Legalism is alive and well in churches today, and none of us are immune from its ways.
At the root of legalism is selfishness and pride. Legalism feeds the selfish nature. The legalist relies on willpower to do rightly, believing this pleases God and earns His favor. This makes sense to our mind, but it is not the way God measures value. We all need to be very thankful for that!
Legalism is appealing. We like it because it appeals to our self-reliant nature, but self-reliance is antithetical to all that Christianity stands for. The Gospel condemns our acts of righteousness. Our righteousness leaves a stench to God.
It is not because we cannot do anything that is good. It is because anything we do that is good is tainted by a wicked, glory-hungry, heart. All our attempts at goodness are tainted by sin.
This gets to the heart of legalism. The problem is motive; our actions are not enough. Motive is essential. Even Jesus said follow what the Pharisees teach, but do not live like they do (Matt 23:3). The Pharisees did good works by following the law, but their motives were impure.
Everything the legalist does in the name of God, feeds their hunger to gain value. And that is the problem. It is impossible for man to earn enough value to be found worthy of God’s standard (Rom 3:23).
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for being clean on the outside but rotten on the inside. It’s all about the heart, the motive behind what we do. When Christ has transformed our lives by the Gospel, we have a new heart, a new motive, that looks to honor God. Christ becomes the motivating factor of our actions. The Christian desires to give glory to God through his actions. The legalist desires to give glory to self by their actions.
Legalism is alive and well today and takes many forms. From style of music to versions of the Bible to facial hair to dress. It’s vital that churches preach the importance of relationship and not rules, that Jesus is exalted and not man, that grace abounds and not works-righteousness. It is the call of the Church to safeguard the Gospel from anything that lessens the centrality of Jesus.