Are Legalism And Lawlessness Opposites?

legalism and lawlessness“Legalism in the church was a huge problem 7-10 years ago, but I honestly feel that the pendulum has swung in the other extreme full force, to a fault on the other side. Legalism and moralism is not the problem today; licentiousness is.”

“It’s a mistake to say that every person needs to be rescued from legalism. I didn’t grow up in a legalistic church culture. I grew up in a liberal church culture where anything and everything was permitted. I didn’t need to be saved from legalism. I needed to be saved from lawlessness.”

These are a couple of pretty common objections that those of us who are committed to decrying moralism and legalism hear.

On the surface, these objections (and ones like them) seem to make a lot of sense. Just look around. One could argue that our country has never been more licentious and morally lax than it is now. Is preaching the gospel of grace what we really need? Or, to put it another way, is preaching the gospel of grace really the means by which God rescues the lawless, the unethical and the disobedient?


The balancing game

The whole “pendulum swing” argument is one I know well. Not only because I hear it all the time but also because I used to make the same argument. What I’ve discovered, however, is that there is one big problem with it: it fails to realize that since Genesis 3, legalism (self-salvation) has always been our biggest problem. And this problem does not shift to something else when the cultural mood shifts — it just takes one of two different forms.

Spend any time in the American church, and you’ll hear legalism and lawlessness presented as two ditches on either side of the Gospel that we must avoid. Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law or rules, and lawlessness when you focus too much on grace and conclude that the “rules” no longer apply to you. Therefore, in order to maintain spiritual equilibrium, you have to “balance” law and grace. If you start getting too much law, you need to balance it with grace. If you start getting too much grace, you need to balance it with law.

In my opinion, this “balanced” way of framing the issue keeps people from really understanding the Gospel of Grace in all of its radical depth and beauty because it attaches to it this idea that “the Gospel needs checks and balances” and that “you must be careful because the Gospel can be taken too far.”I think it is more theologically accurate to say that there is one primary enemy of the Gospel—legalism—but it comes in two forms.


One primary enemy in two forms

Some people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (you could call this “front-door legalism”). Other people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (you could call this “back-door legalism”). In other words, there are two “laws” that we typically choose from: the law that says, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I keep the rules,” or the law that says, “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I break the rules.” Either way, you’re still trying to save yourself—which means both are legalistic, because both are self-salvation projects. “Make a rule” or “break a rule” really belong to the same passion for autonomy (self-rule). We want to remain in control of our lives and our destinies, so the only choice is whether we will conquer the mountain by asceticism or by license.


One solution

So it would be a mistake to identify the “two ditches” as being legalism and lawlessness. What some call license is just another form of legalism. There’s always been only one solution to our self-salvation projects; God’s salvation project–Jesus announced to sinners in the glorious Gospel of Grace.


Tullian Tchividjian is a South Florida native, senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a visiting professor at Knox Reformed Theological Seminary, and grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. He is the founder of LIBERATE (, a bestselling author, a contributing editor to Leadership Journal and a popular conference speaker. Follow Tullian on twitter at: @pastortullian

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