Legalism is the strict, literal adherence to the law. For the legalist the laws and rites of Christianity are the letter of the law and fundamentalist conformity to the traditions of men in the denominational interpretation of the Bible. Religious acts are the ultimate norms of life; what the legalists forget is that legalistic observances were crucified on the cross and are meant to be symbols mediating toward the inward transformation of a new life. We are to live out our life in the law of love and not in the outward performance of the old covenant law, whether that law comes from the Old Testament Mosaic regulations or the New Testament interpretations of what morality consists of.

Legalism creates a mask of conformity which makes the believer holy in his own eyes and thus prevents him from coming to self-knowledge through the grace of God. Because the legalist thinks that holiness is within his own grasp by what he does, he tends to despise the men and women who are not as observant as he. Legalism causes pride, self-righteousness, judgment of others, a holier than thou attitude and in effect quenches the spirit and draws you away from God because you have given up the true power that would draw yourself to Him.

The reliance on ceremonies and commandments only too easily leads to a false trust in the legal elements of religion. St. Paul: "Wherefore if you be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are you subject to ordinances, (touch not; taste not; handle not; which all are to perish with the using); after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh." God will make crystal clear to you the difference between your own self-efforts and the working of the Holy Ghost in you. Both to will and to do of His good pleasure. To make your own way to Heaven by your own efforts is what condemned the original Babylon.

Many ordinary Jews had come to believe that they could never hope to gain entrance to the Lord's kingdom because they did not always follow the difficult laws and rituals of the scribes and Pharisees. To them, Jesus' words brought comfort and hope, but the rabbis and Pharisees who heard his accusations were infuriated. Things haven't changed today either, there are still those in the church that hold to the letter of scripture and set up all kinds of rules and regulations to live by. We have to be circumcised, we have to worship on a certain day and keep feast days and eat and drink and dress a certain way, wear our hair a certain length, be successful, belong to a certain church or believe a certain doctrine, baptized a certain way to be saved, read only one version of the Bible, pay tithes, have a special gift or you are not Baptized with the Holy Ghost, blind guides all, straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel.

What the legalists are doing is bringing us another gospel, just as Saint Paul warned us about. We are to have love and grace in our hearts, not self-righteous legalism. Those that would have you justified by the law have fallen from grace and it in this sense that Paul writes; "Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect by the flesh?" He goes on to say that the "law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus." Paul teaches us that if we walk in the spirit, we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh and this is what truly justifies us, drawing closer to the Father, not living under man made rules.

We can not be so legalistic as to what the word says that we will not let the Lord be flexible enough to lead in special circumstances. The Bible is true but what it teaches is that we are not to submit ourselves to the dead letter but to the spirit. The Bible can only be interpreted correctly by the teaching of the Holy Spirit so we must be able to hear the Lord to know His perfect will for us, which again, might be different for different circumstances. Truth is not absolute in every situation, it may change to adapt itself to what is needful.

The gospel of grace by faith is the true gospel and that is why Jesus died, so that we could receive eternal life without the stifling rules that no one could live by anyway. Those that would bring us under another gospel will tell you that we are to follow the specific rules in their church. Legalism is idolatry because it takes away our faith in what Jesus has done for us on the cross. The legalist will try to give you this false gospel that never worked to make it hard for you. The fact is that the gospel is very simple. Love those around you and you will not sin. This is too simple for a legalist to understand. You cannot justify yourself before God, only God can justify you and it was done on the cross, it is finished, so quit trying and just let Him do it. Draw close to Him and take up the cross of Jesus, crucify yourself by putting away your pride, renew your mind and let Jesus live His life through you. If you can trust Him even just a little bit in this, the right way, He will not fail you.
[183, 313, 345, Colossians 2:20-23, Galatians 3:3, Matt. 23:24]

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