You won’t be able to find the term, “Legalism” in the Bible, but just about every New Testament author, and some Old Testament ones, address it as a concept. I don’t think there’s ever been a Christian who, to some degree, hasn’t fallen prey to its lure. In fact, if you don’t think you have, you’re most likely under its hypnotic spell right now.
Few people are so thoroughly law-leaning that you would be inclined to label them a “Legalist.” Most followers of Jesus are made of a mixture of performance-based and grace-based faith. So, while you may not deserve to be branded a full-scale legalist it’s possible that you will discover that you display a legalistic trait or two.
Jesus was born into a religious culture filthy with legalistic types. After he left, within a few years of the fledgling Church’s birth, those with the gene had found their way into every Christian church and most of the Apostles preached and wrote to correct the legalistic disease. Beyond that, the history of the Church has been plagued with legalistic movements. Much of what we know of the Church in the Middle Ages (1,000 years worth!) was predominantly legalistic. The Reformation didn’t stamp it out for good and it prevails until today. The Pharisees are the same yesterday and today and forever!
This goes way back to the beginning. Adam and Eve were the first legalists. Their fig leaf clothes were an attempt to cover their sin while hiding from God. Their son Cain followed in their footsteps when he offered the fruit of his own labor to God instead of the prescribed sacrificial lamb.
My personal stab at a definition of legalism is based on three components of it – rules, reasons, and resources.
Legalism is an ill-fated approach to God through obedience to certain rules, for self-glorification reasons out of the resources of human energy.
All legalism has certain rules (sometimes good rules and sometimes bad ones) for certain reasons (always the wrong reasons) using certain resources (always the wrong resources). Legalism is a perverse answer to the questions: What should I do to get God to accept me? Why should I do those things? And, how can I do them? If you want to detect the legalistic error you have to look at those three factors: The what, the why and the how – the rules, reasons, and resources.
Having rules and following them does not make a person a legalist. God has rules, moral standards that he still wants us to live by, which are not in themselves antiquated. The rules – right ones – are not the problem. His laws – the moral ones in both halves of the Bible – still reflect his character and guide the actions and attitudes of those who love him.
- “… the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12).
- The Law is good if a man use it lawfully. (1 Timothy 1:8)
- Do we then nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:31)
Every healthy Christian has a deep respect, even a love, for God’s rules, and wants to obey them from his heart. As I quoted in the essay on the Law, “Love for God makes Law enjoyable and Law makes love for God practical. Love for God is the heart of the Law. Law is the hands and feet of a heart of love. Moral Law is the rule book of love.” Rules in themselves do not a legalist make.
But what can make contribute to a legalistic attitude is when you have the right rules written in the wrong place or ascribe to the wrong rules altogether. The former is when you try to obey God’s laws, but instead of following them out of gratitude for grace, you labor slavishly to get God to like you. The legalist fears God’s law and think of it as looming over his heard as a demanding code carved in stone, waiting to crush him. Instead of his laws as letters of love inscribed on his heart he views them as the demands of withheld love. The legalist’s “what” may be right (when he has the right rules), but “where” the rules are written is wrong. Instead of being in love with God and his laws he toils underneath the threat of displeasing him.
Another way to be a legalist is to put yourself under the wrong rules altogether. That’s when, instead of following God’s expressed will in his good Law, you replace it with the “traditions of men” (Mark 7:8) or “human commands” (Colossians 2:22). Instead of the “perfect law that gives freedom” (James 1:25) you might find yourself bowing to “rules taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13). We’re well advised to “pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth” (Titus 1:14). Legalistic believers have an overactive conscience that requires more of themselves and other people than God does. They see God as a harsh taskmaster and create new rules for themselves in order to avoid nearing his bad side.
Remember, because someone subscribes to rules and obeys them doesn’t make them legalistic. We need God’s laws in order to stay on track with what pleases him and with what’s best for us. Liberty is not lawlessness (Galatians 5:13). The Lord gives us laws (John 14:5; 15:10; James 1:25; 2:8…) but they’re loveable laws (Psalm 1:2; 40:8; 119:32, 35, 47…). That’s why it’s important to distinguish between God’s laws and men’s.
For a primer on where the law fits in the life of a New Testament follower of Jesus you might consider mine called, “The Lord, His Law, and Those Who Love Him.”
See Parts 2, 3, and 4 if your interested to study the subject more…