I have written about legalism partly because of my own bruising encounters with it and partly because I believe it represents temptation to the church. Legalism stands like a stripper on the sideline of faith, seducing us toward an easier way. It teases, promising some of the benefits of faith but unable to deliver what matters most. As Paul wrote to the legalist of his day, ” For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
At first glance legalism seems hard, but actually freedom in Christ is the harder way. It is relatively easy not to murder, hard to reach out in love; easy to avoid a neighbor’s bed, hard to keep a marriage alive; easy to pay taxes, hard to serve the poor. When living in freedom, I must remain open to the Spirit for guidance. I am more aware of what I have neglected than what I have achieved. I cannot hide behind a mask of behavior, like the hypocrites, nor can I hide behind facile comparisons with other Christians.
The Reformed theologian J.Gresham Machen wrote, “A low view of law leads to legalism in religion; a high view makes one a seeker after grace.” The ultimate effect of legalism is to lower one’s view of God. We tend to think of the stricter denominations and Christian institutions as more “spiritual.” In truth, the differences between Bob Jones University and Wheaton College, or between mennonites and Southern Baptist, are minuscule when compared to a holy God.
I once read that proportionally the surface of the earth is smoother than a billiard ball. The heights of Mount Everest and troughs of the Pacific Ocean are very impressive to those of us who live on this planet. But from the view of Andromeda, or even Mars, those differences between one Christian group and another. Compared to a holy and perfect God, the loftiest Everest rules amounts to a molehill. You cannot earn God’s acceptance by climbing; you must receive it as a gift.