What’s wrong with Legalism?

2 10 2008

It is well known that legalism has been labeled as a dangerous and erroneous interpretation of the living out of the Christian faith. Rightly so because at the deepest level, it misconstrues the concept of grace, but on other levels it gives too much “capacity to do right” to a human being and on the flip side of the same coin, it underestimates the phrase, “total depravity of man.” Interestingly, Peter Brown points out another way of explaining why legalism is so spiritually unhealthy. In his discussion of Pelagius and Augustine in Augustine of Hippo, Brown points out how motivation of fear can lead to legalism. On page 372:

“It is Pelagius, not Augustine, who harps on the terrors of the Last Judgement: to which Augustine simply remarked that ‘a man who is afraid of sinning because of Hell-fire, is afraid, not of sinning, but of burning’.”

In a sense, Augustine is saying that if you try not to do bad things in order to avoid the “fires of hell” then you don’t really hate evil things, you just want to end up in the right place regardless of whether or not you are good or evil. It is a motivation of fear, or self-preservation. It doesn’t seem much different from lying to save your back. Then, on the flip side, if we cannot purely and fully hate evil (inside and outside of us) then are we living legalistic lives?




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