Christian Legalism


I have been speaking a lot about Christian legalism lately.  There is a purpose too.  There’s a difference between evangelizing and being obsessed with people being punished for their sins.

While Wikipedia defines legalism as “the act of putting law above gospel by establishing requirements for salvation beyond repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and reducing the broad, inclusive and general precepts of the Bible to narrow and rigid moral codes”, my favorite definition is from Oxford Dictionary: “dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith.”

I say it’s my favorite because it best emphasizes the excessive emphasis on morality and the downplay of mercy, grace, forgiveness and evangelization.  It is heavily tied to moralism which J. Budziszewski writes is the desire “to make politics a tool of faith”; basically as he says, according to moralism “God’s grace needs the help of the state”.  This is fallacious as God does not need the state to help Him.

Here are some ways to spot a legalist:

*Somebody may believe certain persons are beyond saving (e.g. Calvinists and Jansenists believe this).

*Somebody might obsess over the punishment of homosexuals and others; some go as far as to desire the death penalty for them.

*They might not preach the forgiveness of sins to grave sinners.

*They talk much less about God’s grace in the Sacraments than they do about observing God’s moral precepts and the punishment for those who fail to do so.

*They might accuse those who call them out on it as being liberals, progressives, modernists or pagans.

*They talk lots against homosexuality, transgenderism, abortion and such topics, but little to nothing about forgiving others, or the necessity of worshipping God and attending Mass and confessing one’s sins to a priest regularly.

*They talk about strengthening their country with faith and morals, but talk little or nothing at all about personal holiness.

*They enjoy the thought of somebody being punished in this life or the next one for a sin they committed.

*They might detach the ethics from the faith, as if you can be saved by adhering to a small list of moral codes, but refuse the necessity of being Catholic.

This is a great list of symptoms of being a legalist minus the Protestant heresy.  I read an article yesterday on how to spot a legalist.  We Catholics can agree with many of the statements made, but some of the statements scream 16th century Protestant heresy such as the faith alone doctrine.  It is alien to what Scripture says and to what Church Fathers, Doctors and Ecumenical Councils said.  “[F]aith without works is dead” (James 2:26).  Protestants do however agree that sin should be avoided; so the disagreement with the Church is not over sin being evil but how works relate to our faith; that’s the purpose for the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.  It helps us better understand we do not think so radically different in regards to faith and works.

In the end Catholicism is very anti-legalistic because the most important thing in Catholicism is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind and even when you sin God will be waiting for you in the Sacraments which contain His graces.  Protestantism lacks sacramental theology which I do believe is a major reason why more Protestants spend more time wanting to penalize people for vices while more Catholics spend more time ministering to sinners.  That being said legalists exist within the Catholic Church too.  They know who they are and they should know better than to make God’s grace cheap and put punishment over grace, mercy, prayer, forgiveness and evangelization.


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