The sins of legalism and judging cause many of the interpersonal conflicts we experience as believers. Plaguing many of our Christian institutions, from churches to schools to families, these attitudes and actions sap our spiritual strength and weaken the work of God in our midst.
The Scripture is clear. Do not pass judgment and do not exceed what is written (1 Cor. 4:5-6). Learning to identify and avoid these sins will help promote peace and joy in the body of Christ, and encourage us to pursue our unity in faith. Unfortunately, most Christians have, at one time or another, borne the brunt of inappropriate judging and of legalism.
True legalism has a two-fold definition in the Word of God.
First, legalism is to mix works with grace for salvation (Galatians 1). This is the theme of the epistle of Galatians. Paul warns the churches against turning from the grace of Christ (Gal. 1:6) and emphasizes that salvation is not by works or law-keeping but by the grace of Christ alone.
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16).
“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith” (Gal. 3:10-11).
“Wherefore 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” (Gal. 3:24-25).
According to this definition, legalists today are any who add works to the grace of Christ for salvation.
Second, legalism is to add human tradition to the Word of God.
“Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:7-9).
We must be careful never to add our own tradition and teaching to the Word of God. There is one authority for faith and practice, and that is the Bible. Anything that is exalted to a place of authority equal to the Bible is condemned by God.
The Pharisees of old, in committing both of these errors, were true legalists. They rejected the grace of Jesus Christ and taught that the way of salvation was by the keeping of the law and they made their own tradition authoritative over people’s lives.