Why is legalism so attractive? It is attractive because it feeds the sinful flesh. It may not feed the flesh in the same way that sexual perversions, alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity do, but it does feed the flesh. And, I will argue that it does so in a more dangerous way, because it deceives a person into thinking he is doing the right thing while in fact he is destroying his life and the lives of those around him. Legalism feeds our fleshly bent toward self-righteousness.
The problem is that we can’t see it. We see it in others but not in ourselves. Who has ever said, “I am legalistic” or “I am a Pharisee”? No one. But we sure are good at pointing out people who are—proving the point that self-righteousness is like bad breath (everyone notices it but you).
Legalism preys on orthodox, well-meaning, passionate, committed, fired-up young people who want to live for God with all their hearts. They get attracted to legalism because:
- It is something they can do. Quick and easy.
- It is an image they can adopt and manage. It is a “look” they can quickly establish.
- It allows them to write more rules that protect from sin and make them even “better Christians.”
- It provides a checklist that helps them feel good about themselves when they check it off.
- It provides a checklist for them to measure how other people are doing.
- It brings clarity with new rules that show how to separate from others when they are “disobedient.”
I have heard the argument, “I am not a legalist, because I believe that salvation is by grace through faith and not of works.” Wrong. Legalism is more than just a false doctrine of justification; it is also false doctrine of sanctification. Paul made this very clear in Galatians. They had begun “by means of the Spirit” and were now attempting to live their lives “by means of the flesh.” It is possible to be an orthodox Christian and still be a legalist. The same error that plagued the Jews, and early church, is alive today—in all of our churches.
Paul said in Galatians 3:1-5;
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?
What makes our own legalism hard to see is that on the surface we can be doing a lot of things right. Remember that the Pharisees were also highly regarded in their day. They were very committed to orthodoxy, teaching, fellowship, evangelism, tithing, charitable deeds, separation from the world, etc. But underneath they were motivated by the law and not by grace. That is all the difference. Keeping the law cannot please God, but “believing” does. Only grace can produce real fruit. Everything else is plastic.
How do I know this? I have seen it it in my own life! Sadly, as a young man, I was attracted by legalism because it played into my zeal for God and my desire to be used of Him. I didn’t see it until I started teaching new believers about the Christian life. Being in the business of training young people has forced me to dig deep and to be honest with what Jesus is saying in the Gospels. I began to see that many of my rules, regulations, and guidelines could not be supported by Scripture and that was why new believer’s weren’t “getting it.” However, the things that were there and the things that really mattered they did get! Then I began to see with real clarity that only grace through faith produces what is holy.
Have you considered that what you have been doing just might be self worship coming through the back door? You just didn’t see it? It does happen to good orthodox, and well-intended people. I think the seeds of it are in all of our hearts.
For further reading on this subject I would like to recommend a book that has really helped open my eyes to my own condition: Extreme Righteousness: Seeing Ourselves in the Pharisees by Tom Hovestol. It is out of print right now, however, there are used copies available through many used book stores.