Legalism is defined as “excessive adherence to law or formula. Dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith.” It is trying to serve or appease God by living by a determined set of rules. The Apostle Paul spoke against legalism in Colossians 2:20-23, “Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of NO VALUE against the indulgence of the flesh.” (NKJV)

Legalism stands in contrast to being spiritual. It is very possible to set up a system of rules, or to try to follow the edicts of the law, and not have a relationship with the Lord. Legalism has nothing to do with relationship. When there is a ‘law’ put into place, so that we might follow all its principles, there is no need to study the scriptures. There is no need to ask the Lord for guidance. In legalism, all that is needed and expected is to ‘follow the rules.’ Legalists may seem to be righteous and spiritual, but legalism eventually fails to accomplish God’s purposes. In reality, it is an OUTWARD performance instead of an INWARD conversion.

Legalism produces self-righteousness in its followers. The more ‘rules’ one is able to keep, the better he feels about himself and he begins to look down on those who are not following the same rules as he. We can divide legalists into three different categories:

  • Those who try to keep the law in order to be saved. To those, the Word of God says in Romans 3:28, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”
  • Those who try to keep the law in order to maintain their salvation. To those, the Word of God says in James 2:10, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.”
  • Those who judge others that do not keep the law. To those, the Word of God says in Romans 14:5, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”

Is obedience important to the believer? YES. I would say that obedience is vital to the Christian life. But, to what or to whom are you being obedient? It is obedience to Christ with a truly thankful heart that pleases the Lord. For an example, let’s consider Christian giving. The Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 9:6-7, “But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” Is there a proper amount mentioned here that we should give? NO. True giving comes from the heart of the believer, so the Lord says, “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give.” The individual, with a thankful heart, will give to the Lord as he purposes. Giving is NOT of necessity, neither should it be done with resentment. If someone should give the Lord 10 percent of his money each week, but only gives because he feels he ‘has to’ give, the Lord is not pleased at all. If one cannot afford to give 10 percent, but gives what he can, rejoicing that he can give to the Lord, the Lord is most pleased with his gift.

We would all do well to consider our own actions and attitudes to see if we are being legalistic. When Christ is the object of our hearts, we will desire to please Him. We will learn His truths and walk in them. Being spiritual is the only way to drive legalism out of our hearts. (288.8)