In previous articles, we have highlighted some problems with the law of Moses but we would tweak that slightly in this article as we examine the problem with legalism, i.e. the mindset that advocates strict adherence to the dos and don’ts of the old testament laws.
The first problem with legalism is the hypocrisy it tends to foster. Deep down law adherents know they cannot live up to the standards of the law of Moses and their failings or shortcomings in this regard, rather than being exposed to fellow brethren in a graceful environment tend to be hidden. The fact that they have established a reputation for being, as it were, “holy” makes them extra conscious of the need to maintain that appearance.
However human nature being what it is, the hypocrisy crops up in other ways. Ways glaring to everybody other than the one exhibiting the hypocrisy. For example, the Pharisees did not mind condemning and crucifying an innocent Jesus but they could not enter into Pilate’s palace because they did not want to be unclean for the Passover (John 18:28). They did not mind helping an ass to find water on the Sabbath but God forbid Jesus should heal actual human beings that came to Him on the Sabbath.
The second problem with legalism is that it almost without fail, eliminates love from the picture. Love itself becomes a rule rather than a state of mind and whether or not this love is rendered (and how it is rendered) depends on whether or not rules are kept. This philosophy has no headspace for the unconditional love of God in Christ. Still picking up on the Sabbath issue, the Pharisees were more conscious of the breach of the Sabbath law than the excitement at the fact that a man that was crippled for 38 years and a man born blind were restored (John 5 and 9). They hated Jesus so much that they were willing to use the life of the woman caught in adultery as a pawn to eliminate Him. It is almost like the Pharisee’s hearts had become as hard as the stones the law of Moses was written on. It takes a recipient of grace to be graceful, it stands to reason then that the legalistic mindset cannot emanate a grace it is not acquainted with.
The third problem with legalism is that it gives us an avenue to boast. If indeed our relationship with God or the level of our reconciliation with Him depend on our own works and endeavors we have things to be proud of. We have contributed to our salvation and then this would necessitate hierarchies since some would be more saved than others as a result of better performances. It is this kind of nonsense the gospel eliminates when it says all have sinned, all are guilty before God and there is none righteous. It is almost like grace is an insult to the legalistic mindset because it begs the question, “Are you saying all my sacrificial living and righteous lifestyle count for nothing?” and in the context of salvation, the answer to that is a resounding yes!. The legalistic mindset believes it has earned a degree of righteousness and it cannot believe that people get given by grace what it has worked so hard for. But what does the scripture say?
“What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.” (Romans 9:33)
The final problem with legalism is that it tends to skew the motive for good works. The motives for good works under this mindset tend to be against the core of the gospel. The legalistic motive may be (i) fear of punishment from God(whereas the scripture says there is no fear in love and perfect love casts out fear), (ii) Earning the right to heaven or some form of righteousness (whereas scripture says we are justified by Grace through faith not by works lest any should boast), (iii) Keeping up appearances (whereas scripture says love should be without hypocrisy and we should aim to please God not men) (iv) personal pride (Whereas scripture says God resists the proud). It is highly unlikely that any works done with this mindset takes account of love for God or love for men, which are the most important bits of the law according to Jesus Christ.
On a final note, it is worth admitting that not every legalistic Christian is loveless or a hypocrite. A lot of them are genuine well meaning people who really want to honour God with their lives and legacies. Remember in Acts 15, the main people preaching the law of Moses in addition to getting saved were Pharisees who has believed in Jesus Christ. However (and to draw inspiration from an old cliche) it is possible to be sincere but sincerely wrong. The gospel has zero room for any claim to righteousness, good works or boasting not on the foundation of Jesus Christ. As Paul the apostle says, “no other foundation can be laid other than that which has been laid, Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).
The legal mindset must understand it has only Jesus and the Cross to thank for whatever standing it has before God. It must understand that it needs to be graceful to the world as God in Christ was to it, and it needs to understand that despite God loves the world despite its shortcomings, every whit as God loves it (i.e. the legal mindset) despite its own shortcomings. The legal mindset must know that good works ought to flow from gratitude to the work of Jesus not from wanting to earn a righteousness only faith in that work can give.