As a new believer in Christ, my heart was on fire with love for the Lord and His Word. I had come out of such darkness and sin, and now my life had been radically turned around. My passions for the Lord that were strong and my heart burned with a single desire: to be pleasing to God.
I wanted to please the Lord with every fiber of my being, every action, every word, every thought, every motive. So, I started spending a lot of time studying Proverbs, the Gospels and the Epistles searching for every verse I could find that spelled out specific things I should be doing in my life. I truly wanted to live my life in total obedience to the Lord, so I wanted to know every area of my life I needed to conform to His will.
I believe that this is the desire of every Christian legalist – to be pleasing to God. In the quest to conform every imaginable aspect of one’s life to God’s will, you begin looking for standards to apply to your life to ensure your godliness. You begin adding rules to keep in order to stay out of sin. Initially, this is a commendable approach, but only because you are still an immature believer.
Parents give children rules because children are immature. They are not filled with wisdom enough to reason through decisions, even through right and wrong. They have to be told what is right and what is wrong at every step. Everything must be defined carefully. Rules must be spelled out clearly and enforced consistently, else they will fail to learn wisdom and obedience.
But as a child matures, the need for specific rules diminishes as wisdom increases. To maintain childhood rules on a mature adult is not only silly but counterproductive to maturity and wise living.
Legalism fails to see this – or at least admit it. Instead of decreasing the number of rules and strict standards as one grows in the Lord, legalists tend to collect more and more of them. Their reasoning is, “If my standards kept me godly when I was younger in the Lord, then more of them will make me even more godly now. The more strict I am in my standards the more godly I will be.”
So the quest for more standards and rules is the plight of the legalist. Since for them godliness is primarily measured by external obedience, then even more strict external obedience must be attained. It’s only logical.
The problem is, it isn’t Biblical. It only perpetuates immaturity in the Lord. The need to be told every single move, and have every single detailed decision in your life pre-made for you by a list of comprehensive rules is the mark of a child, not a mature adult in the Lord, because it eliminates the need for wisdom.
The Scriptures call us to increase in wisdom and inner holiness, not to become collectors of rules and regulations. That only leads to becoming a Pharisee – proud of our accomplishments in keeping the rules so well. The more the better! And the more the prouder.
Legalists have a hard time admitting it, but the better (and stricter) they get at rule keeping, the worse they become about looking down on and talking bad about others who don’t measure up to themselves.
Scripture makes abundantly clear that the key qualities of maturity is humility and love. Legalism actually serves to undermine those chief markers of wisdom and maturity in Christ, and perpetuate spiritual immaturity and pride.
Love, not law is the zenith of Christian maturity. Peter makes clear that maturity is a move beyond the heavy emphasis on specific ethics to a mastery of the ethic that governs all others – love:
2 Pet. 1:5-7 But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.