Updated: Jan 31, 2020
In Matthew 23, Jesus spoke some hard words to His followers concerning the scribes and Pharisees. He told them that the Pharisees tie up heavy burdens and weigh the people down by laying those burdens upon the shoulders of the people. Jesus exposed the Pharisees who practiced hypocrisy, parading about with exaggerated apparel because they love to be seen and noticed. Their pride in their position had become more important than their purpose and Jesus wasn't having it.
I used to be a modern day Pharisee. I used to be a legalist. I knew enough Scripture to tear people down and I am guilty of laying heavy burdens on the backs of others, as well as on myself. I was blinded by my own thirst to be noticed and important.
The law was and is exhausting and literally impossible to keep. I'm sure it took the people by surprise when the great Rabbi, Jesus Christ, had a totally different message than what they had come to know as truth. Jesus invited them to come to Him assuring us all that His burden is light and His yoke is easy (Matthew 11:28-30). I know, for me, it is still a struggle within my spirit to truly believe that I can find rest with His burden upon my shoulders instead of the legalistic laws of men.
We don't usually view legalism as dangerous, but it is. From experience, legalism can starve your soul and totally eradicate your faith.
I attached man-made standards to God's Holy Word.
Legalism exalts us and emphasizes our own works. Every legalist has his or her list of personal preferences and standards which they impose on others, making it equal to the Word of God. This is what the Pharisees were doing by tying up heavy burdens and laying them on the people of Israel. I was fixated on making myself look better than others by obeying religious sounding rules that aren't in the Bible more than obeying the very teachings in the Bible itself.
I viewed my preferences as evidence of my holiness.
Legalism veils the gospel. It sets unobtainable standards and soaks us in shame when (not if!) we miss the mark. Like the Pharisees who walked around showing off, I chiseled my own set of commandments to make myself feel - and look! - like a stronger, more holy Christian. No kissing before marriage, no piercings, no secular music of any kind - these preferences are fine and well if that's your choice but none are a Biblical mandate and none will make you even close to "holy".
I waved the banner of moralism while having a cold, stony heart. Legalism tramples others and squashes humility. In it, the sheep are hurt. Paul addresses this in Galatians 4. I did moral things and even Biblical things but, more often than not, my heart was not delighting in the Lord, nor was it set on loving and caring for others. It was stone cold and calloused. Legalism is arrogant and critical. In truth, doing the right thing doesn't mean a hill of beans to God if your heart is cold and far from Him and His Word.
I operated in fear instead of in love.
Legalism is a harsh task master with control and fear as its whip. It's "Do this - or else" whereas the Gospel is "Do this because". When temptation comes, what pulls you back to Christ? A rule? The threat of hell fire? Or the merciful, unmatched love displayed on the cross? Most of my choices were rooted in fear instead of love and that's not what God wants. His desire is for us to obey because we love and trust Him and because He is worthy, not because we are scared to death that He will zap us with lightning. He is a good, good Father, after all.
I elevated performance above the cross.
Legalism marginalizes Jesus. It is all about doing or not doing while the Gospel is about acknowledging that we can not do anything, but Jesus did. I lived as though God's love for me fluctuated depending on my works. Legalism thrives on personal performance and elevation of self or, what I like to call, "The Look at Me Syndrome," believing that God accepts us because of how well we have lived the "Christian life". This is false. God accepts sinners because Jesus lived a perfect, obedient life in our place and took the wrath we rightly deserved. I demoted Jesus by thinking and acting as though my works and my performance of those works merited God's favor.
Seeking to please man more than God, maintaining low-grade guilt so I would feel atoned for past sins, justifying cruelty by reading the Old Testament and ignoring the New Testament epistles, being more afraid of how other's saw me than what God has said - one by one, sin after sin, legalism crucifies Jesus over and over again. It makes us loosen our grip on Christ and run to Sinai in search for some kind of personal atonement instead of taking hold of the cross and the blood that was shed for the sins of the world. The devil loves legalism. He wants us exhausted from the constant list of laws, depressed because we can't measure up, calloused to the needs of others and caught up in a spiritual fantasy land where we think we're above the rest of the sheep. This was the behavior of the Pharisees and it was the Pharisees who were chiefly responsible for the death of Jesus.
Paul called himself the chief of sinners but did you know that Paul obeyed the law to a tee? Paul was a Pharisee. Paul was a legalist. And when Paul saw the glory of Christ and was given grace, He cried out that He was the worst of all sinners because he had used the very words of God to hunt and kill the people of God. I am grateful that I don't have to offer a bull or a goat or a pigeon for my sin. I am thankful that there is literally nothing I can do to gain heaven except stand in the power of the blood that purchased me. From a former legalist, let me encourage you not to build your hope upon or trust in any thing except Jesus and His righteousness. Truly, all but the cross is sinking sand.
For more on this topic, study:
Romans 3; Galatians 2:16, 21;
Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 3:8-9;
Colossians 2:8; Colossians 2:17-23;