Contrary To What You Think, Legalists Do Not Have A High View Of The Law

Several years ago I received the criticism from some parishioners (former now), that I was preaching and teaching with a low view of the Law. The criticism was that I was weak on the Law and too heavy on the Gospel. In response to their criticism, I can recall sharing that their confusion came not over my supposed weak view of the Law, but rather my strong view of the Law. In other words, I had a much stronger view of the Law than they did, which resulted in them believing that I was weak on the Law. Confused? Yes, they were unfortunately confused too.

J. Gresham Machen counterintuitively states that “A low view of law always produces legalism; a high view of law makes a person a seeker after grace.”

There is no doubt about it that Machen’s statement is counterintutive. Let’s have Tullian Tchividjian expound on this a bit more,

“The reason this seems so counter-intuitive is because most people think that those who talk a lot about grace have a low view of God’s law (hence, the regular charge of antinomianism). Others think that those with a high view of the law are the legalists. But Machen makes the very compelling point that it’s a low view of the law that produces legalism because a low view of the law causes us to conclude that we can do it–the bar is low enough for us to jump over. A low view of the law makes us think that the standards are attainable, the goals are reachable, the demands are doable. It’s this low view of the law that caused Immanuel Kant to conclude that “ought implies can.” That is, to say that I ought to do something is to imply logically that I am able to do it.

A high view of the law, however, demolishes all notions that we can do it–it exterminates all attempts at self-sufficient moral endeavor. We’ll always maintain a posture of suspicion regarding the radicality of unconditional grace as long as we think we have the capacity to pull it off. Only an inflexible picture of what God demands is able to penetrate the depth of our need and convince us that we never outgrow our need for grace–that grace never gets overplayed. “Our helplessness before the totality of Divine expectation is what creates the space for God’s amazing grace and the freedom it produces.” The way of God’s grace becomes absolutely indispensable because the way of God’s law is absolutely inflexible.
So a high view of law equals a high view of grace. A low view of law equals a low view of grace.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Tullian in his assessment. However, there is also another possibility that can lend to this same confusion. The other possibility is not a low view of the Law, but an overly high view of mankind. In other words, in order to obtain righteousness by the way of mankind, we only have two options: 1) We weaken the Law so that we can obtain and fulfill it. (as stated by Machen and Tullian above) OR 2) We increase and inflate the abilities of mankind so that mankind can, in theory, obtain and fulfill the Law. Either way, we are manipulating God’s Law and thus diminishing our need for the Gospel.

Think about the implication of this. What happens to the person of Christ when we have a ‘high’ view of mankind? What happens to the person of Christ when we have a ‘low’ view of mankind?

A High View Of Man Leads To A Low View of Christ:
When we fail to clearly see or underestimate the depravity of mankind, the person of Christ suffers. What kind of savior is needed if mankind is only hindered or struggling? If mankind is viewed as basically good with some bad habits then Jesus becomes a helper or better yet… a life coach. Jesus is reduced to our Christian mascot who cheers us on as we attempt to overcome our inefficiencies

A Low View Of Man Leads To A High View Of Christ:
When we assess mankind in light of the scriptures we will come to see that mankind’s nature is always much darker than we usually believe it to be. True, mankind is created in the image of God! However, the fall of mankind in Genesis 3 marred the image making man not “mostly dead” in sin but “dead-dead” in sin. A mere life coach or helper are not sufficient with this view of man. Rather an all-power, all-knowing, sufficient savior is needed to deliver mankind from their sin and their body of death.

My friends, may we continue to learn and ponder God’s holy Law in its full force and purity. As the Law is exalted in our midst, may God’s Gospel be ever more exalted, for our forgiveness of sins and hope.

(CLICK HERE for a diagram on this subject.)


About Pastor Matt Richard

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church of Gwinner, ND. He was previously a Senior Pastor in Sidney, Montana, an Associate Pastor of Spiritual Care and Youth Ministries in Williston, North Dakota, and an Associate Pastor of Children and Youth in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He received his undergraduate degree from Minot State University, ND and his M.Div. from Lutheran Brethren Seminary, MN. His doctor of ministry thesis, from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, was on exploring the journey of American Evangelicals into Confessional Lutheran thought. Pastor Richard is married to Serenity and they have two children. He enjoys fishing, pheasant hunting, watching movies, blogging, golfing, spending time with his family and a good book with a warm latte! To check out more articles by Pastor Matt you can visit his personal blog at:


Contrary To What You Think, Legalists Do Not Have A High View Of The Law — 10 Comments

  1. I completely agree with Machen & Tullian. If you have a high view of the law (relative to one’s view of man), you want more Gospel because you realize how badly you need it.

    However, while I cannot speak to your specific situation, there is at least one more possibility that can lead to parishioners making the kind of confused complaints you recount: a pastor who has a high view of the law but does not preach it accordingly. I raise the possibility precisely because of Machen’s argument. A high view of the law should lead to a greater desire for the Gospel, and yet… they were complaining not just about not enough law, but also about too much Gospel. So could there be a reason the high view was not passed on?

    Unfortunately, many pastors with precisely the high view of the law that you describe end up preaching about the law rather than actually preaching the law. For example, they’ll tell their congregation that nobody lives up to the Law but never tell them that God condemns fornication. They’ll tell their congregation that we are all tainted by original sin but never inform wives that God wants them to submit to their husbands. They’ll tell their congregation that none of us love God with our whole hearts or our neighbors as ourselves, but never address the man who doesn’t bother bringing his children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. When they do mention specifics, they do so in a shotgun approach intended to cover everyone in the congregation–a mere rhetorical restatement of “everyone’s guilty.” In short: they proclaim their high view of the law without really proclaiming the law itself.

    Pastors really need to do both. The law without the proper interpretation just leads to legalism or despair. But the proper interpretation without the law leads to original sin being seen as nothing more than an abstract check mark on some divine spreadsheet. I only recognize the gravity of original sin because I recognize how pervasive is my desire to commit sins. I only recognize the pervasiveness of my sinful nature when I begin to wonder what kind of person would so frequently want to punch someone who is being irritating, or stare at scantily clad women, or play video games instead of fulfilling my vocations, etc. I only wonder such a thing when I am consistently told that such things are sinful–after all, my culture spends a lot of time and effort telling me exactly the opposite. Without specifics from the pulpit, sin just becomes an abstract concept. It’s hard to have a high view of the law and therefore thirst for the Gospel until one recognizes the sin enfleshed in their own lives.

    If we simply preached the whole counsel of God instead of trying to game the system by trying to artificially bring about results (e.g. “every sermon’s got to be 49% law & 51% gospel” or “I have 15 mintues to use today’s Bible reading to make everyone feel equally guilty for a second and then make them all stop feeling guilty before I finish”, etc), this wouldn’t be an issue.

  2. What, then is the proper view of sanctified man, that is, of what God may accomplish in those whom he has redeemed?

    Psalm 32:8
    Ephesians 4:17-24
    1 Thessalonians 4:7
    Hebrews 10:24
    Ephesians 2:10

    Biblical counsel, loving exhortation, gracious instruction, encouragement to do right — these have neither the full weight of the law nor the full lightness of the Gospel, but say, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” John 13:17

  3. Thank you, Pastor.


    In my opinion, verses like that have both law and gospel in them. I can still see my sinfulness in falling short of what a sanctified man is supposed to be. They’re also promises of what God will one day make me and is now making me. They remind me that my salvation will one day be enfleshed in a full and abundant life of faithful obedience (which is even now at work) and graciously instruct me on what that looks like. Whether or not they’re “full” of either, they are part of the whole and should be part of the whole that’s preached.

    At the end of the day, it’s not the preacher who decides whether we’re restrained, crushed, or graciously instructed by the law–the Holy Spirit does. The preacher’s responsibility is simply to preach the whole counsel of God, including the verses you list. They’re not authorized to restrict their preaching to verses with loving exhortation because they’re more concerned about their flock doing good works (as some missional Lutherans and Evangelicals do). Neither are they authorized to skip or minimize those verses because they’re afraid their flock might become self-righteous after trying and succeeding in doing some good works (as some confessional Lutherans do).

  4. I was raised in a home where my mom (a Norwegian Lutheran as a child and LCMS as an adult). She made it very clear that my salvation was in constant danger if I sinned.
    To confess a sin was to hear “You can only hope that God will forgive you.” Jesus was waiting for the chance to condemn me if I didn’t toe the line.
    Needless to say, I was 26 before a pastor communicated to me God’s love, mercy, and grace.
    The first time I heard someone say (whether false theology or not) “I’ve been good, so why wouldn’t God want me in heaven” I just about fell off my chair. the idea that God would want me had never entered my mind. I had spent 20 years in prayer begging God not to kill me; that I would do better tomorrow.
    Now understanding mercy, grace, and love, I still do not participate in the celebration of Lent. I spent 26 years being reminded of my sinful state, and still cannot attend lenten services. I’m still catching up on the good news of Easter.
    That’s my story of being in the LCMS as a child influenced by a fear-dominated LCMS mom. I hope that my story is rare.

  5. Tchividjian, of course, is the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, successor to D. James Kennedy. Tchividjian regularly channels the late ELCA professor, Gerhard Ford, who claimed that the Word of God is an “event.” Forde denied the verbal inspiration of the Bible, the vicarious atonement of Christ, God’s eternal law, natural law, and the third use of the law. Due to his prior epistemological commitments. Forde was unable to offer a traditional sexual ethic based either on Scripture or natural law. I show this in “Natural Law, Human Sexuality, and Forde’s ‘Acid Test’,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal (CPH, 2011). There I write:

    “Given a traditional definition of marriage—the one-flesh union of one man and one woman for life—and human sexuality as a subset of traditional marriage, the weakness of Forde’s defense should be readily apparent. In today’s civil sphere, appeals to tradition such as Forde’s fall on deaf ears. In contemporary society, and with the acceptance of contraception, no-fault divorce, abortion, and same-sex marriage, the traditional definition of marriage has faced increasing opposition. Marriage, for many people, no longer is primarily about the procreation and the education of children within a sexually exclusive and lifelong monogamous union of husband and wife. Rather, it is about “love.” For many people today, romantic love is not only a constitutive aspect of marriage; it is perhaps the sole aspect. Further, Forde’s ethic is based in part on an argument of silence—that social or moral goods of reinterpreting marriage and human sexuality have not yet been discovered. This is woefully thin. A counterargument might suggest that such social or moral goods may indeed be discovered and ultimately valued—if traditionalists like Forde would only get out of the way” (p. 153).

    Further, Machen was also a Presbyterian divine. While not a Fundamentalist in the strict sense, Machen believed in the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture. Nevertheless, Machen also emphasized the importance of Christian experience, a move similar to liberalism, to confirm the Gospel.

    Finally, clarity is in order. Having a “high view of man” is not the same thing as “having a high view of man, apart from God’s grace, to perform the works of the law.” God has the former–so much so that He sacrificed His only Son!–and rejects the latter. We should likewise. Additionally, having a “low view of man” does not lead to a “high view of Christ.” Our most well-articulated theological pronouncements of the law, groveling, bad feelings, guilt, shame, regret, or even our sincerest, tear-drenched confession of sins do not give us a “high view of Christ.” Only the Gospel does that.

  6. Thank you for this inspirational article!

    It brought to my mind how a low view of the Law leads to a low view of the Gospel — and a low view of truly good works.

    Luke 7:46-48: “‘You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.’” And he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’”

    How many of us were led to believe (by those with a low view of the Law) that Jesus forgave her much because she worked so hard for him?

  7. Matt, were you going to respond to Robert’s critique of your article? I would find that interesting. Thanks.

  8. @Robert #6

    Robert, my intent and purpose of the article was to show how a high view of the Law and a realistic picture of mankind leads us to see mankind rightly. Without a proper understanding of original sin and mankind’s anthropology we are led into a whole host of problems. This is the error that Luther hits on in the Smalcald Articles in Article II,

    “The rest become blind and arrogant [are smitten with arrogance and blindness], and [insolently] conceive the opinion that they observe and can observe the Law by their own powers, as has been said above concerning the scholastic theologians; thence come the hypocrites and [self-righteous or] false saints.”

    Here Luther shows that an inflated view of self, where people conceive that they can observe the Law by their own powers, leads to self-righteous false saints.

    Also, you seem to be implying that I am saying that the Law is a means of delivering a high view of Christ. I apologize if that is what is communicated. My intent and purpose is to show that with an overly inflated view of mankind, one will not be aware of sin or in need of a solution. The chief office and force of a high view of the Law according to Luther is to, “reveal original sin with all its fruits, and show man how very low his nature has fallen, and has become [fundamentally and] utterly corrupted; as the Law must tell man that he has no God nor regards [cares for] God, and worships other gods, a matter which before and without the Law he would not have believed. In this way he becomes terrified, is humbled, desponds, despairs, and anxiously desires aid, but sees no escape; he begins to be an enemy of [enraged at] God, and to murmur, etc. This is what Paul says, Rom. 4:15: The Law worketh wrath. And Rom. 5:20: Sin is increased by the Law. [The Law entered that the offense might abound.]” Thus the work of the Law is to ‘drive us’ to repentance, so that we might be prepared to hear the all sufficient Christ!

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