Any efforts to produce actual righteousness apart from the divine work of God's grace (by the Holy Spirit through faith in the Gospel) are a kind of legalism. We are not under Law but under grace. Legalism was a very Jewish problem because of the important role Law played in Judaism's history. It can also be a very Christian problem. Legalism happens when we act like Law itself has a power that it does not have--the power to sanctify or to make righteous. Sanctification is a very real thing that occurs when God transforms the heart, sets us free from slavery to sin, and moves the Law from its place outside of us to inside of us in the form of love. As the Spirit works within us, love becomes both the motivation for and the measure of righteousness. True sanctification is change from the inside out. Legalism tries to accomplish either justification or sanctification from the outside in and quite apart from this divine work of grace.
Because love is entirely consistent with God's Law, it is not always easy to tell when we are falling prey to legalism. But legalism always bears bad fruit. It has symptoms that can be observed by those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
What are some of the symptoms of this legalism?
- An over-inflated and inaccurate sense of righteousness.
- Inability or refusal to recognize and admit personal failure.
- A false sense of superiority over others.
- Hypocritical and oppressive expectations of others.
- The addition of extrabiblical (man-made) rules and regulations.
- Hidden, often increasing sin.
If we are honest with ourselves and observe these symptoms, we need to examine our hearts to see if we are living under Law rather than under grace.
But these are not merely symptoms of legalism; they are also the substance of legalism. We can determine if we are living under Law or under grace by rephrasing these into some diagnostic questions:
- Do I think I am righteous?
- Do I honestly acknowledge and confess my sin to God and others? Or do I live defensively?
- Do I think I am a better Christian than others?
- Do I judge others for their failures, while harboring my own secret sins?
- Do I expect myself and others to abide by rules that have no clear grounding in Scripture?
- Do I hide sin from others? Do I need others to see me as having it all together, all the while struggling in slavery to secret sins?