Sometimes Christians are accused of “legalism,” and it’s not usually meant as a compliment.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, legalism is “strict, literal adherence to the law or to a particular code, as of religion or morality.” Based on that definition, Christians should be found guilty as charged.
Jesus said, “whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom” (Matthew 5:19). Jesus is teaching in this context what must be the character and behavior of citizens of the kingdom of heaven. According to His teaching then, the Christian will gladly plead guilty to “legalism” as defined above.
In the same sermon, Jesus said that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). According to Jesus, using the dictionary definition of legalism, Christians must be guilty of legalism to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Ture love of Christ demands that the Christian give heed to and do the commandments of the Lord. Again, based on the cited definition of legalism, the Christian who truly loves the Lord is found guilty of legalism.
The apostle Paul writes that the spiritual man will “acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:37). The spiritual man in Christ is guilty of legalism, according to the cited definition, because he acknowledges, and by implication, follows the teachings of the apostles which are the commandments of the Lord.
The charge of legalism against Christians comes mostly from religious people! If you are accused of legalism, ask what is meant. Some who make the charge may reason the New Testament as just a love letter as opposed to the law of Christ to be carefully followed, while others just say “it is all about loving one another.” Remember, though, what the Lord Himself said about love: “if you love me, keep my commandments;” those commands include loving neighbor. Where all these reasons end is this: making up one’s own religion. No man has the right to ignore any of the commands of the Lord.
If you are humbly walking by faith, don’t let the charge of “legalism” cause you to shrink from being concerned with all the commands of the Lord and pleasing Him in everything you think, say, and do.