1. Distorting the gospel by adding conditions to free grace: Acts 15:1, 7-11; Gal.1:6-7, 2:11-16, 4:8-11, Gal. 5:2-4; Col. 2:16-17.
2. Substituting man-made regulations for the Word of God: Matthew 15:1-3.
3. Majoring on the minors and neglecting the more important issues: Luke 11:42.
4. Over concern with the externals while disregarding matters of the heart: Matthew 23:27.
5. Regarding with contempt or judging a brother based on matters of personal conviction: Romans 14:1-5.
6. Trusting in ourselves that we are righteous based on religious performance: Luke 18:9-14.
7. Hypocrisy, the leaven of the Pharisees: Luke 11:53-12:1.
Legalism is not:
1. A zeal for the commandments of Christ: Matthew 5:19; 1 Corinthians 7:19.
2. A ministry that teaches others to follow Christ in obedience: Matthew 28:20; 1 Thes.4:1-2.
3. Strong personal convictions (as long as they are not required of others): Romans 14:2, 5.
4. Man-made restrictions for personal protection from sinful habits (as long as we do not begin to view them as binding on others): Romans 13:14; 1 Corinthians 6:12.
5. A zeal for good works: Eph.2:10; Titus 1:16, 2:7, 14, 3:8, 14.
6. Limiting our liberty for the benefit of others: Romans 14:15, 21, 15:2; Acts 16:1-3.
7. Obedience: John 14:15, 23, 15:10; 1 John 2:3-5, 5:2-4.
Legalism, properly understood, is not about Christians obeying too precisely. It is also not about individuals having convictions that are their own private resolves. It is about seeking to be justified by means of the law. When Jewish infiltrators came to the early believers and said that they must be circumcised and obey the Jewish feasts in order to be true Christians (Acts 15:1), then they demonstrated New Testament legalism. We do have Christians with a spirit akin to the legalist, but their sin is that of being unloving or distorting responsibility or placing private convictions on others, not true legalism. In most cases, they are not seeking to be justified by the law (Gal. 5:4).
But underlying much of the conscious rejection of spiritual discipline is the fear of legalism… But nothing could be farther from the truth if you understand what discipline and legalism are. The difference is one of motivation: legalism is self-centered; discipline is God-centered. The legalistic heart says, “I will do this thing to gain merit with God.” The disciplined heart says, “I will do this thing because I love God and want to please Him.” There is an infinite difference between the motivation of legalism and discipline! (Paul) knew this implicitly and fought the legalists bare-knuckled all the way across Asia Minor, never giving an inch. And now he shouts to us, “Train (discipline) yourself to be godly”! If we confuse legalism and discipline, we do so to our soul’s peril.
An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons – marriage, or meat, or beer, or cinema; but the moment he stars saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.
We are not Legalists when we keep the Law, because we do not look to the Law for life. Rather the Law shows us we have true life in our hearts. We keep the Law to be obedient to Christ and show Him how much we love Him for rescuing us from the damning influences of trying to keep the Law to gain eternal life. Obedience is a far cry from Legalism.
Legalism…does not describe the attitude of a Christian who earnestly seeks to please God, but uses the law as a means to that end. A sincere desire to please God is not legalism. Nor does it cause legalism. Legalism results from the actual misuse of the law. Nor does legalism in any sense diminish the goodness of the law. There is nothing wrong with God’s holy law. Woe to the person who disparages the holy law that God wrote on stone with His finger.
The Christian is not free to do what the Bible forbids. Christian freedom does not entail the right to fornicate or to steal or to lie or to persist in an unforgiving attitude or to do anything else the Scriptures explicitly prohibit. And a person who lovingly points this out to you is not a legalist for having done so!