Legalism

A term used with various meanings.

1. The dogma of salvation by works, the heresy that man must earn a place in heaven by his personal righteousness.

2. Neonomianism—the theory that works of obedience are a constituent part of saving faith, rather than its natural fruit. In earlier times neonomianism produced the sterile moralism of moderatism. Nowadays it has found a place in much evangelical preaching where faith is looked upon as “man’s part” in the plan of salvation. As it is often popularly expressed, “God has done His part, now it is up to you to do your part.” In the neonomian scheme, this doing is the condition of salvation; it is not the fruit of the free gift of saving faith, sovereignly imparted by God to His elect.

3. The Galatian error of preaching faith plus something else to make one acceptable to God. At its worst, this form of legalism degenerates into salvation by works. At best it removes the solid basis of Christian assurance, for it drives a sincere believer more and more into himself to examine the quality of his work or his faith rather than to the all-sufficient merits of Christ.

4. Sometimes it is used erroneously to describe those who advocate that Christians should be careful to observe the moral law on the ground that whereas the law as a covenant of life is abrogated by the gospel, it still stands as a standard of Christian obedience.

Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.

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