What exactly is legalism? Does this apply to a believer in Christ? How should Christians react to legalism?
Under the Law
Legalism can be described as a strict adherence, or the principle of a strict adherence to law, especially to the letter rather than the spirit. That is what the Mosaic Law was all about. God gave the Ten Commandments but the Mosaic Law was specifically for Israel and does not apply to believers today because we are not under the Old Covenant. We are under the New, and better Covenant. Because Jesus’ atoning work freed us from the Law, we are not standing as condemned by the Law. What the Law could not do, Jesus did. Consider the Sabbath Laws which restricted the following activities on the Sabbath but many of these were added by the religious leaders by their own traditions:
- Binding sheaves
- Shearing wool
- Washing wool
- Beating wool
- Tying (your shoes for example)
- Sewing two stitches
- Tearing (like opening a letter)
- Salting meat (at meals)
- Writing two letters
- Erasing two letters
There were dozens upon dozens of laws required for the Sabbath  under the Old Covenant. James understood that if a believer were to try and keep the Law, then they were obligated to keep the whole law (James 2:10) which was reiterated by Paul in Galatians 5:3, saying “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.“
The Mosaic System
The Mosaic Law was particularly written for Israel and these various ceremonial laws like the washings and the blood sacrifices were designed to point to Jesus. The sacrificial system for example is a shadow of the later coming work of Christ on the cross at Calvary. The author of Hebrews writes that “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves” (Hebrews 10:1). Jesus is that reality and is why Jesus “has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Hebrews 7:27). With Jesus’ shed blood, “there is forgiveness [and] there is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:18) since “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). This is because Jesus “did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).
With Jesus’ work on Calvary He said that “it is finished” (John 19:20) meaning that it was paid in full because “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11). The Mosaic Laws were reminders to Israel about how awful sin was and that it always meant some animals blood must be shed, even though God knows it doesn’t really atone for sins.
The Ten Commandments
No one who has ever lived has kept the Ten Commandments  perfectly. Only Jesus has been able to do that. Jesus came to live a sinless for us who are sinners (1 Peter 2:2). Some have a misconception about Jesus because they believe that since He fulfilled the Law, there is no more need for the Law. The Ten Commandments are different that the Mosaic Laws and they were never done away with, even though we fail in keeping them. The Ten Commandments were written by the very finger of God and written in stone indicating their permanency. Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). How can the commandment to never murder anyone ever be done away with? How about stealing or adultery? These are all still just as much in effect as on the day that they were written. God understands that we can never keep these laws but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to obey them. These are not so much don’t do this or do that but do this and suffer, and don’t do this and you won’t suffer.
Paul said almost exactly the same thing, writing “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31). Jesus was clear about this law saying, “Till heaven and earth pass, one stroke or one pronunciation mark shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:18-19). Here Jesus not only says that we are to keep the Law (not the Mosaic Law) but we are commanded to teach others the Ten Commandments and if we don’t, then we are going to be “the least in the kingdom of heaven.”
Any church or pastor or Bible teacher that tries to tie a person or people down by the Law needs to take a closer look at the Word of God. Paul told the Colossians that they were “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11). This circumcision is of the heart and not the outward flesh. By His own shed blood Jesus canceled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:14) “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). The Mosaic Laws were a shadow of what was to come and did come in the reality of and in the Person of Jesus Christ.
This is why Paul was so upset and called the Galatians foolish (Galatians 3:1) for trying to still keep the law and said, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith” (Galatians 3:2)? Of course it was by faith in Christ alone that saved them. Their faith did not come by keeping the Law nor did they receive the Holy Spirit by the works of the Law. Paul asked them, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith” (Galatians 3:5). Paul said that it is by faith that they are saved and this faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17) and not be doing (like the works of the Law) because “the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:12-13a).
If you have not yet repented (turned away) from your sins, confessed them to God and then put your trust in Jesus Christ  as Lord and Savior, you are still under the Law so to speak. That is, you must pay for your own sins…or let Jesus pay for them. The wages you have earned without Christ is eternal death. The plain truth is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and so, “the wages of sin is death [now the good news] but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Someone will have to pay for your sins and if it is you, you will never be able to do enough to take them away. This means that you will have to pay for them for all eternity, but Jesus has paid them for you if you are willing to make Him Savior and trust in Him. If you do this, you won’t have to pay for your own sins. That is my prayer for you.
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Resources – New International Version Bible (NIV) THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. YouTube video “More Like Falling in Love” by Jason Gray