Truth without grace breeds a self-righteous legalism.
It is not easy to get the law killed. Something of a legal disposition remains even in the believer while he is in this world. Many a stroke does self and self-righteousness get, but still it revives again. If he were wholly dead to the law, he would be wholly dead to sin. But so far as the law lives, sin lives. They that think they know the gospel well enough betray their ignorance. No man can be too evangelical [gospel-centered]. It will take all his life-time to get a legal temper destroyed.
Underlying causes of legalism:
1. Humanistic concept of self-control – “I’m in control of how things go.”
2. Humanistic concept of self-effort, “works” – trying, striving, “I can do it.”
3. False security needs for defined parameters, limitations, borders
4. Work-ethic concept of strict reciprocity – “Get what you work for”
5. Punitive concept of getting what one deserves
6. Traditionalism of maintaining status quo
7. Simplism of dividing life into compartments with instant solutions; fundamentalism. Got a handle on it – all figured out. Instant solutions – don’t have to think or trust.
8. Fear of freedom, of decision-making responsibility (Rom. 8:15)
9. Security need for something that is fixed and static, concrete and tangible. Inordinate need to be safe and right
10. Favorite of sadomasochistic personalities; perfectionists, Pharisees.
If we don’t consider the gospel context of the Bible as a whole, even well-exegeted imperatives turn into moralism. And this fosters a legalistic culture in our churches.
Here’s the mistake the legalist makes. He confuses his own ongoing participation in the process of sanctification with God’s finished work in justification. In other words, he thinks that godly practices and good works somehow contribute to his justification. But God’s Word is clear when it says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law…” (Romans 3:20). None of us earn God’s approval and love by our good works. None of us can add to the finished, complete work of Jesus on the cross. He paid the price of our sins. He satisfied God’s wrath… The legalist allows his performance of spiritual duties to become his preoccupation and source of self-righteous pride. In doing so, he unwittingly walks away from the main thing – the gospel.
The Pharisees were desperately determined to not break the laws of God. Consequently they devised a system to keep them from even coming close to angering God. They contrived a “fence” of Pharisaic rules that, if man would keep them, would guarantee a safe distance between himself and the laws of God… The “fence” or “hedge” laws accumulated into hundreds over the years and were passed around orally. Soon it became apparent that they were far from optional. These laws became every inch as important as the scriptural laws and in some instances far more crucial (William Coleman).
To the extent that we forget that our status before God is due to what Christ has done for us, we will try to make out own relationship with God depend on winning His approval (Ranald Macauley and Jerram Barrs).
For the legalist, morality serves the same function that immorality does for the antinomian or the progressive – namely, as the expression of self-reliance and self-assertion.
Whenever happy confidence in the sovereign power of God for our own lives and the lives of others grows weak, legalism creeps in. We inevitably try to compensate for loss of dynamic faith by increased moral resolve and the addition of man-made regulations. But wherever joyful confidence in the power of God is waning, the flesh is waxing. Which means that the morality we had hoped would save ourselves and the regulations we hoped would purify our church fall victim to the massive power of the flesh and become its instruments of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.
Legalism has its origin in self-worship. If people are justified through their obedience to the law, then they must merit praise, honor, and glory. Legalism, in other words, means the glory goes to people rather than God.
So, how do I know if I’m a legalist? Here is a simple test, consisting of five questions.
1. Do you place a higher value on church customs than on biblical principles?
2. Do you elevate to the status of moral law something the Bible does not require?
3. Do you tend to look down your spiritual nose at those who don’t follow God’s will for YOUR life?
4. Are you uncomfortable with the fact that the Bible does not explicitly address every ethical decision or answer every theological question?
5. Are you more comfortable with rules than with relationships?
Legalists tend to fear ambiguity. The legalist’s favorite colors are black and white. They are uncomfortable with biblical silence and insist on speaking when the Word of God does not. They feel something of a “calling” to fill in the gaps left by Scriptural silence or to make specific and often detailed applications that God, in the Bible, chose not to make.
Things that draw people to embrace legalism.
1. Legalism provides us with a sense of security in that it enables us always to know precisely what to do in every conceivable moral dilemma. There is a certain sort of psychological safety in being stiff morally.
2. Legalism nurtures pride. “Look at what I’m willing to forego that others embrace! Others may indulge themselves but I have a discipline and a moral standard they lack. I possess a will-power that really loves God. Therefore, God really loves me” (with the implication that God doesn’t really love those who choose another path, or at least doesn’t love them as much as He loves me!).
3. It provides an excuse to maintain control. One need never fear the unknown because there is always a rule or law (of my own making, of course) to govern every situation. After all, without rules things will get out control (or so legalists think).
4. There is comfort in conformity. It is always reassuring when other people live like we do, even if there is no explicit biblical warrant for it.
5. Some embrace legalism out of a genuine, heart-felt concern for other believers. They are actually motivated by love and compassion, worried that the spiritual welfare of others is at risk. They fear that others will assuredly “fall” if they walk down a certain path, even though that path is nowhere prescribed in Scripture (see especially Romans 14:4).
Human legalism leads to human self-righteousness. Human self-righteousness denies the need for the saving, enabling grace of Christ. Human righteousness embraces the cruelest of Satan’s lies, that a person can be righteous by keeping the law. If that were true, there would have been no need for the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ.