I propose there are four ways to think about legalism; it usually depends on one’s perspective:
- Professional Weaker Brother Legalism – based on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 where there is a genuine problem where a person is saved out of pagan context and struggles with the cultural (religious) practice of eating food offered to idols. Paul makes it clear that the one who needs to change is the more mature believer who may know that there is no such thing as an idol and there is only one true God (v. 4). However this legalism occurs when some people who we might consider mature believers are actually “professional weaker brothers”. They personally believe that food offered to idols is wrong, not based on truth but their own personal convictions. We often have people who turn their convictions into Law and can be very critical and judgmental towards others because they believe they have the spiritual high ground and others need to conform to their position. This kind of legalism is very detrimental because it is often inflicted on new believers who come out of terrible circumstances and have not learned the greater freedom of truth in Christ and some Christians are committed to “fixing them” and pointing out the right and wrong of their choices or values. These believers are usually too impatient to genuinely help others grow and discover that truth for themselves.
- Pharisaical Legalism – based on Matthew 23 where Jesus points out several problems with their legalism: they say the right things but do not do what they say (v. 3); they place heavy demands and requirements on others but do nothing to help people with them; and they do their deeds to be noticed by others and love being recognized (v.3-4). There are more problems with legalism, but there is no inner substance to relationship with God – everything is designed to impress people and get recognition. There is a strong self-righteousness to this kind of legalism. These people are usually bullies who think they alone have all the answers.
- Salvation Legalism – expressed in Romans 3:20 – “because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” The point here is that no one by being a good citizen, a great rule keeper, or obeying all the policies is “good enough” before God. This person convinces themselves they do not do really bad things (yet will often acknowledge no one is perfect), maintain a decent moral compass and trust in their intrinsic goodness which: “if God is really a God of love, He will accept me into heaven when I stand before Him some day”. This is tricky because the hard issue is: understanding there is a difference between doing certain things because you love God vs. doing good things because you want God to love you. Certain rituals, practices, or traditions in churches are done because if I do not do them, God will not accept me; if I do them God will accept me into heaven. There is a change in my status with God when I do certain activities which pushes back on simply trusting Christ alone to have a right standing before the Father.
- Sanctification Legalism – similar to the others, but I look at this as individual or church cultural legalism. Churches and communities can often create their own requirements about what they do as a local church. Their beliefs, values and practices are often forged out of a reaction to other churches and their practices and shaped out of conflict over church practices or traditions. They don’t’ have to be moral issues but people treat them as sin issues if others do not agree with their practices. One man-made tradition does not demand other churches to do the same thing. This is best seen in Colossians 2:16-23 where others seek to force their theological and doctrinal opinions upon others.
For your consideration,