We hear the term “legalistic” used frequently to define someone who devotes themselves to following rules that have been established by someone else who sets the definition as to right or wrong.
I grew up in a church where the focus to being a good Christian centered on what we should not wear for clothing, and what we should not do, or where we should not go. Not much was mentioned about the disposition of the heart. When it came to defining the world, so much emphasis was placed on form rather than motive. Our church had very little influence on anyone outside the church. There was little joy to be offered.
The dictionary defines legalism as “strict adherence--to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.” It’s further defined as “the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to the precise laws.” And we had a list of “don'ts” that seemed to expand with changing times. I learned by God’s grace that the world’s grip on my life was not something outward, but inward. It comes down to the desires, intentions, and motives of the heart and mind. My heart desired to follow Jesus but my flesh resisted the rules and brought condemnation because of my failure to constantly obey them.
Legalism doesn’t clean up a person’s heart-and the heart is the world’s target, which the forces of the world want to infect. Paul's words (Colossians 2:20-23 NLT) state: “You have died with Christ, and He has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!” Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline, but they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.” The key to Paul’s statement is found in the words “conquering a person’s evil desires.”
Jesus said, “out of the good treasures in our heart we bring forth good things - an evil treasure brings forth evil things.” Matthew 12:35. Clean up the heart and outer life falls into place, in perfect alignment with what God considers good.
Legalism could also be manifest in believing that we have a greater access to God because we serve diligently in the ministry or the church. Or if we try to earn God’s favor by being super good, or by the many deeds or works we do. Legalism doesn’t allow a person to rest or enjoy life due to the driving pressure to be constantly busy in “serving God”, whether it’s in volunteering or giving our resources to the poor, or working in the church. It can become legalism if love is not the motivation, but attempting to earn God’s favor is. That becomes a self-focus rather than dependency upon God’s ability that He has given us which brings great joy that accompanies His wonderful presence!