That said, legalism is fresh on my mind because I am preaching through Matthew 23 and 24.
So, the legalistic syllogism goes something like this: Legalists believe in salvation by works. I don't believe in salvation by works. Therefore, I am not a legalist.
I would argue that is a legalistically narrow definition of legalism. It appears to me to be a far narrower definition than Jesus himself gives.
And, I would argue, it is not an accurate understanding of the scribes and Pharisees at all. It is misleading. Almost nobody fits that definition precisely. Therefore, I am safe in my semi-legalism.
As Sinclair Ferguson once pointed out, the Pharisees were not Pelagians. They did not believe they were saved by unaided good works. They were, rather semi-Pelagians --the God helps those who help themselves crowd. Want proof? What does Jesus' parable Pharisee say? Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men are..." He credits God, then credits himself. How savvy of him. God made him who he was. It was God who spared him from being like that publican. There, but for the grace of God, go I. I know better. I obey, by the grace of God. You don't...
Jesus' definition of legalism is straining at gnats and swallowing camels. It is hypocrisy. It is tithing without mercy and faithfulness. It is loving long flowing robes and greeting in the marketplaces. It is long public prayers. It is the seat of honor at banquets. It is a love of titles. It is phylacteries and tassels.
It is putting burdens on people that are too heavy to be borne.
In short, legalism is robbing people of the joy of relationship with God by the imposing of rules. Rules that take Scripture's grand principles and convert them into minute expectations. Rules that convince me that I am doing a better job at living this Christian life than you are. Rules that show me how good I am, and, incidentally, how bad you are. Legalists did not so much add to Scripture whole new lists of requirements as they did take the spare Law of God and codify it into a bazillion provisos, caveats, whereases and heretofores. We can grant that they did it with the best of intentions --they were serious about obedience to God. They were so serious they couldn't keep their own rules, so they made loopholes to ease the burden of them.
Before long, the rules became stuff that, if I do, makes me one of the "in," and you, if you don't, one of the "out."
Conservative evangelicalism of the Reformed type seems rife with these sorts of well-intentioned unwritten rules. Rules about education, about holidays, about childrearing, etc etc. Often we confuse the wise choices with the iron-clad right choices. We deny mitigating circumstances; we deny Christian liberty. We substitute legislation for counsel. Wisdom, however, takes into account mitigating circumstances --that there is not always one "right" answer, for everyone at all times, about all matters. Wisdom skillfully takes God's truth and applies it to one's own life.
Let me give you an example. My children go to public school. At one time, I thought I would never send my children to public school. I knew there were good Christian teachers in public schools, but I wanted my children in fine Christian schools or home schooled. God gave us an eldest daughter with special needs. Christian schools can't meet all her needs. In our judgment, at this point in her life, home school couldn't meet all her needs.
Public schools here aren't hostile to Christianity. God broke my legalism about public school, and it has been a blessing. I still commend Christian schooling and home schooling to parents. They can be very wise choices, sometimes the wisest choices. But they aren't "Thou shalt" obedience issues. They are wisdom issues, and liberty issues. I don't feel superior to parents who make other choices. Yet, there are churches in our own denomination I could not pastor because I choose to let my children go to public school. There are people in our denomination that think I have made an evil choice; I've met some and they've told me.
Legalism kills joy. Legalism kills community. Legalism is excessively concerned with the business of other people. God, show us our lingering legalisms, and help us to put it to death.