Legalists assume that one can obey God’s commandments without salvation and/or in his own strength. Both ideas are false. Prayerful action…in the power of the Spirit is required for change to be biblical; all change that pleases God is the fruit of the Spirit.
Grace frees us from having to earn God’s acceptance by meeting others’ expectations, and it also frees us from the unholy pride and prejudice of determining others’ acceptance by God on the basis of our own wisdom.
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.
Puritanism is a wonderful antidote to the harmful and needless divisions which are caused by adding man-made rules to Scripture. Worldliness is an enemy. The cure is in the heart. A man can keep many rules, but be worldly still and at the same time possess a deadly spirit of Pharisaic self-righteousness. Puritanism concentrates on the great issue of the state of a person’s soul. When a soul is truly joined to Christ every part of the person – his thoughts, words and actions – will be subject to the Word of God. While he makes rules for his own life, he will avoid making them for others.
Here is a simple test to check whether you are prone to a legalistic thinking: ask yourself, “How does God feel about me today?” If the answer is anything other than, “He is passionately in love with me,” then you are falling into the trap of thinking that God’s attitude towards us is determined by our performance rather than by his essential loving character. In other words, you’re thinking as though God’s favour is earned rather than freely given.