When I was a young Christian, a friend asked me how many minutes I prayed every day. Literally, she wanted a number. I remember feeling confused and threatened by her question. What if my number was less than hers? Was I less of a “good” Christian? Or if my number was larger did that make me a “better” Christian than her? I think this is the heart of legalism. It’s comparing ourselves to others rather than to the Word of God. It’s focusing on lists and externals that can be checked off to prove to myself and others how good a Christian I am.
Legalism is a different gospel. It is a message that puts us back under slavery to the law, to rules and to other people’s ideas of what is good or bad. Paul was upset with the churches of Galatia about this very thing.
He says in Gal 1:6-8 “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (NASB). These people began deserting the truth and were being pulled back into trying to keep the Law by being circumcised and keeping Jewish festivals and holy days. Paul does not mince words here. He is trying to wake them up to the cursed nature of legalism. It cannot save – it is a gospel that is hopeless. It is no gospel at all.
A believer caught up in legalism is divorcing the letter of the law from the spirit of the law. Rather than focusing on loving God and my neighbor – because I tend to fail at this – the legalist focuses on externals that make us feel like we are doing really well. Legalism isolates us from God because we don’t really need Him to accomplish our list. We can do it in the flesh, in our own power.
Paul further asks in 3:1 “O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you…?” Legalism is bewitching isn’t it? It sounds so spiritual to say that I pray for an hour every day or I read my Bible for 2 hours every day, or I never go to movies… or whatever is on the list of your particular ideas. Checkboxes prove my dedication to God and my fervor for goodness. And everyone can see them and approve of my spirituality. That is why we love legalism so. We long for the approval of man more than the approval of God.
Legalism causes us to become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another (Gal 5:26). The fruits of legalism are the deeds of the flesh in Gal 5:19-21. No matter how many external rules we keep, we can never defeat the flesh unless we rely wholly on Christ and dwell fully in Christ. The gospel calls us to love, holiness and godly living. But that can only be accomplished by walking in the Spirit. So, as Paul instructs us “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Gal 5:1