From the title of this article, you may think it to be too presumptuous. The title may come across as being too sweeping, calling out a sin that just isn't a reality for everyone, missing many with the brush stroke. However, I hope to display in this article that legalism is a present and evident problem in each individual.
Legalism, simply defined, is divorcing the law of God from the grace of God. On the one hand, we have the law of God given to us to adhere to and obey. The other hand reveals a gracious God who, because of our inability to keep the law, gave His Son as a display of His grace to keep the law in our place and atone for our sin. God's grace does not stop there, it effectually works in us, making us love the law, not despise it. The practical form of legalism takes the law of God, apart from effectual grace, and attempts to please God by obedience to the moral law.
There are three forms of legalism: (1) moralism (doctrinal legalism), (2) legalism (practical legalism), and (3) antinomianism. Everyone who has ever lived fits into one of these three categories.
1.) Moralism is the inherent bent of everyone. Our first parents, after they sinned, give us a clear picture of human nature in sin. Their first instinct was to cover themselves by their own means. To use Thomas Boston's words, "They fell off from their rest in God, and fell upon seeking inventions of their own, to mend their case; and they quite marred it." Both in their sin and in their self-correction of sin, they failed.
As Adam's posterity, we follow the same course of action both in our sinful nature and our attempt to fix that nature. Perhaps one of the greatest displays of this in our modern world in the vast selection of self-help books in your local bookstore—even Christian bookstores. Speaking of the individual, moralism shows up in our natural human inclination to rid ourselves of sin by attempting it on our own.
When we look at the moral law given by God, we must not be surprised at the speed with which humanity began attempting righteousness by their own might. It may be that we add our own laws as the Pharisees did, or impose our own set of morality as our current western culture is attempting to do, but one thing we can conclude: because of sin, we are moralistic to the core.
2.) Legalism, or the practical form of moralism, is easier to go undetected, for it hides itself behind the cloak of orthodox theology and vocabulary. Most notable is the general reaction, when someone accuses another of legalism, to be: "That’s not legalism, it is simply obedience." To this I say, it very well may be obedience, but why are you obedient?
Often legalism manifests itself in the general direction of an individual's thoughts and beliefs, not in the particulars. This is the reason for it going undetected in many cases. In the particulars, the individual may very well claim that they are saved by the grace of God in Christ. They might even proclaim that only Christ can save them. However, qualifiers such as: "…but you must put your faith in Him," or, "it is up to you to be obedient," reveal the legalistic attitude. Maybe it is a simple verse such as John 14:15, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." Instead of focusing on the cause (love), the legalist will put most emphasis on the effect (keeping the commands).
It is not so much the action of obedience where legalism resides, but it resides in the attitude of the heart. Where the heart believes that obedience will somehow make the believer's righteousness better, there the legalistic weed grows.
3.) Antinomianism may not go undetected like legalism, but it is the unexpected form of legalism. Antinomianism claims that Christ has come to do away with the law, and that it is unnecessary for the Christian to keep the moral law of God. It is concerned with the freedom of the Christian to a fault, claiming that grace frees us from obedience to the law.
You might be thinking, "How is this legalism?" And rightly so, for it appears to be the opposite of legalism.
Many have applied antinomianism to their legalistic tendencies in hopes of it being the antidote to legalism. The problem, as they soon find out, is that it still does not cure their failure to be holy. Antinomianism is still legalism in the sense that it survives only in regards to the law. It does not rid the individual of comparing themselves to the moral law—though not in regards to keeping the law, but in regards to not keeping it. Chasing antinomianism as an antidote to legalism, we can conclude, is the same as running the opposite way down a path—it may be the opposite direction, but it is still the same path.
Everyone is a Legalist
Within our natural man, that is our sinful nature, lies nothing but legalism. It is our bent. We are prone to it. Therefore, it does not matter how much of Christ we hold by faith; we still drift towards legalism. It is like paddling a watercraft upstream; if you stop paddling, you drift.
In the parable of the prodigal son, we find this visualized in both sons. Of course, we can easily pick out the legalism in the older brother. He is nothing but a legalist, only concerned with pleasing his father by his obedience. When the younger son is given a party with all pomp and circumstance, the legalism of the older son is most evident.
The younger son, who squanders his father's wealth to the point of personal poverty, comes to his senses in the midst of a pig pen also bearing a legalistic attitude: "I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants" (Luke 15:18-19). The legalist thinks only in terms of servanthood; the gospel-minded think in terms of sonship.
The reason we must realize we are legalistic at heart is so we know what ails us and be forced to search for the cure. We must realize that we are not as good as we think so that we are driven to the perfect remedy: Christ.