Vos, Misconceptions, and Legalism

Those who have survived the fury of legalism,1 understand its deadly claim on individuals. After many years under legalistic teaching one begins to realize that the overwhelming nature of duty can never be alleviated or diminished by/through the nature of grace. Legalism, as a particular adherence to a code, may in a powerful sense be Screwtape’s tool to entrap the young and vigor-filled Christian.

No one living in a monarchy will deny obedience to his new king, especially if disobedience means death. Nevertheless, the reality is in the nature of this obedience. What is obedience? Further, why is legalism so detrimental in light of the clear commands of the ever-relevant law-word of God? It is answering the second question that one finds some clue into the first. My assumption, unlike so many, is that the Old Testament revelation bears both ethical and salvific ramifications for the New Covenant Christian. The central problem in understanding these sorts of questions is that the idea of “legalism” has been so injuriously associated with the Old Covenant laws and demands. However, nothing could be further from the truth. It is in the Old Testament where the Orthodoxical Shema is first given; it is in the pages of the Old (er) Testament where the command to love our neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) is made first explicit; and it is in the Old Testament where the grace of God is pervasive in the lives of the saints despite their many eggeregious sins. Hence, my contention is that if any case law, ceremonial or moral law is to be interpreted, it is to be interpreted in the context of grace; totus gratia.

The Reformed heritage and its current manifestation have not carefully sorted through such nuances. Sonship theology has exercised little time in considering the Old Testament demands of obedience for fear that it may make modern Christians “legalists.” The fact is modern Christian are miles away from the dreaded, and, rightly so, despised idea of legalism. Modermn Christians are too pagan to even become legalists. Let me note, lest it be misunderstood, that legalism is not in any sense equivalent to obedience to Old Testament law. It is rather the opposite of faithfulness to God’s law, since legalism makes God’s revelation irrelevant and substitutes it with man’s code or standard. Any time autonomous man makes laws and regulations outside of Biblical imperative he has become a legalist. Hence, legalism is obeying laws that find no Biblical grounds;2 and as a result, using that pseudo obedience to attain something that they cannot earn.

Legalism and faithfulness to covenant demands are diametrically opposed. In popular discourse, the two ideas have been used interchangeably when in reality they do not belong in the same sentence, except to explain their great contrast. Micah 6:8 tells us:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

If to do these things is being understood as legalism, then I want all of it. But far from legalism this is God’s command to His covenant children of all ages. Fidelity and faithfuless to the covenant demands express loyalty; a loyalty that is grounded on grace from beginning to end. The problem with evangelicalism is anti-nomianism. After all, when was the last time you heard a pastor castigating his parishioners for doing too much for God’s kingdom? The opposite is true; parishioners are castigated for being too detached from their Christianity.

On the other hand, (In stark contrast to Sonship theology) the Reformed faith has also been castigated for its Puritan heritage, which some have labeled as legalistic.3 Geerhardus Vos summarizes the criticism:

A consciousness of strict accountability in view of God’s sovereign rights over man has always characterized the Reformed religion, even to such extent as to invite the charge that its puritanic practice savors of a spirit of legalism more at home in the Old Testament than in the New.4

Later Vos defines legalism as those who “obey but do not adore.” Two comments will suffice at this point and the first one is that there ought not to be any distinction between the ethical demands of the Old and New Testaments. If we are aware of the nature of the sacrificial system, then the Christo-centric implications and the ethical implications will leave no doubt that Christ in no sense ever eliminated or abolished the Old Testament obligations for the New Testament believer. Such distinctions are dangerously Marcionite. The second observation is that Vos’ definition is in some sense flawed if one should observe that the very nature of Old Testament law is doxological. You cannot claim to obey the law (first commandment) and yet not adore Jehovah alone.

As a final point, obedience, true obedience, stems from an inward response. It is gratitude to God’s grace, but it is also loyalty to God’s kingship over our lives. In the end, legalism offers death, but God’s laws offer life and to obey Him is the Christian’s delight.


  1. For instance, in the case of Renee Altson in her book: Stumbling Toward Faith [ back]
  2. Fundamentalists here can list a vast selection of do’s and dont’s. [ back]
  3. One may be aware of the idea of something being Puritanical to indicate it is too strict or tedious [ back]
  4. Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, pg. 232 [ back]

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
This entry was posted in Christian Liberty, Christian Living, Ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

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