From the very inception of the church, the issue of legalism has been the most dogged and formidable opponent to the Gospel message. The belief that the saving work of Jesus is what he provides + something else (being circumcised, observing the Sabbath, obeying the Law) was first espoused by Jewish proselytes by adding the tenants of the Mosiac Law to the work of Christ. The early church soundly rejected the first wave of legalism in the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). The actions they were doing were not bad or even wrong in and of themselves, it was the way these actions were being applied to their understanding of salvation that was what turned their works into being poison to the soul. The idea of legalism is to take something – even good things, and see those actions or attitudes as the basis for God being pleased with us.
Today we often see things like not gambling, not drinking, not swearing, going to church, “living right”, etc., as contributing or being the reason why God accepts us. However, the idea that anything adds to the work of Jesus or somehow completes the work of Jesus is something we must always be vigilant to guard our hearts against.
Michael Patton of Credo House provides a helpful description of how legalism can seep into our lives by offering four characteristics of legalism to be on guard against and to counsel other disciples of Jesus to stand opposed to. As in all things, let us remember what we have been delivered from and why:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. Gal. 5:13.