Who’s the Legalist?

There are certain Protestants who regard Catholicism as legalistic. ‘Relationship not religion’ they say, and go on and about how they ‘hate religion but love Jesus’. The reality is that church government exists for a reason. The laws of the church are for our own good and reasonable. True legalism would mean that the law is still binding when fulfilling it is not possible and that’s simply not the case.

By contrast consider the fundamental Protestant belief (taught by Luther, Calvin et al.) in regards to the atonement. The Protestant thinking is that sin (original and actual) incurs a debt to the account of the individual, in the eyes of God. For those who are saved the righteousness of Christ is credited (imputed) to the individual and the guilt of that person is transferred (imputed) to Christ (who received the punishment). This is a purely legal transaction. I don’t recall scripture portraying God the Father as a banker. This theology is, generally speaking, ubiquitous in all forms of Protestantism but incompatible with Catholicism.

So if it’s ‘relationship not religion’ that matters to you, then check your theology just to be sure you aren’t the real legalist.

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2 Responses to Who’s the Legalist?

  1. Ben says:

    I have been encountering this term a bit myself, especially from Pentecostal acquaintances. It’s interesting to note, however, how these churches that so oppose legalism still need “constitutions” and “bylaws” and a “statement of beliefs” that are very often extra-biblical, but still stating expectations and doctrines that are not up for personal interpretation.
    It got me thinking about “legalism” as a term. My experience is that people fling it out there as a smarter-sounding way of saying “no one is the boss of me!” They see the Catholic Church as being full of rules, while I see it as possessing legitimate answers to my many questions. While the Catholic Church has the experience of centuries, everyone else is guessing and coming up with silly unproven systems of their own.
    -Ben

    • bgpery says:

      Yeah, I think the accusation of legalism is just a cheap catch all objection. Those who whip it out automatically just do so without thinking. The same goes for all blanket type objections.

      The point I was getting at was that despite the formulaic ‘religion vs. relationship’ objection. The fact is that the Protestant understanding of the atonement is a purely legal construct, while the Catholic one is relational.

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