the new legalism?

Anthony Bradley’s essay in World magazine is receiving some well-deserved attention. If that piqued your interest and you want to read more on the subject, I highly recommend Larry Osborne’s recent book, Accidental Pharisees.

 Osborne wisely and pastorally explains how we’re never free from the temptation to legalism. In fact, the more zeal we have for God the more we’ll be tempted to look down on those who don’t measure up (p. 46). And so we become “accidental Pharisees.” But is there any other kind? No one becomes a legalist on purpose.

Osborne cites five kinds of Christians who can easily become Pharisaical about what they care about most (p. 92-94):

1. Radical Christians:  these people think generosity is most important, and while they are careful not to give out a list, they are suspicious of Christians who live in large houses and drive expensive cars. Their parents’ generation worried about beer in the refrigerator; they worry about BMWs in the driveway.

2. Crazy Christians:  these earnest believers think that you’re only committed to God if you’re taking wild leaps of faith, getting yourself in trouble to see if God won’t bail you out. They suppose that normal Christians who punch a time clock and pay their mortgage on time probably aren’t as committed to Christ as they should be. What these “crazy Christians” forget is that they’re only free to take their risks because of the normal jobholders who have saved enough money to help them should they fall (p. 188).

3. Missional Christians:  these counter-cultural Christians think the badge of discipleship is earned by volunteering in a soup kitchen, tutoring at risk children, or moving from the suburbs to the inner city. They are suspicious of anyone whose life is too comfortable (there seems to be some overlap among these first three categories).

4. Gospel-Centered Christians:  these Christians are my favorites, because we care about right doctrine and everything written by John Calvin. However, if we’re not careful we can look down our noses at those believers, usually Arminians, who haven’t quite figured out the right way to think about God.

5. Revolutionary and Organic Christians:  these people are disillusioned with the traditional church and think that the most committed Christians are those who attend house churches. As with the missional and gospel-centered Christians, they are often suspicious of those who attend large “seeker” churches.

Osborne is not against each of these priorities per se, but simply warns us against turning a good thing into our god. We may have good reasons for our good thing (after all, it’s good for a reason), but we must avoid the trap of thinking that everyone has to live like us.

Osborne’s book is full of many helpful and liberating ideas. Here are a couple:

1. “Evangelists, pastors, teachers, ministry leaders, church planters, and missionaries have a public platform that makes it easy for them to present a model of discipleship that looks an awful lot like them. Their self-congratulatory stories and natural built-in bias toward God has called them to do can leave the rest of us wondering what’s wrong with us” (p. 173).

2. Osborne thinks that zealous Christians should balance their use of the Gospels with an equal emphasis on Paul’s epistles. While it’s true that Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything to follow him, it’s equally true that Paul encouraged Christians to lead a normal life, quietly working with their hands so they wouldn’t be a burden to others (1 Thess. 4:11-12). We need a Christian faith that makes sense of both kinds of passages.

I intend to try. In the Fall I have a book on faith and doubt coming out that will address a portion of this (I will argue against the radical and crazy guys—the Steve Martins of evangelicalism?—that faith is committing to what you know, not to what you don’t), and this summer and fall I will be researching and writing a book that takes the question straight on—can we serve Jesus and still enjoy our lives? How do we integrate the redemptive purpose of heaven with the earthly pleasures of creation? Until then, and perhaps even after then, I heartily commend Larry Osborne’s provocative and liberating book, Accidental Pharisees.



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24 responses to “the new legalism?”

  1. Looking forward to both books.

  2. Dawn Elliott

    So, which 80s title could embrace the new book?

  3. Mike, I haven’t read Accidental Pharisees but in the Bradley piece I felt as though the term “legalism” was being used a little too broadly. In a narrow sense it means works-based salvation but I don’t think many advocates of “missional”/”radical” are really guilty of holding to a works-based salvation theology. They may be guilty of “looking down” on other Christians but that doesn’t mean they don’t think they’re saved by grace. It’s still a problem (pride maybe?), I just don’t think “legalism” is the right term to describe the problem. What do you think?

  4. mikewittmer

    Don’t have a song. The working title is “Worldly Saints: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in this Fallen World.”

    Good catch, Steven. I agree that no one is saying you have to live a certain way in order to be saved, but there can easily creep in an attitude that says this is the way all good Christians live. I’ve had the experience of reading some of these books and wondering if I can possibly be saved, given that I live in the suburbs, drive a new car (finally!), and don’t feel unduly pinched in any significant way. David Platt’s church cut Goldfish crackers from his church’s preschool ministry to give more money to missions. I applaud the spirit behind such sacrifice, but worry that this could easily breed a type of legalism. Once we cut out earthly pleasures for heavenly purpose, where does it reasonably end?

  5. Mike, I’m with you on all of that. I guess would just prefer different terminology. Legalism makes me think of the problem described in Galatians (not circumcised, not saved). This seems more like the problem in Romans 14 (you second-class Christian eating meat sacrificed to idols!). I’m not sure both are really legalism. One calls for better salvation theology. The other calls for more balance and humility. Now… if only I could think of a word for it. ‘The New Judgmentalism’ doesn’t have that same ring.

  6. Mike, this is a great post! I laughed and I was convicted. Thanks bro and keep it up!

  7. Seth Horton

    Let me know when you find the Biblical argument against being too generous and concerned for others. I’ve been trying to exegetically defend my in-born selfishness and greed and keep coming up empty.

  8. Eric Schlukebir

    Pretty good thoughts here, but the difficult part as always is to challenge these mindsets without presenting an unfair caricature of what those movements are really about. This is my issue with Bradley’s article. His problem with missional and radical is that he thinks it precludes someone from “living a quiet life” or having a normal job. Which is exactly what I have learned missional to be about. How can I be a gospel presence in the context where God has called me, whether that be a school teacher, or a nurse, an artist, accountant, or mom, etc?

    We probably need to find some sort of balance between all 5 perspectives.

    I like Osbourne’s point about pastor’s and teachers presenting a model of discipleship that looks like them. It seems to highlight the problem of separating discipleship from relationship. If I am only preaching from a platform, it would be discouraging, if I am actively discipling someone I can help them to learn to do it in the way that is more consistent with their own gifts and passions.

  9. Doug Blackwell

    Thanks for the Osborne info…

    As for the term “legalism” – it seems that our culture has developed a broader semantic range of the word. Bible-believing churches that proclaim the gospel of grace are commonly referred to as being “legalistic” because of their emphasis on a particular way of living (e.g. rules). Typically these churches talk about having “high standards” or describe themselves as being “conservative”. In any case, I find Osborne’s categories thought-provoking and helpful.

  10. Hey Mike, Just FYI, but Leland Ryken has a book on the Puritans titled “World Saints.” You probably knew that, but just in case…

  11. “Worldly Saints” that is… Sorry about the type-o. The new books sounds great though!

  12. mikewittmer

    Thanks, Nate. That one is older, so we’re hoping it’s okay. Or we might go with “Living as Worldly Saints.” My favorite subtitle, which we can’t use, is “Don’t Let Jesus Steal Your Joy.”

  13. Steve

    Hi, guys. Thanks for the solid discussion. I think, historically, the term ‘legalism’ may be appropriately used to describe both how to enter into the kingdom (the Galatians question) and how to maintain yourself once in (this after all was the way of the Pharisees – they believed they were part of the kingdom by birth, but far superior to everyone else by their adherence to the law). The use here is with regard to the second understanding, and this understanding of the word has been in use for a long, long time. The issue here is not a broadening of the term by the authors mentioned, but a reducing of the term by others.

  14. […] If anyone is interested they can read Dr. Witmer’s post here> […]

  15. While I agree that missional is a vague term, I wonder where Osbone and bradley are getting their ideas of what it means. Newbingen and Keller are ur-missional, and are not lightweights to be characterized as Osbone does.

    Missional is the opposite of attractional: that the CHURCH exists for the life of the world, not for people to wander in an d find it, so it has to GO out and do.

  16. Jamie

    You wrote, “Osborne thinks that zealous Christians should balance their use of the Gospels with an equal emphasis on Paul’s epistles. While it’s true that Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything to follow him, it’s equally true that Paul encouraged Christians to lead a normal life, quietly working with their hands so they wouldn’t be a burden to others (1 Thess. 4:11-12). We need a Christian faith that makes sense of both kinds of passages”.

    Isn’t it true that the reason Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give to the poor was because the rich young ruler still thought that he was good? Christ was showing him that he was finding his identity in his riches instead of Christ. It’s all about Christ! Every exhortation in the Bible is in light of what Christ did for us. R C Sproul has an awesome sermon on the parable of the rich young ruler from the Christless Christianity conference. When we read the Bible as a list of imperatives, I believe that we have missed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The law says “do”, the Gospel says “done”. I would encourage every Christian wrestling with these kinds of issues to read Michael Horton’s book Christless Christianity. “The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for justification and sanctification. The fruit of faith is real; it’s just not the same as the fruit of works-righteousness”. ~ Michael Horton

    “Holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing and realizing of the Gospel in our souls”. ~ John Owen (John 17:17, sanctification)

  17. Jim

    It’s a great book. Very insightful and convicting. I highly recommend it too!

  18. Here’s my attempt to make the case that we use the term “legalism” too broadly.

  19. […] the new legalism? ( […]

  20. This is a great article and I found it very helpful. Perhaps you’ve seen the “Elephant Room”? I thought James McDonald did a good job of pushing back (with grace) in addressing David Platt, in particular. This is a healthy discussion we need to keep having. It seems like evangelicals have a tendency to swing like a pendulum in our emphasis. i.e. in responding to the “social gospel” (early 20th cent. liberalism) we focused heavily on soul-winning, personal evangelism, but more recently emphasized the “hands and feet” aspects of redemption (caring for poor, orphans, widows, etc.) as in “Radical.” We don’t abandon our preaching of salvation by grace alone, but remember to embrace the other redemptive aspects of the gospel in our culture. I wonder if we tend to “overcorrect” in an effort to embrace the whole counsel of scripture.

  21. When you start your Fall project and need a consultant on “earthly pleasures”, give me a call.

  22. mikewittmer

    God is going to judge you harshly, I’m afraid. So tell me, do you sing your bluegrass songs ironically?


    A favorite defense for those who do not want to obey God’s terms for pardon, is to label strict obedience to God as Phariseeism. Is Phariseeism keeping God’s law to the letter?

    LEGALISM DEFINED: Strict and literal adherence to law.

    Were the Pharisees guilty of legalism? No they were not. The Pharisees practiced illegalism. They were not legal.

    Matthew 26:59 Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, so they might put Him to death.

    Is obtaining false testimony an example of strict adherence to God’s law?

    Matthew 28:11-13…the chief priests…12 And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers. 13 and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and sole Him away while we were asleep.’

    Is conspiring to bribe men to lie, strict adherence to God’s law?

    Matthew 23:14[ Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.]

    Was devouring widow’s houses an example of legalism or illegalism? Were the Pharisees literally following God’s law by devouring widows’ houses?

    Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law; justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.

    Jesus did not reprimand the Pharisees for their strict compliance to God’s law? No, it was the exact opposite. The Pharisees were neglecting strict obedience to the law.


    The legalism of the Pharisees was because they followed man-made traditions, not because they followed God’s law to the letter.

    Mark 7:1-7 …..5 The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the traditions of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” 6 And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips. But their heart is far from Me, 7 ‘But in vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrine the precepts of men.’

    Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for teaching the traditions of Men. Jesus did not scold them for literal obedience to God’s laws.

    Mark 7:8 Neglecting the commandments of God, you hold to the traditions of men.”

    The Pharisees were not practicing legalism by strict obedience to God’s law. They were illegal for neglecting God’s commandments and keeping man-made traditions.

    Is teaching what Jesus said in, Mark 16:16, being Pharisaical.
    (Mark 16: He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved….)

    Would it be a tradition of men to say that “has been baptized shall be saved?” No it would not; it would the words of Jesus Christ.

    To claim that Christians are practicing the legalism of the Pharisees because they say you have to be obedient to God’s terms for pardon in order to be saved, is factually incorrect.




    A. FAITH: John 3:16
    B. REPENTANCE: Acts 2:38
    C. CONFESSION: Romans 10:9-10
    D. WATER BAPTISM: 1 Peter 3:20-21

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY BLOG. Google search>>>steve finnell a christian view

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