Piety vs Legalism

A.Joseph

Puritan Board Junior
What is a good definition of piety? And are there any good resources that draws a fine line between piety and legalism? I would think a main distinguisher is that piety is a natural attribute of the regenerate heart while legalism places further conditions outside and above a regenerate response to the gospel.
 
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1689er

Puritan Board Freshman
I can't think of any good resources off the top of my head. However, I do think your comment is on the right track. Piety, which is derived from "dutiful" or "devotion", refers to a heartfelt love for God, His word and truth, His people, and His laws. Piety recognizes what the Bible says, and strives to live by it. On the other hand, Legalism tends to add laws that are not necessarily biblical. As you pointed out, it tends to emphasize man-made laws over the Gospel. Adam Ford has a good comic that is semi-related to the discussion at https://adam4d.com/religion-vs-gospel/.
 

greenbaggins

Administrator
Staff member
There is more to legalism than man-made laws being elevated above God's law, though it would certainly include that. There is also a type of zealousness that is overly concerned with the minutiae of how truly biblical law is applied. I don't mean that we should ignore the small stuff. I mean that there is sometimes a failure to recognize that biblical law, which does not in itself change, may apply differently in different circumstances and to different people. In other words, there is a reason why the Bible does not spell out all the various applications of biblical law. This overzealousness should not be confused with true zealousness to follow God's law, nor should it discourage proper zeal. The danger of the overzealousness is that it can take our eyes off Christ and God's love for us. True and proper piety recognizes the grace of God that enables us, and the glory of God that motivates us to follow the path of love laid out in the law.

The biggest problem I see with the legalism I am talking about is in how people judge others on the basis of their own experience, conscience, and interpretation of the law, with no recognition that circumstances matter in the application of the law.

Here, of course, it is necessary to distinguish between the meaning of the law and the application of the law. The meaning of the law is a constant, just as God's own character (of which the law is a mirror) is a constant. That constant is love for God and love for neighbor. The application of the law (how it actually works out in everyday life) can vary depending on the person and the circumstances. We get into trouble when we confuse the meaning and the application, and when we generalize from our own experience. We also get into trouble when we become much too concerned about the sins of others, and start ignoring our own sinful hearts.

This brings up the other major danger of various forms of legalism: divorcing law from love when Jesus says love is the heart of the law, that is, our love for God and our love for neighbor as the two great commandments. Some overly zealous people forget that the essence of the law is love, and they use the law as a bludgeon to tear down everyone else, so that they can feel better about themselves.
 

KMK

Administrator
Staff member
Here is a great quote from a beloved poster from the past:

"Jesus Christ is the Perfect Example for the Christian. Christ was obedient to His Father and knew the sweetness of being assured of His Father's love on the evidence of His obedience. At the same time, Christ separated Himself from the legalists of His day so that He cannot in any sense be numbered with them. Hence it cannot be legalism in and of itself to seek to be obedient to God or to derive a certain kind of assurance from that obedience. There must be some other factor which perverts the Christian's obedience and assurance so as to render him legalistic. And that other factor is nothing other than the deceitfulness of that indwelling sin which remains in the Christian. But herein lies the rub -- to accuse another Christian of legalism on the basis of the remnants of sin abiding in him is to accuse oneself of being a legalist even in one's attempt to avoid legalism. Afterall, is not your attempt to avoid legalism an expression of your desire to be obedient to God? and when you have assured yourself that you are not a legalist have you not derived that assurance from the fact that you have obeyed God's call to turn from legalism? and when you stand as the accuser of another's legalism are you not in reality boasting over your own abstinence from this sin and obedience to God? And right at that point the apostle's words apply as equally to you as to any self-righteous man: "Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things" (Romans 2:1).

May God be merciful to me, a self-righteous, self-condemned, legalistic sinner!"
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Older definitions of piety include duties within the hierarchy of the established order. Legalism is one when you try to be holier than God.
 

ZackF

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Older definitions of piety include duties within the hierarchy of the established order. Legalism is one when you try to be holier than God.
Works of supererogation always seemed like that to me. Even when I was RC. God either gives us “works to walk in” or He doesn’t.
 

A.Joseph

Puritan Board Junior
What about the term, “Only True Church” or “One True Church”? Or the idea of a pure church. Is there a scriptural warrant for such an idea or perception?

Did the puritans establish a pure church? Or purified congregations? Pious and humble in faith and dependency to God? Or did they eventually dabble in superstition like the Salem witch trials?
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Could you link or refer me to what that entails? That’s unfamiliar territory for me.

Esolen, Anthony. Out of the Ashes.

But it is the essence of piety to honor your father and mother because they are yours and because they have given you a gift you can never recompense. This piety extends to the land of your birth, the “rocks and rills,” the “templed hills,” as the old patriotic anthem has it. The character of a nation is not to be found primarily in great political movements, and certainly not in an obsession with ‘progress.’ It is found in its land and weather, the kind of people who work there, the music they sing, the places where they worship, the games they play, the food they raise; what they honor and love, and what they will shed their blood to save.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
What about the term, “Only True Church” or “One True Church”? Or the idea of a pure church. Is there a scriptural warrant for such an idea or perception?

No. They are almost always guilty of the heresy of Donatism.
Did the puritans establish a pure church?

Nope. WCF 25 speaks of a more pure/less pure (visible) church. You can't simultaneously say that and believe in the "Only True Pure Church."
 
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