Most people tend to define a legalist as one who completely desires to follow ALL of God’s rules and laws without deviation. I have been guilty of this definition as well. However, in my studies to define this word, I do not believe this is correct. Instead, I believe that we can Biblically call three things legalism.
#1. Trying to earn salvation, justification, or merit with God by keeping the “law” and doing good works.
#2. Keeping God’s laws and commandments outwardly, but doing them with a wrong heart and attitude.
Some examples of this are keeping them for self-glorification, pride, to improve self-esteem, to look good before others, or without love. Jesus accused the Pharisees of this in Matthew 23. They did their deeds to be noticed by men (Mt 23:5). They loved places of honor at feasts and in the synagogues (Mt 23:6). They loved being called “Rabbi” (Mt 23:7). They tithed, but neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Mt 23:23). They appeared beautiful on the outside, but were filled with uncleanness on the inside (Mt 23:25-28).
We are warned in (Mt 6:1-4) not to do our deeds so as to be noticed by men, but rather, they are to be done in secret. God knows our heart (1 Sam 16:7)(1 Kin 8:39)(Acts 1:24)(1 Chr 28:9). He knows the motives and reasons for keeping His commandments.
#3. Making up man-made rules and traditions, and placing them on an equal basis with God’s word, and then attempting to impose those rules and traditions on others.
The Pharisees were the perfect example of this. They accused Jesus of sin because He was “working” on the Sabbath when He and His disciples picked some grain to eat as they walked through a grain field (Mt 12:1-7), and because He healed a man on the Sabbath (Mt 12:9-14). They would tell others to “give their money to God,” and not use any of it to take care of their parents (Mt 15:1-13).
We have examples of this today as well. (Rom 14:1) tells us not to pass judgment on disputable matters. In other words, if the Bible does not clearly condemn something as wrong, we should not be attempting to impose our own man- made rules and traditions on others. Many churches, for example, are often full of these “rules.” They condemn people for the way they look or dress, for the length of their hair, for the way they choose to worship, for the type of worship music they listen to, for the version of the Bible they choose to read, for the way they pray, for the amount of money they give, and on and on… These legalistic rules are driving people out of churches in droves. Those imposing these “rules” will one day answer to the Lord one day for the harm they have wrought for the cause of Christ.
Legalism destroys… It cannot make us, nor anyone else right with God. It quite simply destroys a personal relationship with the Lord.