Summary: The problem with legalism is: 1. It turns a relationship of love into a religion of laws. 2. It turns people from encouragers into fault-finders. 3. It emphasizes outward conformity rather than inner transformation.
What an interesting story about the early church The Word of God has just spread to the Gentiles (non-Jews and people from other lands), and they have responded enthusiastically to its message. There were thrilling stories of healings, miracles and dramatic conversions. These new converts were in love with God and filled with joy because their sins were forgiven, and they had experienced the indwelling presence of God in their lives. They were also enjoying the fellowship of other people who received Jesus Christ into their lives and were growing in the faith with them. Even the persecution they faced from friends and family did not cause them to reconsider their decision to follow Christ. But then something happened for which they were not prepared. A small group of zealous, Jewish Christians from Jerusalem came to pay a visit. They were born Jews and had carefully followed the Jewish faith, observing all the laws of Moses and the traditions of Judaism. When they accepted Christ as their Messiah, they assumed that they should continue to follow all the Jewish laws and traditions. And to some extent they were right, at least concerning the moral code, but Jewish tradition had interpreted Mosaic law and added considerably to it. When these Jewish Christians came to Antioch, they tried to impose these rules on the new Christians who hardly knew who Moses was. The first thing they said to these new Christians was: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This was not exactly good news to adult male Gentiles.
Instead of helping to open up the way to Christ, they put boulders in their path. They made the way to God more difficult, instead of more accessible. They created unnecessary obstacles, instead of removing them. This often happens in the life of a new Christian. Some people feel it is their business to remind them of all the prohibitions — the things they are no longer supposed to do. They put shackles around the feet of new Christians so they cannot dance with the Savior in the new life he has given them. They become the religious police, investigating new believers to make sure they are not doing anything wrong.
It was important for these new believers to understand that to come to Christ means a whole new way of living, and that there are moral laws that are important to observe. But the danger was that they made it appear that a person is saved (i.e. made right with God) by keeping the law. They made it sound like a person’s relationship with God was dependent on how well they kept the law, rather than by the free gift of his grace through Jesus Christ. Legalism is seeing the Christian life as a list of things to do, and an equal, if not larger, list of things which you are not permitted to do. It makes it appear that one is justified before God by one’s own obedience, rather than the work of Jesus Christ upon the cross. Legalism acts as though a person earns their salvation, rather than receiving it as a free gift of God. Legalism sees the Christian life as a list of rules rather than spiritual principles that enable us to enter into kingdom life. Legalism majors on prohibitions rather than emphasizing positive transformation. Legalism looks at the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law. It looks at outward observances rather than an inner change of heart.
Legalism is a scourge in the church because it is not authentic Christianity. Why is legalism such a problem in the church? There are several reasons, but the first is: Legalism turns a relationship of love into a religion of laws. Primarily, our relationship with God is supposed to be a relationship of love, rather than adherence to a list of laws. I want to be careful here, since we live in a society which often has the opposite problem of the one which are talking about today. In our culture, we have emphasized grace to the point where many people seem to feel that obedience to a moral code is not really necessary. To talk of moral failure is passe. Our culture does not have a problem with legalism as much as it does legalism’s opposite, something I call “Gracism” — that is, an overemphasis on grace to the point that we believe it is not important whether we obey God or not. We carelessly live any way we please, believing that we live by grace and that God automatically forgives us for anything and everything. We almost rejoice in our brokenness and use it as an excuse. We have talked so much about the love of God that we cannot imagine him be so mean as to judge our sin. So let me say in the beginning that rules are necessary, and the laws of God are good. In fact, the purpose of the laws of God are not to hinder us and make our lives difficult; they are the guidelines which show us how to get the most out of life and enjoy it to the fullest extent. If you want to be an unhappy person break any or all the laws of God. It is a formula for certain disaster. God’s laws are the result of his love.