What Legalism Is
Legalism comes in many different forms. One form is what we might call full-blown legalism. This is the teaching that sinners can be saved by good works. Whether it’s completely by good works or a mixture of faith and good works, it doesn’t matter. Salvation is by God’s grace alone, and to teach otherwise is legalism. This form of legalism is pretty rare, though it’s certainly a problem in sections of the church today.
Another form of legalism, which is much more common, is the idea that Christians must obey manmade rules and regulations in addition to the commands of Scripture. Sometimes this comes in the form of arbitrary rules about makeup, clothing, and the length of your hair. At other times, these extrabiblical requirements concern holy days and dietary laws. The point is, no one other than Christ speaking in the Scriptures has the authority to bind your conscience. It is legalistic to make up rules for all Christians without any biblical warrant.
The most common legalism is best described as an attitude. We are guilty of legalism when we fall into the trap of thinking that God loves us more when we perform better. There more quiet times, the more Bible reading, the more prayer time, the better God loves me. That’s legalism, and that’s deadly. We must never forget that we are forever accepted in God’s sight because of what Jesus did for us on the cross once and for all. Christ’s finished sacrifice reconciles us to God and forever absolves us of all our shortcomings. Even though we know this in our heads, we have trouble believing this in our hearts. So we need to remind ourselves every day that we are not accepted by God on the basis of what we do. We are secure in our Father’s love because of who he is and because of what Christ has accomplished in our behalf.
What Legalism Isn’t
It is also important to understand what legalism isn’t. First of all, the desire to obey God is not legalism. If we are truly born again, we want to obey God because we want to please our heavenly Father. We are not trying to earn our salvation; we are expressing our gratitude for the salvation he has freely given us in his Son.
Secondly, the attempt to follow God’s law is not legalism. Believers should delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night. We aren’t using the law as the basis of our justification. The law is holy, righteous, and good. It sets before us a perfect pattern of God’s righteousness. The law reflects the righteousness and generosity of the God who gave it. So we cherish the law and delight to obey it out of love for Christ. The Reformers called this “the third use of the law” or the “regulative use of the law.”
Thirdly, striving to be careful and exact in our obedience is not legalism. Some Christians believe that we should simply “feel the Spirit” and do whatever subjective impulses come to mind. Whatever we feel is right is what we should do. This subjectivism is totally foreign to the Bible. True Christians want to do exactly what God says. We want to do it right away. We want to do it as he commanded.
Much more could be said on this topic, but we should seek to study the Scriptures on the subject and not throw around this serious charge without knowing exactly what we mean by the term.