“Faith itself has been taken captive by legalism.” ~Gerhard Forde
Ever since Paul’s fiery denouncement of Judaistic law-keeping in Galatians and Romans, the Christian tradition has recognized, if only grudgingly, that legalism is the death-knell of faith in Christ. Even those churches most closely identified with deeply legalistic tendencies (I am thinking of Catholicism and Orthodoxy in particular), will routinely, if hypocritically, condemn legalism in its most blatant forms.
However, it may come as a shock to realize that even among evangelicals there is a subtle, but equally destructive, form of legalism that has undermined the proclamation that salvation is by faith alone, apart from works. I am referring to a legalistic understanding of the nature of faith. Gerhard Forde neatly explains the downward spiral that leads one to redefine faith in such a way that makes it just one more law that we must fulfill in order to be saved:
Even when we attempt to stick with faith alone we are usually driven to define, qualify, and hedge about the faith of which we speak so that no one will get the “wrong idea.” Of course we don’t mean just any old faith, we mean really believing; we mean a really sincere, heartfelt trust, we mean a living, active faith, a faith which comes after deep and despairing repentance—all that “adverbial” theology. Before we are through we have so qualified and modified faith as to make it even less obtainable than the justice we failed to reach by the law! No wonder most people today would rather take their chances with the law! Faith itself has been taken captive by legalism. The price is so inflated that no one can afford it any more (Forde, Justification by Faith, p. 10).