A couple of people asked me for the definitions I gave Sunday morning. Below is that section of my notes. May the Lord keep us from legalism and make us a people strong in faith.
A Biblical Definition of Legalism:
Legalism has at least two meanings that come back to the same core issue.
#1 Legalism is treating biblical standards of conduct (things that are really in the Bible) as rules to be kept by our own power in order to earn God’s favor.
Legalism is prevalent when a person is trying to be moral in his own strength, without relying on the grace and merciful help of God in Christ. Being moral when it is not from faith is legalism. In a real sense, morality serves the same function for the moralist that immorality does for the antinomian, the one who rejects all standards and rules, namely, it serves as an expression of self-reliance and self-assertion. The reason some Pharisees tithed and fasted is the same reason hippies claimed their freedom by pursuing whatever sexual perversion or feel good thing that was out there.
So the first meaning of legalism is the terrible mistake of treating biblical standards of conduct as rules to be kept by our own power in order to earn God’s favor. It is a danger that you and I have to be on guard against in our own lives every day.
#2) Legalism also is the erecting of specific requirements of behavior beyond the teaching of Scripture and making adherence to them the measurement of a person’s faith. This results in unbiblical exclusivism.
Christianity does not include everyone. We exclude people from the church because we believe worship should imply commitment to the lordship of Christ, the head of the church but exclusion of people from the church should never be taken lightly. Christ is the head of the church. It is His body, and He alone should set the entrance requirements.
What is the common component of both definitions of legalism? In both instances we use our own power to make ourselves moral or we use our own power to make the church moral. In one instance, we fail to rely on the power of God for our own sanctification. In the other instance, we fail to rely on the power of God for the sanctification of others. So, what unites these two forms of legalism at the root is unbelief—unbelief in regard to ourselves – that it is God who works in us to will and to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12, 13); and unbelief in relation to others that God will make His will known and incline them to do it. As Paul says in Philippians 3:15, “Let those of us who are mature be thus minded, and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you.” Paul confidently entrusts the purification of the church to God.
The more our confidence in the sovereign power of God for our own lives and the lives of others grows the less legalism will creep in. But if we grow weak in faith, then inevitably, we will try to compensate for the loss of confidence in God by increased moral resolve and the piling on of man-made regulations. The result is that the very morality that we had hoped would save ourselves and the very regulations we hoped would purify our church end up falling prey to the massive power of the flesh, and become its instruments of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.