Real Love and Real Liberty, Part 1 by Phil Johnson

Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Galatians 5:13-14

The legalist masquerades as a lover of the law, but in reality, he turns the law on its head. “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Romans 13:9). Scripture furthermore says the law of Christ is best fulfilled when we “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

By contrast, legalism weighs people down with burdens too heavy to be borne. It adds manmade rules to the precepts of Scripture. It saddles God’s people with duties He never commanded. It tries to make self look better by magnifying others’ shame. That is the exact antithesis of love. There is no more egregious way of twisting and corrupting the true intent of God’s law.


People who like to bind others’ consciences with their own rules and restrictions sometimes defend themselves against charges of legalism with a clever diversionary tactic. True legalism, they say, is the brand of false teaching Paul condemned in Galatians 1—the error of making some prerequisite work or religious ceremony a condition of justification. By that narrow definition, a legalist is someone who believes in salvation by works. Therefore, they say, as long as you formally affirm the principle of sola fide (faith as the sole instrument of justification), you can’t legitimately be labeled a legalist, no matter how many rules you make and impose on people who are already converted.

A better definition of legalism would be one that echoes Galatians 5:1. Legalism is the error of abandoning our liberty in Christ in order to take on a yoke of legal bondage in the hope that this will earn merit or gain favor with God. There are actually two flavors of legalism expressly condemned in Scripture.

First is the one recognized and despised even by the strict fundamentalist with his thick rule-book. It’s the legalism of the Judaizers. The Judaizers wanted to make circumcision a requirement for salvation. They had fatally corrupted the gospel by adding a human work as a requirement for salvation. That is certainly the worst variety of legalism, because it destroys the doctrine of justification by faith and thereby sets up “a gospel contrary to the one you received” (Galatians 1:8-9). According to the apostle Paul, that kind of legalist is not an authentic Christian.

But another kind of legalism is the legalism of the Pharisees. It’s the tendency to measure spirituality by a list of manmade rules. This kind of legalism is a common pitfall even within the household of faith. At the root of Pharisaical legalism is a belief that holiness is achieved by legal means—living one’s life by rigorous rules and restrictions: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (colossians 2:20-22). This type of legalism doesn’t necessarily destroy the doctrine of justification like the legalism of the Judaizers. But it does significant damage to the doctrine of sanctification, and it is certainly appropriate to call it what it is: legalism. It is a sinful misapplication of law; an attempt to make law do work that only grace can do. Like the Judaizers’ brand of legalism, it brings people under a yoke of bondage Scripture has not placed on them.

As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Jesus said about the legalism of the Pharisees: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4).


Pharisaical legalists are not content to live life in the power of the Spirit, cultivate discernment, and avoid activities that are clearly profane or immoral; they make lists of rules that prohibit Christians from practically everything but church activities. They think it’s not sufficient to do things in moderation and exercise self-control; they make rules that call for strict abstinence from everything doubtful. And they try to impose their rules on other Christians— saddling people with a yoke that they have dreamed up out of somewhere in the white spaces of Scripture.

Want rules? Here’s a good one to start with: On the subject of spiritual duties, where Scripture stops speaking, we should, too.

The Pharisees’ sin was making rules that went beyond Scripture. For example, they read in the law that it is a sin to take God’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7), so they expanded the rule to forbid the use of God’s name at all. They invented euphemisms to be used in place of God’s name (Matthew 23:22).

They saw the stress that was laid on ceremonial cleanness in the Old Testament, so they invented all kinds of extra washings and required people to perform them—as if these were divinely-ordained sacraments. In fact, Matthew 15 tells how they tried to condemn even Jesus for not making his disciples observe their extrabiblical traditions: “Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat'” (Matthew 15:1-2).

There was no biblical commandment requiring a ceremonial washing before someone ate. The priests were supposed to wash their hands before offering sacrifices to God, but no law required everyone to wash up before every meal. The institution of such an ordinance as if it were a sacred duty was a classic case of Pharisaical legalism, and Jesus abominated the practice.

In fact, Jesus’ response to the Pharisees was a stern rebuke: “He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?'” (Matthew 15:3). In other words, He rejected their tradition because it was not what the Word of God taught. Even though it may be quite true that washing before meals is good hygiene and therefore generally a good idea—and Jesus certainly knew that—He flatly rejected the Pharisees’ insistence that it is “sinful” not to do it.

Notice, He said their legalism transgressed the Scriptures. Legalism always has an anti-biblical tendency. You cannot go beyond Scripture without ultimately setting yourself at odds with Scripture.

That is precisely what happened in the fundamentalist movement of the twentieth century, and it is one of the major reasons that movement failed so notoriously. Legalism diverts people’s attention from sound doctrine. So the fundamentalist movement was soon plagued with appalling doctrinal ignorance. The typical fundamentalist reserved his or her strongest convictions for a culture-bound system of manmade rules, which in effect took the place of fundamental doctrines in their thinking.

Ask the typical self-proclaimed fundamentalist to define the difference between imputed and imparted righteousness, and he will not be able to do so. Suggest that it’s OK to use a Bible translation other than the King James Version, or accidentally violate some other manmade fundamentalist taboo, and you will find he is already locked and loaded with angry dogmatism, ready to do battle for his tradition. As Jesus said of the Pharisees, they have nullified the Word of God for the sake of their manmade system. They neglect the truly fundamental doctrines of Christianity in favor of their own contrived standards and specious dress codes.

I once had a protracted discussion with a fundamentalist pastor who insisted that it is a sin to listen to contemporary music because so much of it is loud and rhythmic. Loud volume and a strong beat are the two elements of today’s music that appeal most to the flesh, he said. He insisted it is perfectly evident to any truly spiritual person that noisy music and syncopated rhythms are inherently sinful. He dismissed the percussion instruments named in Psalm 150 (especially the “loud clashing cymbals”) as relics of Old Covenant worship. When I suggested that the psalm nevertheless challenges his axiom that rhythm per se is self-evidently sinful, he angrily ended the conversation.

Whatever one’s tastes in music styles, Scripture clearly teaches that it is a very serious sin to impose on others any “spiritual” standard that has no biblical basis. When God gave the law to Israel, He told them, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2). “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32).

The same principle is repeated in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul was rebuking the Corinthians for their sectarianism, saying “I am of Paul”; “I am of Apollos,” and so on. His rebuke to them includes these words in 1 Corinthians 4:6: “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written.”

That is a good guideline for how we should exercise our Christian liberty: Don’t go beyond what is written in Scripture. Don’t make rules to impose on others; don’t devise rituals and forms of worship that are not authorized; and don’t speak on such matters where God has been silent. That’s how the principle of Sola Scriptura applies to Christian living. If we really believe Scripture is a sufficient rule for sanctification, then we don’t have to add anything to it.

Nor is there virtue in applying every principle of Scripture in the strictest possible way. “Keep[ing] oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27) doesn’t mean you have to avoid contact with the world or retreat to a nunnery (1 Corinthians 5:9-12). If we add rules that Scripture doesn’t make—especially if we try to impose our manmade rules on other people’s consciences as a standard of spirituality—we are guilty of the same sin as the Pharisees and worthy of the same harsh rebukes Christ leveled at them.


Love is not only the fulfillment of the law; it is also the only context in which Christian liberty can function properly. The apostle Paul actually had quite a lot to say about how to exercise Christian liberty in love.

There was a debate in the Corinthian church about whether Christian liberty extended to an issue like eating food that had been offered on pagan altars. Corinth was full of temples where food was placed in honor of various Roman gods. Pagan priests would then sell that food in local markets, and that is how they made a living. Many of the Corinthians were converts from that kind of paganism and had scruples about eating food that had been ceremoniously dedicated to pagan idols. Evidently, there were others in the church who did not agree with the concern. (Perhaps this difference grew out of economic necessity; food from the temples was sold at a discount.) So the church had written to ask Paul for an apostolic ruling on the question.

He responded by with an answer that must have surprised those repelled by pagan worship: He told them an idol is nothing (1 Corinthians 8:4), and Christians are free to eat food offered to idols; it is an utterly indifferent matter. “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (v. 8).

But that was not the end of Paul’s answer. He went on to warn at length against the danger of using our liberty in a way that hurts others. “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (v. 9). Christian liberty is not to be used in a selfish way, but always in consideration of others. Paul said, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (v. 13). That verse marks the end of chapter 8, and all of chapter 9 is Paul’s testimony of how he gave up various aspects of His own personal liberty for the sake of the gospel. “Though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (9:19). “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (v. 22).

The theme of chapter 10 is still Christian liberty and how to use it responsibly. Paul reminds the Corinthians of Old Testament Israel, and how they fell into idolatry through a combination of overconfident carelessness and carnal worldliness. He makes it plain that his approval of eating food offered to idols does not constitute approval of idolatry itself. In fact, he says, “Flee from idolatry” (10:14). He reminds the Corinthians that evils such as false worship, immorality, and complaining against God are not matters of Christian liberty; they are outright sins.

That context is crucial. When Paul says “all things are lawful” in verse 23, we can be certain he is not teaching that Christians have liberty to do the things he had just condemned as sinful. On the contrary, he seems to be quoting a phrase that some of the Corinthians were using to justify selfish abuses of their Christian liberty—and he emphatically disagrees with their abuse of that principle.

Remember, the question that launched this section of 1 Corinthians was about food. As far as food is concerned, it is quite true that “all things are lawful” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:12-13; Mark 7:19; Romans 14:14-15). At times, however, love demands that we abstain from eating certain things for the sake of others.

Paul was writing to people who were prone to use their liberty for self- serving ends. So near the end of 1 Corinthians 10, as he wraps up that lengthy answer to their question about food offered to idols, he gives three principles that will correct that selfish tendency. Each one is a reminder of how liberty is to be exercised in love, which will be covered in the next issue.[1]

[1] Dave Jordan, M. E. (n.d.). Pulpit Magazine June 2013 Vol. 02. No. 6.

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