egalists sometimes defend themselves by claiming that legalism, properly understood, is just what Paul condemned in Galatians 1: the sin of making justification conditional on some work or ceremony performed by the sinner. In other words, legalism is works-salvation. So, they say, if you formally affirm the principle of sola fide and preach that people can be saved without any prerequisite work, you can't possibly be a legalist, no matter how many rules you make and impose on the consciences of people who are already converted.
No. Legalism is the error of abandoning our liberty in Christ in order to take on a yoke of legal bondage (Galatians 5:1). There are actually two kinds of legalism.
First is the one recognized and despised even by the fundamentalist with his thick rule-book. It's the legalism of the Judaizers. The Judaizers wanted to make circumcision a requirement for salvation. They had fatally corrupted the gospel by adding a human work as a requirement for salvation. That is certainly the worst variety of legalism, because it destroys the doctrine of justification by faith and thereby sets up "a gospel contrary to the one you received" (Galatians 1:8-9).
But another kind of legalism is the legalism of the Pharisees. It's the tendency to reduce every believer's duty to a list of rules. This is the kind of legalism that often seems to surface in our comment-threads. At its root is a belief that holiness is achieved by legal meansby following a list of "standards." This type of legalism doesn't necessarily destroy the doctrine of justification like the legalism of the Judaizers. But it does destroy the doctrine of sanctification, and it is certainly appropriate to call it what it is: legalismi.e., a sinful misapplication of law; an attempt to make law do work that only grace can do. Like the Judaizers' brand of legalism, it brings people under a yoke of bondage Scripture has not placed on them.
As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Jesus said about the legalism of the Pharisees: "They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders" (Matthew 23:4).
Pharisaical legalists are not content to live life in the power of the Spirit, cultivate discernment, and avoid things that are clearly profane or immoral; they make lists of rules that prohibit Christians from practically everything but church activities. It's not enough to avoid gambling; they insist that good Christians will avoid card-playing altogether. They're not content with doing things in moderation and with self-control, they make rules that call for strict abstinence from everything doubtfuland they try to impose those rules on other Christianssaddling people with a yoke that they imagine exists somewhere in the white spaces of Scripture.
You want rules? Here's a good one to start with: When it comes to the question of spiritual duties, where Scripture stops speaking, we should, too.
The Pharisees' sin was making rules that went beyond what Scripture actually said. For example, they read in the law that it is a sin to take God's name in vain (Exodus 20:7), so they expanded the rule to forbid the use of God's name at all. They invented euphemisms to be used in place of God's name (Matthew 23:22).
The Pharisees saw the stress that was laid on ceremonial cleanness in the Old Testament, so they invented all kinds of extra washings and required people to observe those as well. In fact, Matthew 15 tells how the Scribes and Pharisees tried to condemn Jesus for not making his disciples observe their extrabiblical traditions: "Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 'Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat'" (Matthew 15:1-2).
There was no biblical commandment requiring people to do any ceremonial washing before they ate. The priests were supposed to wash their hands before offering sacrifices to God, but no law required everyone to wash up before every meal.
Jesus' response to the Pharisees was a stern rebuke: "He answered them, 'And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?'" (Matthew 15:3). In other words, He rejected their tradition because it was not what the Word of God taught. Even though we all know that washing before meals is good hygiene, and a good idea, He flatly rejected their notion that it is "sinful" not to do it.
He said their legalism transgressed the Scriptures. Legalism always has an anti-biblical tendency. You cannot go beyond Scripture without ultimately setting yourself at odds with Scripture.
That is precisely what happened in the fundamentalist movement, and one of the major reasons that movement has failed so notoriously. Legalism diverts people's attention from sound doctrine, so that the typical fighting-fundie legalist is doctrinally ignorant, reserving his or her "convictions" for a silly manmade system of rules. Ask the typical self-styled fundamentalist to define the difference between imputed and imparted righteousness, and he will not be able to do so. Suggest that it's OK for women to wear pants, or for people to use another version besides the KJV for Bible study, and the same fundy will lock and load his angry dogmatism, ready to do battle or even die for some ridiculous manmade "standard." Thus, as Jesus said, they have nullified the Word of God for the sake of their manmade traditions.
Let me say this plainly: It is a sin to impose on others any "spiritual" standard that has no biblical basis. When God gave the law to Israel, He told them, "You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you" (Deuteronomy 4:2). And, "Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it" (Deuteronomy 12:32).
The same principle is repeated in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul was rebuking the Corinthians for their sectarianism, saying "I am of Paul"; "I am of Apollos," and so on. His rebuke to them includes these words in 1 Corinthians 4:6: "I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written."
That is a good guideline for how we should exercise our Christian liberty: Don't go beyond what is written in Scripture. Don't make rules to impose on others; don't devise rituals and forms of worship that are not authorized; and don't speak on such matters where God has been silent. That's the whole principle of Sola Scriptura applied to Christian living. If we really believe Scripture is a sufficient rule for the Christian life, then we don't have to add anything to it.
Nor is there virtue in applying every principle of Scripture in the strictest possible way. "Put[ting away] obscene talk from your mouth" (Colossians 3:8) doesn't mean you are guilty of sin every time you hear someone else use an obscenity or take the Lord's name in vain. "Keep[ing] oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27) doesn't mean you have to avoid contact with the world or hole up in a nunnery (1 Corinthians 5:9-12).
If we add rules that Scripture doesn't makeespecially if we try to impose our manmade rules on other people's consciences as a standard of spiritualitywe are guilty of the same sin as the Pharisees and worthy of the same harsh rebukes Christ leveled at them.