God searches the heart and understands every motive. To be acceptable to Him, our motives must spring from a love for Him and a desire to glorify Him. Obedience to God performed from a legalistic motive – that is a fear of the consequences or to gain favor with God – is not pleasing to God.
We are much more concerned about someone abusing his freedom than we are about his guarding it. We are more afraid of indulging the sinful nature than we are of falling into legalism. Yet legalism does indulge the sinful nature because it fosters self-righteousness and religious pride. It also diverts us from the real issues of the Christian life by focusing on external and sometimes trivial issues.
Aggravating all of these areas (of legalism) is a class of people who have come to be known as “controllers.” These are people who are not willing to let you live your life before God as you believe He is leading you. They have all the issues buttoned down and have cast-iron opinions about all of them. These people only know black and white. There are no gray areas to them. They insist you live your Christian life according to their rules and their opinions. If you insist on being free to live as God wants you to live, they will try to intimidate you and manipulate you one way or another. Their primary weapons are “guilt trips,” rejection, or gossip. These people must be resisted. We must not allow them to subvert the freedom we have in Christ.
Is it more wrong to allow what God prohibits, or to prohibit what God allows? This is actually a trick question because both alternatives are equally wrong. Either alternative would put me in the position of the Lawgiver. God allows only Himself the prerogative to determine holy standards.
No matter how pious legalism appears on the outside, it dishonors God by revealing a deep-seated distrust of God. Stop and think about it for a minute. Why do men insist upon putting agreements in writing? Why are legal contracts necessary? For only one reason – men are fallible. At best, we tend to forget the things we have committed to do. At worst, we never intended to do them in the first place. A legal contract gives one man a basis for forcing another to do what he has promised. Do you really believe God is so unreliable that we must create a contract which binds Him? All of the biblical covenants are those which were initiated by God, not man. And most of these covenants are unconditional; that is, they are not conditioned by any action on man’s part, but only on the faithfulness of God Himself. Legalism by its very nature implies that God is so untrustworthy that we must be sure to get it down in contractual form. Far better it is to leave blessings in the hand of the One who is gracious.
The reasons why [legalism] is so devastating are:
1. It ignores or underestimates the role of inner attitude and motivation.
2. It focuses upon self-effort rather than on divine enablement.
3. It encourages pride rather than humble dependence upon God.
4. It tends to “use” the Scriptures to reinforce our own preconceived ideas and preferences.
5. It tends to conceive of our acceptance with God as performance oriented.
6. It arouses the flesh and incites us to sin, rather than the avoidance of sin.
7. It tends to impose one’s personal convictions on others, and to condemn them if they fail to live up to our rules.
Legalism cannot save you, my friend, and neither can it sanctify. Praise God!
When we impose man-made regulations upon ourselves (or others) and lose sight of our liberty to do or not do those things which Scripture neither commands nor forbids, we destroy the fruit of the Spirit and we cease to grow (or to allow others to grow).
Consequences of legalism:
1. Keeps people distanced and alienated from God. Afraid of God, the taskmaster. Afraid of God’s rejection. No assurance or security.
2. Guilt, condemnation (Rom. 8:1), accusation, disapproval (both objective and subjective).
3. Defeat, despair, frustration, futility. “It’s a losing battle. I can never do enough, be good enough, do it right and perfect as expected.” Burned out!
4. Self-destructive behavior; self-belittling, sense of worthlessness, low personal concept of oneself.
5. Hypocrisy. Play-acting; role-playing; lip-service (Matt. 15:8, 9). Contrived piety, perfunctory performance, pretense, ostentation.
6. Minimalization. What do I have to do to get by, to side-step the rules?
7. Impersonalization; shallow personal relationships because they relate to law rather that to Person of Jesus Christ and other persons.
Contrariety of legalism to Christian gospel:
1. Legalism is contrary to the Grace dynamic of God in Jesus Christ.
2. Legalism is contrary to faith, our receptivity of God’s activity; a satanic substitute that supplants faith.
3. Legalism is contrary to the Lordship of Christ, wherein He directs and guides our lives.
4. Legalism is contrary to Christian obedience, which is “listening under” the direction of the living Lord Jesus Christ.
5. Legalism is contrary to the Spirit-led Christian life, wherein the Spirit of Christ enables and empowers. (Eph. 5:18).
6. Legalism is contrary to freedom in Christ, and the liberty that is to be realized in present kingdom living. (John 8:31, 32, 36; 2 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 5:1, 17).
God saves us from the reductionism of such legalism which enshrines spirituality as a series of wooden laws and then says, “If you can do these six, sixteen or sixty-six things, you will be godly.” Christianity, godliness, is far more than a checklist. Being “in Christ” is a relationship, and like all relationships it deserves disciplined maintenance, but never legalistic reductionism.
One of the most serious problems facing the orthodox Christian church today is the problem of legalism. One of the most serious problems facing the church in Paul’s day was the problem of legalism. In every day it is the same. Legalism wrenches the joy of the Lord from the Christian believer, and with the joy of the Lord goes His power for vital worship and vibrant service. Nothing is left but cramped, somber, dull, and listless profession. The truth is betrayed, and the glorious name of the Lord becomes a synonym for a gloomy kill-joy. The Christian under the law is a miserable parody of the real thing.
Let us not be deceived by outward appearances. Satan “disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). He keeps his deadliest diseases most sanitary. He clothes his captains in religious garments and houses his weapons in temples. Legalism is a more dangerous disease than alcoholism because it doesn’t look like one. Alcoholism makes men fail; legalism helps them succeed in the world. Alcoholism makes men depend on the bottle; legalism makes them self-sufficient, depending on no one. Alcoholism destroys moral resolve; legalism gives it strength. Alcoholics don’t feel welcome in the church; legalists love to hear their morality extolled in church.
Legalism is more subtle and more pervasive and, in the end, more destructive [than alcoholism]. Satan clothes himself as an angel of light and makes the very commandments of God his base of operations. And the human heart is so inveterately proud and unsubmissive that it often uses religion and morality to express its rebellion.
If we are focused on rule keeping, if we are focused on earning God’s acceptance through our efforts, if we are focused on trying to meet the convictions and standards of others, God becomes a gloomy killjoy and the vibrant relationship we desire with Him becomes dull, distant and difficult to bear. As we spin the plates of legalism, our Christian walk increasingly becomes a burden with the continual addition of another plate. And to keep the plates spinning, we’ll focus more on the plates, our legalistic rulebook, than our intimate and exciting and joyful walk with the living God.
Legalism is adding your rules to the Word of God. And when your rules are added to the Word of God, these traditions almost always become more important than the Word of God itself. God is ignored. Self-righteousness is nurtured. Unity in Christ is shot because the focus now becomes our new rules. Our gaze is upon those who follow them the best or preach them the loudest.
It would appear that God does not know the best way of saving men, and men are so wise that they amend His methods! Is not this a refinement of blasphemy? It is a hideous farce to see a rebellious sinner suddenly become jealous about good works and greatly concerned for public morality. Does it not make laughter in hell to see licentious men censuring the pure gospel of the Lord Jesus and finding fault with free forgiveness because it might make men less mindful of purity? It makes one sick to see the hypocrisy of legalists.
There are people, professing Christian people, who are determined to bring you under their religious thumb. They are bent on making you a slave of their conscience. They have built a tidy religious box, without biblical justification, and strive to stuff you inside and make you conform to its dimensions. They are legalists, and their tools are guilt, fear, intimidation, and self-righteousness. They proclaim God’s unconditional love for you, but insist on certain conditions before including you among the accepted, among the approved elite, among God’s favored few… They threaten to rob you of joy and to squeeze the intimacy out of your relationship with Jesus. They may even lead you to doubt your salvation. They heap condemnation and contempt on your head so that your life is controlled and energized by fear rather than freedom and joy and delight in God.
In contrast to the two commands of Christ, the Pharisees had developed a system of 613 laws, 365 negative commands and 248 positive laws… By the time Christ came it had produced a heartless, cold, and arrogant brand of righteousness. As such, it contained at least ten tragic flaws.
1. New laws continually need to be invented for new situations.
2. Accountability to God is replaced by accountability to men.
3. It reduces a person’s ability to personally discern.
4. It creates a judgmental spirit.
5. The Pharisees confused personal preferences with divine law.
6. It produces inconsistencies.
7. It created a false standard of righteousness.
8. It became a burden to the Jews.
9. It was strictly external.
10. It was rejected by Christ.
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.