In Mark’s account of Christ, Jesus takes on the sin of legalism when He attacks the Pharisees for their man-made traditions. We all have our man-made traditions that we need to examine in order to see if we should hold to them or not. I would say that most of our traditions should be booted because legalism is clearly a sin, according to Christ’s description of it.(See Mark 7:1-23).
Now to identify what qualifies as legalism: it is when one takes a command in God’s word, adds to it, and thereby weighs down others in a way that God never intended to do so. For instance, there are those who would say that since the Word of God declares drunkenness a sin, then all alcohol is sinful for the Christian. Yet, there are quite a number of passages that show the drinking of wine is perfectly acceptable. The caution is against drunkenness. Those who hold the view that simply drinking alcohol is sinful, are being legalistic by adding to God’s word. They are doing the very thing the Pharisees did with God’s law, as we will see below.
The other mistake people make when it comes to legalism is in calling someone a legalist who is simply holding to what God has commanded us to do. For instance, some would accuse my wife and I of legalism because we hold to a more strict observance of the LORD’s day than most people. We believe that we are to keep the LORD’s day holy by using the day to worship Him, read His word, rest (and allow others to rest by not causing them to work to serve us), and pray. There is a wide berth to what this actually means. Where we come down on the negative, is actually where the LORD comes down on the negative. We don’t believe in going out to eat, or doing anything that requires another person to work. By doing so, we are making our “servants” work on the day set aside by the LORD for all to rest and worship Him. This is specifically what that command forbids, requiring one’s servant to work and miss out on the LORD’s day. We don’t shop, go to restaurants, or other such activities. (I recognize that there may be times when this cannot be avoided. But those instances should be the exception, not the rule.)
Some would call us legalists for holding such a view.
The problem is that we are convinced that it is right according to the moral Law, known as the Ten Commandments. Adhering to God’s Law, the Ten Commandments, is not legalism, but merely living out God’s declared will for the life of the Christian. To put this in perspective, we also believe in the other nine commandments. Would they accuse us of legalism if we decided that holding to the command, Thou shalt not commit adultery, was a good thing for the life of a believer? Perhaps in this day and age, they might. But thankfully, most Christians see the restrictions of the Seventh Commandment as good and right.
Now, if we were to add our own restrictions to these Laws, that would be legalism. For instance, I knew a woman who would refuse to write her tithe check on the LORD’s day because she said it was commerce, which is forbidden. To me, this is legalism, particularly since the bible tells us to set aside our offerings on the first day of the week.
This is what the Pharisees were doing with the command that the high priests, and other priests, were to wash their hands before going to make sacrifices in the Temple (Exodus 30:19). They took this Law, which was intended to show the priests their own need for cleansing, and applied it to daily living so that if someone didn’t wash their hands before eating, then they committed a sin against God. Yet, that is not what the Law said. Therefore through their traditions, as Christ points out, they were actually sinning against God by requiring what God had not required.
Eve did the same thing in the Garden of Eden when she had her conversation with the serpent. She told the serpent that they were not to “touch” the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were not to eat from the tree. Touching was not forbidden, and Pharisaism was subtly introduced.
This legalism is what Jesus condemned when He told the Pharisees: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men…You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” This is why He called them hypocrites and declared: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'”
Please note: Jesus is not calling for us to set aside the commandments of God. He is not telling us that there is no more use for the Law in the life of the believer. The Ten Commandments are God’s prescribed will for how we are to live our lives. The moral Law does not save us, but it is useful in making us holy as He is holy.
Peter even tells us that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness. And what is righteousness, in this sense, but keeping God’s law? How are we to know what righteous living is, unless we look to the commandments He has given us? This is the same standard that Christ fulfilled so that we could have His imputed righteousness for justification. But for sanctification, we pursue the Law so that we are more conformed to His image. We follow His lead in keeping the commandments.
The Ten Commandments are given so that we know how it is that we are to love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. The freedom we have in Christ is not a freedom from the Law, but the freedom to live to the law without a fear when we fail at the Law. We will fail at the Law. But we serve Him without fear, and use the Law as He intended it to be used: restraints in our lives against those things that would destroy us.
Therefore we should neither add to God’s Law, or ignore His Law. It has purpose in our lives and we should rejoice that He has given us His standards.