Legalism is an attitude that projects itself outwardly by focusing on our behavior rather than our hearts. It is trying to live the letter of the law without the Spirit of the law. It is the fake it till you make it approach to religion. Legalism can be best expressed in Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees in Matt. 23 where He reviles them for whitewashing their coffins with paint to pretty-up their external appearance to impress others to obscure the fact that it was full of dead-guy bones. He goes on to explain that if you wash the outside of the cup it is of no use if the inside contains filth. This perfectly illustrates the basis of legalism in that it concerns itself with how we act as “good Christians” rather than what is in our hearts. It often represents itself in conformity of behavior against pureness of heart. In my early years as a Christian I saw this clearly in myself, as my eagerness to please those around me who “knew” became my primary motivator. I began to say and do all of the acceptable things but I knew that my heart was not right before God. It has been a long process in realizing that pleasing God alone is my goal.
Legalism spits at the nerve center of the Gospel that wants to change our hearts. Then we let that inward life of God work itself outward to our acts, rather than perform, or not perform a certain deed based on how I will look to others. If I try to keep the appearances of obeying the law of God while my insides are rebelling, I am a legalist. An old “Dennis The Menace” cartoon has Dennis pictured in a chair in the corner of the room doing his “time out”; thus his declaration that “I may be sitting down on the outside but I’m standin’ up on the inside” is incredibly poignant. God is primarily concerned with what is going on inside.
Jesus derided the scribes and Pharisees for tithing bits of seeds and coins while neglecting justice, mercy and faithfulness which come from the heart and are infinitely of more value to The Father. One of the more insidious results that Jesus warns His detractors of is hypocrisy; almost always a byproduct of a legalistic attitude, where, after we have deluded ourselves, we attempt to fool others into thinking we are something we are not. The idea of “play-acting” with a mask is inherent in the word. His illustration about laying the heavy burdens on others without lifting a finger themselves is where the hypocrisy of the legalist ends up. Personal follow through has no performance value.
God desires change in us for sure if we are to be children of light, but He knows real change can only come as we absorb His goodness from the inside out, i.e. the fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5:22-3. This is clear from Matt. 12:33ff when the Lord explains that only by making the tree good can it produce good fruit. Legalism is the act of stapling borrowed apples to a tree in the attempt to convince ourselves, others & God that we are righteous souls. Jesus declares that only by focusing on the inner life of the tree, will it be able to produce good fruit. When we confess that our hearts are unrighteous and in need of repair, (Mk 7:14-23 ) then and only then are we in a position to see our real need. As we begin as His disciples to learn from Him the root causes of our ailing hearts then we can slowly but consistently progress by making His thoughts and habits ours. The result is that fruit begins to appear. This is the method Jesus had in mind in John 15 as the branches seek to draw their very breath from the rich and life giving vine. When the grapes are harvested with a fresh tangy flavor we know the branches and the vine worked their magic once again.
Legalism trades the real in favor of the made-up and fake. It is a pretend world that we do not belong in. With God the real qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control come from a good heart soaked in the reality of being with Jesus on an ongoing basis and absorbing His life in and thru us.