Biblical Womanhood, Quotes, Thinking Biblically

Application is Not Legalism

“There are many pastors today who, for fear of being branded ‘legalists’, give their congregation no ethical teaching. How far we have strayed from the apostles! ‘Legalism’ is the misguided attempt to earn our salvation by obedience to the law. ‘Pharisaism’ is a preoccupation with the externals and minutiae of religious duty. To teach the standards of moral conduct which adorn the gospel is neither legalism nor pharisaism but plain apostolic Christianity.” (Stott, Between Two Worlds, p. 158). (emphasis added)




I read this on Douglas Wilson’s blog this morning, but, I think it is such a great quote, I wanted to “file” it here for myself…and to share it with you, too.


This fear of being branded a “legalist” or a “Pharisee” is not limited to pastors.  I have seen it often in the lives of lay Christians as well (myself included!).


We need to remember that careful, thoughtful, and prayerful application of Scripture is not legalism.


  1. Amy

    Very interesting view point. I am not sure I see the same exact thing in the Catholic church, as in people being worried about being labeled a legalist. We agree that we cannot earn our salvation. But there are many who feel or think that is what they need to do because they don’t believe God loves them unless they do well. In fact I think I used to be one. I think more so I see people who are afraid to preach about sin because it does not seem relevant to our culture of any thing goes. I especially see it in the area of abortion-the pastors seem afraid to preach on it for fear of offending those who have made that “choice.” But they want and need to know that God forgives them. So forgivness should be emphasised while not down playing the evil of sin.

  2. Amy,
    What we do, or do not do, does not make God love us more or less. He loved us “while we were still sinners,” and completely UNloveable. Yes, we need to teach forgiveness. But, teaching grace and forgiveness without an understanding of the hideousness of sin is pointless. It is not true grace.
    You are right, in this culture “anything goes.” All the more reason to teach the whole gospel – starting with the fact that we are wretched sinners, incapable of earning God’s favor, or our salvation…And ending with the amazing message of God’s unconditional gift of grace and mercy through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son – Jesus Christ!!

  3. I am going to be really honest here and say that I’m not a fan of Doug Wilson. He’s of the covenant theology …if he’s the Doug Wilson that I think he is. I have some close friends who have come out of covenant theology and they ARE prone to rules & legalism.
    But that’s another topic in itself, but what I would like to address is what modivates you to good works? Is it God’s love? Is it the gospel? If you are just going down a list of what you need to do today to be a Christian – that’s legalism. If you wake up in the morning and you’re amazed with the fact that God loved a sinner like you that he would save you and if that is what modivates you to love & good deeds…that a faith modivated by the gospel. Christ work on the cross is finished….He doesn’t need us to add anything to it. Are your deeds modivated by the love of Christ and what He did for you? “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died & was raised.” 2 Cor 5:14-15
    1 John 4:19 “We love because He first loved us.” Galatians 2: 20-21 “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
    I do what I do because I am in love with Christ and its Him living through me…not for any other reason. That’s a Christian…not because of what others say I need to do, or think of me, or expect from me BUT because I want to for the mere purpose of living my life for Christ.

    1. Geldie,
      I am not necessarily a “fan” of Douglas Wilson either, in that, although I appreciate some of his writing/teaching, I do not agree with everything he says. However, the above quote was not his, it was by John Stott. (As a side note, the Douglas Wilson I referred to, and provided a link to, is the one who blogs at “Blog and Mablog.”)
      This post was not intended to be an endorsement of Douglas Wilson or Covenantal Theology. While I would not label myself as covenantal, that does not mean that I cannot appreciate the wisdom of, or learn from our brothers and sisters (in Christ) who do embrace covenantal theology. But, whether a person is covenantal or dispensational – we are all equally susceptible to falling into legalism.
      The point of the quote, at least as I saw it, was simply to point out that clear, practical application of Scripture (which, I would add, should come from careful, thoughtful, and prayerful study) is not legalism.
      Joyful obedience to God’s Word, is (or should be) a result of and response to God’s grace in my life.

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