“What is Legalism?” by John Preus

04 Feb

Wrong Werner. False structure: “Law denotes our entire reality as the realm ordered by God, but therefore also as a realm of coercion” (CE, 81). (312, The Necessary Distinction).


Reprinted with permission from John Preus. Original post on Confessional Lutheran Fellowship.

Legalism is not telling people what they should do. Jesus tells us what we should do all the time. Legalism is demanding a law if one is going to do anything he doesn’t want to. Legalists are under the law. They are not free. Everything they do is either what comes naturally or what they are forced to do against their will.

That is why legalists are so often, if not always, enthusiasts. They equate their natural desires with desires that God implanted quite apart from any external command.

That is also why legalists are so often, though not always, bullies. They can only function with absolutes, because they are not free to confess as children — whether in concert or solo — but only dare permit and promote what they think everyone must permit and promote. They think they are defending freedom when they resist what has no command to give it force — even though it might be profitable and edifying. But really, they are just showing that they will only be persuaded by anything if it has a coercive law to drive it. Everything beyond the law must be 100% neutral and neither here nor there. They despise wisdom.

Those who are under grace are free. They acknowledge the law. But their behavior is not governed by contrary impositions of the law, but rather by agreement with God of what is good. It’s not about permission. It’s about having the mind of Christ and seeking to follow his example, not just in deed, but in outlook and expression, in demeanor and understanding. Christian tradition and culture has never purported to arise from divine command, but from obedience to the gospel and from the discipline and exercise of Christian faith that aims to pursue and confess the good and beautiful, etc.

Legalists say either “you must” or “I don’t have to.”

Children simply ask why. They don’t sneer. They inquire of their wiser big sister or of their kind dad whom they trust. They do so with content and curious heart. Where they are not bound, as they must often be, they flourish in creating what they know is pleasing, because they seek, not a longer leash, but broader understanding into the affairs of both home and world at large.

Hands are often tied by circumstance when it comes to such issues as cremation –or, for that matter, lack of ceremony when hearing God’s word, or amount of formal education a minister receives before he is ordained (examples abound!). These are not legal issues. There is no command. That’s precisely why there is so much at stake when the notion of adiaphora becomes a foil for wise and edifying counsel and tradition. Pastors labor to teach Christ’s sheep –both grieving and jubilant– how best to express what they hope for and expect from God, how best to praise, how best to mourn.

Christian burial has been a practice since the beginning that arose from both God’s example and his children’s understanding of what it taught and confessed. So have many such things that our fathers and mothers handed down. To suggest that cremation might also confess the same, or that it arose as a practice by means of similar appreciation of the promise of the resurrection is preposterous. It is as preposterous as saying that drive-thru seminary training arose from the same zeal for the truth as a three-year curriculum (think Jesus and his disciples) or that entertainment worship arose from the same joy of the forgiveness of sins as the Lutheran Common Service and our Lutheran chorales (think Revivalism vs. Reformation). This is legalism masquerading as the defender of freedom. Just because there is no command against something, does not mean the reasons for doing it are just as fine as the reasons for avoiding it. Just because you are not damned for a, b, or c, does not mean that there is not a better way (1 Corinthians 12:31).

This is Pharisaical, which eschews love in the name of the law. This is how the Pharisees regarded the 4th Commandment (Mark 7). But God rejected their Korban! Should it shock us if the same spirit of legalism causes folks to cast off and even despise those things that father and mother passed down to us — that it may go well with us and that we live long on the earth — even as we confess that from it we were taken and from it we will be raised?



Posted by on February 4, 2018 in Uncategorized


2 responses to ““What is Legalism?” by John Preus

  1. delwyncampbell

    May 7, 2019 at 3:36 am

    So, based upon what you have written, I should not walk away from what was handed down by MY forebears who came to Christ out of the cotton and cane fields. They did not know the Chorales, but they knew that there was a freedom that neither whip nor overseer could take away, and they put that in their songs, songs that your forebears knew nothing about.
    Sadly, many times when I read words such as yours, I cannot help but hear that your expressions concerning and to God were more sacred than mine. It wasn’t the songs from the Lutheran Hymnal that got my ancestors through the furnace of affliction in America. Did they get EVERYTHING right? No – but they didn’t get everything WRONG either. Only Jesus got EVERYTHING right; the rest of us are “leaning and depending on” Him whether they came to him because of the confrontations of the Reformation or the evangelistic fervor of the Revival. It wasn’t a “different Jesus,” nor was it “another Gospel.” It was just a different time, a different culture, and a different language. It was the God of all grace who delivered Europe from the Papal AntiChrist, and it was the God of all grace who delivered America from the bondage of slavery. “It’s the same God with the same story. From glory to glory, we will praise Him.”

    • Nathan A. Rinne

      May 20, 2019 at 5:07 pm

      Pastor Campbell,

      Thanks for your comment here. Even though John Preus wrote the above, and you are responding to him, I’m inclined to basically agree with what you write here. I think when we Lutherans speak against something like “contemporary worship” for example, most will make a distinction between kinds of worship which arise out of “folk culture” and are clearly very emotional and songs that arise out of a more “pop culture” mileau, where all kinds of methods are a part of those songs in an effort to create and manufacture an emotional experience with really very little desire to inculcate good theology which meets the deepest human needs. Wonder what you might think of this old post I did years ago:



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