Is ‘license’ really the opposite of ‘legalism’?

I’m working something out theologically… will you help me?

Quite often I will hear legalism and license presented as two ditches on either side of the Gospel that we must avoid. By “legalism” I mean the idea that Christianity is a set of commands which, if you obey them, will improve your standing in the eyes of God and make you a “faithful Christian.” By “license” I mean the idea that because Christ has redeemed us from any curse on our sin, we can “do whatever we want” because our sin is already paid for.

I reject that polarization.

“License” is not the polar opposite of legalism, it is simply another type of legalism. Both legalism and license reject what God has declared about us in the Gospel and attempt to build an identity and find fulfillment based on what we can obtain or what we accomplish. You see, the “licentious sinner” is really nothing but a secularized legalist. How so? The licentious sinner thinks that by obtaining some “law” (meeting some standard, finding some degree of pleasure) he can find identity and happiness.

Does that make your head hurt? Here’s what I mean. Both religious and non-religious legalists operate from a position of emptiness and shame. It is only by obtaining something that they can overcome that emptiness and shame.

Religious legalists attempt to overcome that emptiness and shame by conforming to a religious standard which makes them good and acceptable people. They find their fulfillment in knowing they are “good Christians,” because they have obtained a sufficient level of obedience. Non-religious legalists attempt to find their fulfillment not by pursuing religious accomplishment, but by pursuing some secular goal-making money, looking good in the eyes of others, etc. They hope that when they have “done enough,” i.e. made enough money, bought enough stuff, obtained the higher position, found enough sensual pleasure, etc., they will be fulfilled.

In other words, both legalism and license flow out of unbelief in the Gospel. Thus, they are not opposites, but two flowers that share the same root.

The opposite of both of the these is faith in the Gospel-believing what God has declared about His relationship to us in the Gospel and finding your fulfillment in that. The Gospel declares that our identity before God is a gift God gave to us that we simply receive, and we find fulfillment in the fact that the God of the Universe is our Father, Protector, and Friend. In response to that, out of love and adoration for the God that gave Himself to us, we become loving, unselfish people who pursue righteousness and generosity because that is the desire of our hearts.

Christians who are still pursuing sin do not need a little “legalism” thrown in to balance them out and curb their sinful tendencies. What they need is the Gospel.

Christians who still pursue sin are either not saved or so far removed from the Gospel that they have “forgotten they have been cleansed from their former sins.” (2 Peter 1:9) You should correct their sinful desires not through giving them a law they should try and obey, but by pointing out to them what their behavior says about the depravity of their hearts and driving them in despair to the Fountain of love and grace.

Trying to correct a sinning, selfish Christian’s behavior by preaching a rousing sermon to him about what he must go and do to be a “faithful” Christian is the WORST thing you can do… because he will go and do what you tell him to the degree he feels like he needs to for his conscience to be satisfied. But when the sting of your sermon wears off he’ll go right back to his old selfish ways because his heart has never really been changed.

Our hearts are only changed through faith in the Gospel (Galatians 3:1-3; 1 John 4:19). Even the most radical obedience cannot produce the 1st drop of love for God in the heart. Thus, Paul says, even if your sermon makes people rush out to “give up their bodies to be burned,” as impressive as that is, it has not produced the first drop of love for God and others in their heart and is thus, in the eyes of God, utterly useless (1 Cor 13:1-3).

As my friend Tullian Tchividjian says, God is not after just obedience, He’s after a whole different kind of obedience.

But what if Christians in our churches hear this and use this as an excuse not to be generous and to pursue worldliness and sin? Well… Martin Luther said, “If you are never accused of antinomianism (preaching in a way that communicates to some that they are free to go and sin) you are not really preaching Gospel.” So, if my preaching the Gospel causes some to some whose hearts are darkened and calloused by sin to interpret it as license to do whatever they want, that’s fine. Their condemnation is written in their own behavior, which reveals the damnable filthiness of their hearts. But motivating them to obey by giving them a “you better do this or else” is, from the perspective of the Gospel, utterly useless. It is “legal obedience,” but not obedience that flows from love, and obedience that is useless, eternally speaking, to God. In fact, curbing their materialism and sinful tendencies by “go and do” sermons may only cover up the fact to them that their hearts are depraved and wicked and keep them from running to Christ for salvation.

So, if you want to set up polar opposites, don’t polarize legalism and license, polarize faith and unbelief. Faith is believing what God says about you in the Gospel and finding your fulfillment in that. Unbelief rejects God’s declaration, and seeks fulfillment in something else. We may pursue favor in the eyes of God and man by living up to some religious standard, or we might pursue fulfillment in the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the pride of life. Either way, we are pursuing fulfillment and righteousness out of unbelief and idolatry, not from faith in the Gospel.

Thus, the opposite of legalism is not license, it is Gospel. Legalism and license are fruits of the same root, unbelief. Only the Gospel pulls up that root.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Post your comments here.

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  1. Bryan Rabon   •  

    This clears us something that I’ve long wondered about. I’ve known people that were staunch legalists but they would turn right around and live licentious lives. The way you have explained it here has helped me understand the apparent dichotomy in their behavior. It all comes from lack of the gospel.

  2. John Mark Harris   •  

    Love. That is Jesus’ command.

    Paul tells us all things are lawful (100% license) but not all things benifit me & esp. others. For the sake of love, I should not lay hold of the license that I have. Just like Jesus laid aside his rights for me.

    Jesus yells us we must be perfect even as God is perfect, that’s legalism. Let’s we think we’re almost there, he went and taught the sermon on the mount and proved we can’t do it. So Jesus taught “if you love me” the action we should strive for, then “you will obey my commands” the natural result of our Spirit empowered love for God (John 14:15).

    Love is what restricts our license and redirects our legalism.

    Hey, that was pretty good, I’m gonna use this some time. :-)

  3. Charlie Fugate   •  

    “License” is not the polar opposite of legalism, it is simply another type of legalism. ”

    I’d have to agree with this assessment. Both legalism and license are two branches of the same tree. On

  4. Nic W.   •  

    I think you misinterpreted 1 Cor 13.1-3. Paul doesn’t say that a sermon that causes a person to give their body to be burned doesn’t create love. He doesn’t say that such a sermon does create love. He doesn’t even mention sermons.

    His point is that we must be motivated to do what we do out of love, for if our actions are not done out of love, they are nothing.

    He says nothing about what does or does not produce love.

    Otherwise you make some interesting points. But to make it a big deal that the two opposite extremes are really very similar…well that’s how extremes are. They always have more in common, at least on some level, than it appears.

    Truth is, we are to love God. And if we do love Him, then, because we love Him, we’ll do as He’s commanded. If I’m not doing, or not loving, I’ve erred.

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