Thurmer, Legalism (, May 16, 2010.
[4] See Galatians 5:9
[5] See Matthew 18:1-4

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Anonymous said…
But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches. I Cor 7:17
Tony Lombardo said…
Nice job Matt! Well stated. I really like the "pre vs. post" distinctions. This issue is so insidious in the church today. It has become a rampant problem that isn't addressed nearly enough.
Anonymous said…
True. Ironically, my most recent and vicious experience of post-Gospel legalism has come from the hands of a few fellow confessional Lutherans who, not very divinely, have fallen on their swords over their particular practice of the "divine service" and insistence that everything and everyone else is wrong. Confessional legalism is post-Gospel legalism.