“….yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
Scripture is our final authority for knowing God’s standards for our lives, but it’s quite possible to abuse Scripture. One way is through legalism. We see legalism in the following: judging others, depending on the Old Testament law for salvation, obeying the Old Testament law, and imposing rules on others.
Who wants to be a legalistic Pharisee? How would you know if you were one? Yet the term legalism is without doubt one of the most abused words in the English language. In Scripture legalism literally means worship of the law, that is, depending on obedience to the law to bring salvation. That’s what the Book of Galatians is all about: the Pharisees demanded obedience to the laws of the Old Testament as a condition of acceptance by God. To Paul that was a wicked heresy because it minimized God’s work of grace in providing salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Paul wrote, “No one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16).
However, making up rules, even lots of picky rules, is not in itself legalistic. A rule may be misguided or even unbiblical, but that’s a different problem, not rightly called legalism. People who shout legalism the loudest may actually be against law itself, not merely against the abuse of it. But Paul assures us, “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). The law is not something God created to test us, much less to bring us down. It is the expression of his character, the way he thinks, and the way he behaves, and it shows the things he values. God is altogether holy; just; pure; and above all, loving. His design from the beginning was for us also to be like him. Godly or Godlike, we call it. It’s because he loves us that he wants us to be like him; it’s for our eternal good to be like him.
Laws which governed human relationships, were designed not only to produce a peaceful society but also to highlight God’s character. Because He loves and respects life, He doesn’t want us to murder. Because he is pure and holy, he doesn’t want us to commit adultery. Because he is Truth, he doesn’t want us to steal and lie. Because he is sovereign, he wants us to be satisfied in him, not to covet things. God’s laws instruct us in how to be like him.
God’s law was given for our benefit and blessing as we relate to God and other people. So we don’t fear God’s law, much less subvert it. We embrace it. We call it law because it’s not optional, like a series of helpful suggestions. It’s God’s requirement of His subjects. Yet God’s law isn’t burdensome. It’s something the psalmist embraced with gratitude. “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105).
God doesn’t want Christians to view his law as a spotlight that reveals how filthy we truly are, bringing condemnation, but as a light to illumine the path ahead, leading to holiness. The Old Testament law was a vital part of God’s revelation to his people, and the moral part of that law is just as binding on us today. We can depend on the Bible to show us God’s will for our lives. The Bible reveals God’s will for us.