Legalism is the principle of strict adherence to law or rules to gain salvation. It is more about doing the letter of the law rather than obedience from the heart. It is like the child forced to sit down in the car but says, “I’m standing up on the inside.” Only a legalist seldom recognizes that they believe this doctrine or that they are trying to earn the favor of God. It is easily recognized by others because the legalist insists that everyone else must do what they do.
The doing part is usually not a bad thing though, just rules and restrictions that MUST be followed. Legalism could include: church attendance every time the doors are open, praying each day for at least an hour, women wearing hats to church, not playing games or going anywhere there is fun on Sundays, and a host of other thou shalt and thou shalt nots.
Paul wrote an entire letter (epistle) to the church in Galatia with strong words about legalism. In their case, one problem was the issue of circumcision. This practice identified the Jews as God’s people (obviously only the men) but is not part of what Christians do to identify themselves. Paul explained to the Galatians why those legalists were trying to get them to be circumcised.
For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Galatians 6:13–15)
When I read it this morning, I thought of the many legalistic attitudes that are current. Some insist that a pastor must wear a suit and tie on Sunday. Others insist that Christians must speak in tongues, or wear certain clothing, or never play card games, or only sing hymns, and so on. I re-read the above passage with those in mind . . .
“For even those who only sing the old hymns do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you agree with their preference that they may boast that you agree with them. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither singing hymns counts for anything, or singing choruses, or any other kind of singing because God is in the business of making a new creation out of sinners.”
Put that way, our preferences pale in the light of God’s power to give us a new heart. Out of that heart flows the love of God and a deep desire to share Jesus Christ with those around us. All our old ways and insistence on rule-keeping fades away as the new life brings peace and joy.
I want to please God, but cannot decide what pleases Him without listening to Him. As a writer once said, “Today you might be writing; tomorrow He may ask you to do something else.” That fits my escape from ‘rules’ into the freedom Jesus gives. This Sunday God may ask me to dress up and be in church, but if He asks me to quickly don some jeans and go to the hospital and share the Gospel with a dying friend, grace sends me there and legalism would be disobedience.
The interesting conclusion from these verses is Galatians is that if I spout, “You must do this to please God” by my very words I would be denying the truth of God. I would sin even when I just say it because pleasing God happens only by submitting to His will and not my own ideas!