The Red Flag of Legalism

By Bob Hiller

Imagine with me, if you will, a scenario that we just might see this weekend. There are two minutes left in the AFC Championship game. Denver trails the evil Patriots by three points. Peyton Manning and the Denver offense have the ball on their own 20 and start to drive. Things are clicking beautifully. Passes are completed, runs are averaging six-plus yards a carry, and the defense is on its heels. Then, Manning throws a beautiful ball down the sideline to Demaryius Thomas that puts Denver in the red zone and sets them up for a touchdown. It looked like a good catch, but Thomas’ toes were close to the line. As Denver runs down to set up for the next play, Bill Belichick, that stalwart of morals and fair play, reaches into his pocket and tosses a little red flag onto the field. That flag means the wants the play reviewed. The little flag of death cries out, “That looked like catch. But, the rules suggest it may not have been! Yeah, you called it a catch, but, I want a review, I want a closer look.” Then the referees announce what has become, perhaps, the most dreaded phrase in sports: “The previous play is under review.” Wind leaves sails, momentum drives into a wall, and commercial breaks are taken.

Ugh. Nothing kills a good football game or a great drive more than reviewing a play. Even if, in this scenario, the ball is ruled a catch, not only has the momentum died, but the beauty of rhythmic football has been ruined. (Though, this is my scenario, so Denver scores a touchdown two plays later and wins….) I get why coaches want to review plays. They want to win. Everyone wants to get the call right. But, instant replay has taken what looks to the naked eye like a good play and turned it into a moment in time to be nit-picked and analyzed to its utter, depressing death. The flow of the game, and its fans, are completely frustrated by the tyranny of instant replay.


Replay from the multiple camera angles plus the overabundance of nit-picky rules is making the NFL somewhat frustrating to watch these days. A legalism is creeping into the league that interrupts the flow of the game. Coaches, always seeking to gain an advantage and control, have become experts on canon law, questioning calls and using every camera angle to help their team win. But, stopping and analyzing every play and every call and every incredible catch just ruins the game. Legalism has a way of ruining the flow and freedom of an otherwise beautiful game.

Christians have their own experience with a kind of “little red flag of death.” It’s an experience preachers of the gospel encounter all the time. The scenario goes something like this: A pastor has finished proclaiming the gospel of forgiveness and salvation by grace alone, all on account of Christ’s finished work on the cross, sinners have been set free in the hearing of the Word, the goods have been delivered, and then it happens: a legalist reaches into his or her pocket. Someone in the back says: “OK, you say Jesus did it all? I mean, all of it?  Yeah, but…” That “yeah, but…” is the red flag of death for all gospel preaching. It completely ruins the beauty, freedom, and the flow of the life God wants to produce through His sin-ending, life giving Word.

“Yeah, but…” is the legalists attempt to stop the flow of the gospel and to take back from God control over their life. There are two reasons the flag is thrown. The first goes something like this: “Yeah, we are saved by grace alone, Jesus does all the work to save us, but isn’t that cheap grace? A license to sin?” This is the legalists first move to protect their life from the gospel. Paul’s answer in Romans 6 is so wildly and delightfully unsatisfying to the legalist. He doesn’t say, “Oh no! You now have to do all these works and obey all these laws if you really want to be saved.” No, he goes right back to the gospel. “Don’t you know that you are baptized? You’ve died to all that! Jesus drowned you and caused all your idols to sink to the bottom of the font. You are finally alive and free from sin!” Paul won’t let the red flag of death break his flow! Christ is the end of your sinful idols!

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But, the legalist is not done yet. “Yeah, but don’t I still have to obey the Law?” Oh, look out because now the gospel is being analyzed from every camera angle. The legalist just can’t let the gospel have the last word. He can’t have a gracious Lord set him free. He must have control. So, mustn’t the Law still be obeyed? It can’t be this free. It can’t just be the blood of another. Don’t I have to do something, obey something? Doesn’t my obedience (or free will, or sanctification, or right theology, or…) contribute something to secure this relationship with God? To which the gospel preacher answers: Didn’t I answer this question already? I told you  I promised you: Christ is the end of you idols! Even your really good looking ones that you love to cling to and tout for us to see. Yeah, Jesus drowned those filthy rags, nailed them to the cross, left them in the tomb. And, he’s not going back for them. So, no! You don’t have to obey the Law. Not to be right with God, anyhow. Jesus did that for you. Repent of that and believe this: that blood is for you and it is enough!”

(What I am not saying is that Christians who are saved by grace get out of loving God and their neighbor. But, this is a conversation about justification. And, no, you don’t have to love God or your neighbor to be justified. You trust Christ to have done that for you. Trying to justify yourself that way is idolatry of your good works. Yes, good things can become idols, even the works of the Law. Sex, tree stumps, and good works are all good until we fear, love, and trust them above all else.)

Nothing kills gospel preaching like the red flag of death: “yeah, but…” Like Bill Belichick that old legalist inside of us wants to be in control. He doubts the call on the field: the promise of forgiveness for bloody Christ’s sake. He just won’t accept the gift. He wants a review; he wants to analyze the gospel to death; he refuses to let God be that gracious. But, God refuses to listen to the legalist and just unloads the good news on you, apart from the legalist. That is a scenario I pray you experience this Sunday!


7 thoughts on “The Red Flag of Legalism

  1. Football theology….a contemporary parable no doubt. As for legalism, one must take the specific verse under discussion in light of the entire word of God, and how it compares, enhances, explains, or is compatible with other verses. If someone points you to another verse in scripture in which Jesus makes a statement or teaches, we must look at it closely. One cannot accuse others of legalism if they are merely pointing out a given verse which seems incompatible with a specific conclusion or theological position.


    1. Jordan Cooper, an AALC Pastor has a great podcast that I listen to. He addressed the idea of the “Two Kinds of Righteousness” very clearly. He made a case for letting the text speak for itself, so that if the text gives exhortations, then the preacher should give exhortations.

      You can listen to that podcast here:

      However, I don’t think this is what Bob is talking about here. There are texts that very nicely expound the freedom of the gospel and those texts should be preached clearly and unequivocally. The Legalist isn’t the one who insists upon letting the text speak for itself. The Legalist is the one who cannot let a clear exposition of the gospel stand on its own, even when that is what the scripture is presenting us with.

      When the text says, ‘for Christ’s sake you are forgiven,’ the Legalist has to say, ‘but you better not take that as a license for sin!’ The Legalist is always looking for a way to emphasize the New Obedience, even when that is not what the passage is addressing. The Legalist is always looking for a way to say, ‘sure, we’re justified by grace, but you better obey.’

      Ultimately, the Legalist is so afraid that Christians might think “Let sin abound that grace may abound all the more,” that the Legalist ends up confusing justification with sanctification. The problem with the Legalist is that he does not really believe that the gospel changes people, so he makes the sanctification of his church his own responsibility. I believe that is the kind of person Bob is addressing in this article.

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      1. What you say reminds me of the H.L. Mencken quote, “Puritanism (and I think this is true for legalism too): the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.” We just can’t have that!

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  2. I really like your analogy. It really fits. The Law of God was given us to show we don’t and can’t keep that Law. I’m thankful that Christ has done it all,and that we are right with Him,already. I know that it’s hard to believe,and I need His help everyday. Guess its just too simple for my hard heart,but this word helps. Thank you.


  3. John –

    You employ the same questionable language in virtually all of your comments. There is not a theological document produced by mere men outside Scripture that cannot be nit-picked here and there. No accusation, mind you, but given your proclivity to comment about everything on a number of sites, I think it would be far more helpful if you took the time to lay out specifically your concern, the problems with exegesis and dogmatics that seem to bother you for whatever reason, and offer brotherly correction.

    These quick shots you make ain’t cutting it. Either properly criticize, or hesh up. Pax .



    1. I am referring in a general way to the manner in which some scriptural verses seem to support more than one position or theological argument. Hence, you have well meaning Christians applying an interpretation which falls into the particular positions of their denominational distinctive. Of course, the Lutheran view may differ from the Presbyterian, the Baptist from both of them, and the Bible becomes an endless battleground of continuous interpretative conflict. One who focuses on Grace, and one who focuses on legalism can both have a mix of truth and error if they fall back on a default position without discernment. Luther did not like the book of James. Any Lutheran pastor or seminarian can agree with that statement. It disturbed Luther’s ideas about grace and works….yet James merely says….”show me your faith by your works.” I am just saying we must approach God’s word carefully.
      As for my “proclivity” to comment on a number of sites, I have in the past, but not in awhile. I find it interesting to engage in discussions of this sort, and it is not often except on an Internet site where one can find a collection of various perspectives articulated. However, except for the “Jagged Word” I rarely comment on other sites. I may discontinue this one as well. I am not a troll. I spend no more than an hour on these types of sites.


  4. Good article Bob. In addition to Rom 6, Paul shared your concern perhaps even more clearly in Gal 2:17-21, which ended with:

    I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
    Galatians 2:21 ESV

    I appreciate and value your thoughts.

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