A Powerful Insight About Legalism — Frank Viola | Beyond Evangelical

Frank Viola
3 min readMar 30, 2024

Welcome to another Thursday UNFILTERED blog post, the only blog that wants you to know the word “bed” looks like an actual bed. You’ll never unsee it now. You’re welcome.

Last month, my wife and I had lunch with the king of radical ecclesiology — Jon Zens, along with his dear wife.

During our conversation, we discussed legalism and why so many Christians are still attracted to it.

(If you’re new to my articles, I addressed legalism in depth last summer in my treatise Jesus vs. Moses. That treatise features a seminal piece by Zens, and it has cured many legalistic souls from the virus.)

While we were enjoying our meal at Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Zens made this statement:

“Legal people cannot minister to others because they are always judging them.”

He then referenced Matthew 7:

How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

~ Matthew 7:4–5

That text is preceded by the Lord’s stern warning against judging others (Matthew 7:1–3).

Zens went on to say,

“If I’m a legal person, I don’t have empathy or sympathy for others. And if I don’t have empathy or sympathy, I can certainly judge them; but I cannot minister to them.”

I thought, “What a stunning insight and crashing blow to legalism.”

Jon’s words reminded me of this passage in James,

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you-who are you to judge your neighbor?

~ James 4:11–12

I’ve watched this play out all my life. Every legalist I’ve ever known couldn’t minister Christ to others. They could only judge them for the reasons Zens articulated.

James essentially said the same thing.

Legalists also want a checklist of right and wrong so they can “color inside the lines.”

“Give me a list to follow!” is the demand of the legalist.

Part of that demand is security. But the other part is pride. Ergo, “I can keep the list, but look who can’t!”

And yet the irony here is that the legalist is blind to the fact that the piece of sawdust he sees in his sister’s eye came off the telephone pole in his own.

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Originally published at https://www.frankviola.org on March 30, 2024.

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Frank Viola

Helping serious followers of Jesus know their Lord more deeply so they can experience real transformation and make a lasting impact. Connect at frankviola.org