Legalism is one of the devil's favorite tools to destroy Christians, churches, and even Christian universities.
Legalism is a complex form of hypocrisy, in that there is a form of obedience, though deeply flawed. Legalism is superficial obedience without inward change. It is trying to obey the letter of the Bible without keeping the spirit of the Bible. It is reducing the New Testament into another Law of Moses, into a checklist of commands to create their own righteousness and earn God's approval. Obeying the Gospel with a law mentality will always result in failure, just like those following the Law of Moses and its 613 commandments. Laws alone don't change people (Colossians 2:20-23). Obeying the speed limit does not change our hearts toward a relationship to the state highway department. When we love the Bible more than we love Jesus, we are in danger of becoming legalists, along with making the Bible into an idol. Man-made doctrine also qualifies one as a legalist, as they are trying to make it into Heaven with their human standards. An example of this was when a former minister at our church wrote up a creed of discipline and made it as binding as the Bible.
One Bible major at college told me that we can earn Heaven, just do the deeds and we earn heaven. All well and good that while one can earn Heaven by a perfect life, but when we commit the first sin in our lives, we are dependent on God's grace for any hope of Heaven. Some legalists totally dismiss grace, both God's grace and our own grace toward others. Grace is not about perfect 99% of the time, with God's grace covering the other 1%. One church elder even said that if a Christian dies with a single unrepented or unconfessed sin, that they will go to Hell. He did not believe in true grace.
Legalism stunts spiritual growth. Another Bible major said that Christians are not supposed to change. I guess the apostle Paul was wrong when he said that we are to become "new creatures." That is often lost in legalism, and results in very unloving, unforgiving Christians.
The problem with legalists is not DOING enough, it is not BEING enough. Legalism is like a half-baked potato, hot on the outside, while being cold on the inside. Concepts such as godliness and holiness are foreign to the legalist. Another former minister here could literally memorize the entire Bible, yet belittled members from the pulpit and eventually got arrested for aggravated assault and battery. You can even see his mug shot on the Internet! All that Scripture in his head was a form of superficial obedience, yet none reached his heart, which places him in the form of hypocrisy called legalism. Because there is an element of obedience in legalism, some actually believe that legalism is good. One even told me that he was a dyed in the wool legalist. While indeed that obedience is good, but without changing the heart, the legalist is doomed.
The best examples of legalists in the Bible are the Pharisees. They had the best head knowledge of the Old Testament than any other religious group of their time. But their heart knowledge was horrible, with a total lack of humility (Matthew 22:1-12). They were doing good deeds in public, while blowing trumpets to bring glory to themselves (Matthew 6:1-4). The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector illustrates that the Pharisee was glorifying themselves rather than God. They also wore extra long tassels to bring attention to themselves. They created hundreds of burdensome man-made traditions that they made as binding as the Law and the Prophets. Worst of all, they plotted to murder the Son of God, while of all times and places, during Sabbath synagogue services. The Pharisees were a hot potato on the outside, with knowing Scripture, good deeds, prayer, and attending worship services, but on the inside, the potato was frozen.
Here are some Scriptures that illustrate the legalism of the Pharisees:
<"These people draw near to Me with their mouth,
And honor Me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.
And in vain they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men." (Matthew 15:8-9)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!" (Matthew 22:23-24)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." (Matthew 22:27-28)
The passage in Matthew 15 describes legalism at its core, the outward obedience (mouths drawing near to honor) does not match their hearts, and their man-made traditions being taught as God's doctrine is the cherry on top.
What Jesus is saying in Matthew 22:23-24 is that the Pharisees were "majoring in the minors" while neglecting the majors altogether, the matters of the heart. This is the key element of legalism, a hypocrisy with a trace of superficial obedience. While the minors are necessary, one must "major in the majors" and have their spiritual priorities straight.
Verses 27-28 is Jesus describing the legalistic Pharisees as putting up a front of obedience for men, but their hearts are not right with God.
Why is avoiding legalism an high priority? Listen to the words of Jesus:
"For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:20) He is talking about the legalism of the Pharisees!
Why is legalism wrong? Laws alone don't change people. Think of all the awful things we can say and do and still don't break any local, state, or federal laws. We can be an terrible but law-abiding citizen. That is why Jesus spoke in his Sermon on the Mount about commands as "do not murder" and "do not commit adultery" and pointed out that the people back then could be angry or lustful and technically not break the murder or adultery laws. Jesus saw that though a system of laws alone does not change the inner person. He said that He didn't want to destroy the Old Law, rather He wanted to be a fulfillment of it. He wanted to show everyone how His heart bridges the gap between keeping laws and being transformed. Jesus used Himself as an example of how God wanted out the Old Testament people to become. We need the Man, and not just a plan. The apostle Paul often calls the New Testament as "the faith" the standard we have as the proper faith as opposed to the Old Testament called "the law." He wrote in Romans 3:27-31 that lawkeeping alone was not effectual. We no longer live under law of works, but under a "law" of faith. Does that mean that mere belief in God is all we need? That is not faith at all. In Galatians 5:6, we are told that faith that is expressed by love saves. Faith and love changes the heart and bridges the gap. On Saturday Night Live, the Church Lady made the remark, "How much can we sin and still get in?" That is the problem, that we might think we are doing enough to be saved, but are not BEING enough and become lost.
So what is the cure for legalism? The answer is Jesus. When you become a Christian, it is not enough to sweep the heart clean (Matthew 12:43-45). You must refill it with goodness of Jesus, or else Satan will fill it with evil, and you will be in a worse state than before, and legalism will be the result with the superficial obedience and an unchanged heart. We will lose our souls if our main focus is on the church or even the Bible. We must have a loving relationship with Jesus above all else. Without our main focus on Jesus, while we be able to socialize with our brothers and sisters and have a great head-knowledge about the Bible, we won't living like Jesus, and that's legalism.
You must learn the meaning of such concepts as godliness, holiness, humility, relationship/fellowship, and most importantly, love, for God is love (1 John 4:8). These traits are found in limitless abundance in Jesus. Take each attribute of love in 1 Corinthians 13 and incorporate them into your life. Live by the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
Here are some more Scriptures that deal with how to combat legalism:
But go and learn what it means, “I want mercy and not sacrifice.” For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
And so, dear brothers, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone. The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8)
Throw out your imaginary checklist of rules and regulations you follow by rote, but failed to change your heart. Change your legalistic interpretations of the Bible, and quit thinking you can become righteousness and Heaven-bound on your own without God's grace. Instead, use your Bible as a guide to become more and more like Christ, allowing His Spirit to indwell in you through His Word, follow His example, obey His precepts to please Him as you walk in His footsteps, maintain a prayerful life with Him, and have a loving relationship with Him and with each other.