Legalism is popular because it gives you a neat and orderly system in which to operate – if you obey this certain set of rules and behaviors, you can be sure that you are right with God. Legalism really offers you the power and authority, because you control the system – you determine the lists of do’s and don’ts, and then you feel confident and superior to others by observing your list. Legalism puts you in the “driver’s seat” in your relationship with God, because it puts you in control.
It is no surprise therefore, that legalistic teachers are very proud and confident and smug of their spiritual achievements. This is why they can be so intimidating, because on the outside at least, they seem to be very holy people and to ‘have it all together.’ They come across as experts and authorities on spiritual matters, but while they are trying to persuade you to follow their precepts, they are interested in the love of control, not the love of people. In Galatians 5:6, the apostle Paul continues his ongoing effort to warn the Galatian believers against returning to these system of legalism. He makes a brief statement that stood out to me. He says that what really matters in the Christian life is “faith working through love.”
I was struck because whereas true faith produces love for others, legalism results in the lack of love for others. If we take the list of what defines true love in 1 Corinthians 13, we can see that legalism and legalists violate almost every aspect of love:
- Love is patient, but legalists are irritated and frustrated with others who do not conform to their standards. People are viewed as obstacles and obstructions, rather than as objects of affection. This is why the story of the Good Samaritan shows the religious legalists passing by on the other side of the street rather than helping a person in need.
- Love is kind, but legalism is harsh and critical and judgmental.
- Love is not jealous, but legalism is fiercely competitive. It cannot stomach someone else achieving greater praise or accolades than self. Like the Pharisees, the legalists love the places of honor. Was it not envy and jealousy that motivated the Pharisees to cry for Jesus’ blood?
- Love does not boast and is not arrogant, but legalism is built on pride. The Pharisee would perform their good works to be seen by men and thanked God that they were better than others.
- Love does not act unbecomingly, and although the legalist is prim and proper, they are seldom thoughtful of the needs of others.
- Love does not seek its own, but legalism is consumed with how self is perceived and with putting on a good appearance. They only want converts because it makes them appear powerful and vindicated.
- Love is not provoked, but the legalist is constantly and easily offended by the choices of others.
- Love does not keep a record of wrongs, but the legalist cannot believe that someone else could sin against them.
- Love believes all things, but the legalist believes the worst of others and is suspicious of their motives.