Although many people assume that legalism died with the Pharisees, its spirit can often be felt in our current age. The word “legalism” does not occur in the Bible, it is a term we use to describe a doctrinal position emphasising a system of rules and regulations for achieving both salvation and spiritual growth. Legalists believe in and demand a strict literal adherence to rules and regulations which, doctrinally, is opposed to grace. Those who hold a legalistic position often fail to see the real purposes for law, especially the purpose of the Old Testament law of Moses, which is to reveal to us our need for Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:24).
Even true, sincere believers can fall into the trap of legalism. We are instructed, rather, to be gracious to one another. Romans 14:1 says: Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. In other words, Paul commanded believers to welcome weak Christians but not to get into arguments about doubtful issues. Sadly, there are those who feel so strongly about non-essential doctrines that they will run others out of their fellowship, not even allowing the expression of another viewpoint. That too, is legalism. Many legalistic believers today make the error of demanding unqualified adherence to their own biblical interpretations and even to their own traditions. For example, there are those who feel that to be spiritual one must simply avoid tobacco, alcoholic beverages, dancing, movies etc. The truth is that avoiding these things is no guarantee of spirituality.
The apostle Paul warns us of legalism in Colossians 2:20-23: Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations – “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using – according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.
Legalists may appear to be righteous and spiritual, but legalism ultimately fails to accomplish God’s purposes because it is an outward performance instead of an inward change. To avoid falling into the trap of legalism, we can start by holding fast to the words of the apostle John, For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Romans 14:4 says: Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. Mutual toleration is a Christian virtue. God accepts all believers, along with issues stemming from their backgrounds and levels of maturity. He alone is able to sanctify. Though we may be used of God to help inform a weak believer, we must never judge God’s servant. Romans 14:10 says: But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgement seat of Christ.
Concerning grace, we do issue a word of caution. While we need to be gracious to one another and tolerant of disagreement over disputable matters, we cannot accept heresy. We are exhorted to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). If we remember these guidelines and apply them in love and mercy, we will be safe from both legalism and heresy.
The Gospel calls men to repentance, holiness and godliness. Because of this, the world finds the Gospel offensive. But woe to us if we add unnecessarily to that offense by distorting the true nature of Christianity by combining it with legalism. Because Christianity is concerned with morality, righteousness and ethics, we can easily make that subtle move from a passionate concern for godly morality into loveless legalism.