Legalism: The Real Thing -- By: Zane C. Hodges

Journal: Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Volume: JOTGES 22:42 (Spring 2009)
Article: Legalism: The Real Thing
Author: Zane C. Hodges

Legalism: The Real Thing1

Zane C. Hodges

Legalism is not a very nice word. No one wants to be accused of it, anymore than one would want to be accused of despising motherhood or apple pie. In ecclesiastical circles, to call someone a legalist is to hurl an insult of the first magnitude. If someone says, “You’re a legalist,” the instinctive reply would be, “Them’s fighting words!”

But legalism is more than just a nasty religious word. It is also a widely misused word. In the ordinary jargon of evangelicalism, legalism has come to mean an undue emphasis on rules—particularly rules of a negative kind. But on this basis the Apostle Paul, whose epistles contain a plethora of negative commands, would himself be called a legalist! This is an absurd designation for the great Apostle of Grace.

I. What Legalism Is Not

When I did my undergraduate work at Wheaton College, like all other Wheaton students, I signed the famous Wheaton pledge. The pledge, of course, bound me to abstain from things like drinking, smoking, dancing, card playing, and going to movies. To many people today, that kind of restrictive policy smacks of a very bad case of legalism. Yet I am happy to report that I never had a problem with the Wheaton pledge at all. Not only did I abstain from all these things while a student there, but I was actually glad the pledge existed.

In my humble opinion, the Wheaton pledge was a good idea for a Christian school and was in no small degree responsible for creating a good atmosphere on campus. Many students, like myself, were away from home for the first time in their lives. There is no telling what we might have experimented with had it not been for the pledge. Of course, as we all knew, some students broke the pledge on the q.t., but most of us were not brave enough to do that. So I concentrated on getting a good education, for which Wheaton had earned a well-deserved reputation. My hat is off to my old alma mater and to the pledge it so wisely enforced.

Naturally there were some people, even in those days, who thought the Wheaton pledge was a par excellence example of rigid fundamentalism with its so-called legalistic mentality. This accusation, however, was false. First

of all, if you didn’t like the idea of a pledge you could go to another school. Anyone who enrolled at Wheaton knew perfectly well what the rules of the game were. It was a fault much worse than the pledge, to enroll and sign it, and then go out and break it in the name of Christian liberty. Those who did so only revealed their lack of Christian integrity and chara...

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