Legalism. The thought of the word sends most ‘Christians' fleeing from it’s supposed source. Often even strongly worded, biblically based calls to obedience in general, or to a specific command of Scripture is enough to bring the charge of ‘legalist’ to the individual bold enough to stand on the truth. In so many modern minds, the things we do have no bearing on our ‘salvation’. Once one ‘accepts Jesus as one's Savior’ one's eternal destiny is secured and one's behavior in inconsequential. One may ‘grow in faith’ or remain ‘carnal’ or wait to be ‘convicted’ to obey a command which is viewed as ‘optional’. Grace and works are separated, grace embraced as essential and ‘works’, however defined, is an advanced elective.
To understand legalism and it’s relationship to grace and works (legalism and works are not synonymous) we need to define legalism. Legalism is the attempt by an individual to do something by which we put God under obligation to do something for us, whether that is to ‘save’ us or to give us some special blessing. Practically, this is impossible. God doesn’t need us, He is complete in and of Himself. Nor can we, because of our sinful nature, ever do enough to put God under obligation to do anything for us. That is why our righteousness, when done to ‘earn’ our salvation, is like filthy rags. God cannot see past the sin to our righteousness. That is why salvation and blessing are gifts of grace. They are given by God to us because there is no way we could earn them.
Too often we stop there however. Our works do not earn us salvation or blessing but they are a necessary response to God’s demonstration of love. Yes, I said necessary. A neglected truth of Scripture is that we will all be judged according to the things we’ve done (Ecc 12:14; Pro 24:12; Jer 17:10, 32:19; Ps 62:12; I Ki 8:32, 39; Mt 16:27; II Cor 5:10; I Pe 1:17; Rev 2:23, 20:12, 13, 22:12). Nowhere is it stated that we will be judged according to what we believe. Why? Because judgement, both here and in heaven, is based on evidence. The evidence salvation is works. That is why faith without works is dead (Jas 2:14-19). You may say you believe in God, but if you don’t behave in a way that shows you believe God will judge, then you really don’t believe in Him or His power (Jas 2:19). You say you believe Yahushua is the Messiah? If that is true and God has demonstrated his love and grace through Him as through no other, then your response is one of gratitude, love and obedience (Jn 14:21). Without the proper evidence behind the words, the words mean nothing because the heart has not been changed. Grace, applied through our faith in the Messiah’s blood resulting in our transformation and evidenced by our righteous actions result in our place in the world to come. The removal of any link in the chain nullifies the result. Faith without works is empty words. Works without faith is legalism. Neither can save.
One thing to keep in mind is that it is not a specific act that is legalistic but the attitude that prompts the act. For example, we can all agree that God desires us to be part of the community of faith; ‘Let us not give up meeting together..’ Some people will go to their place of assembly every time the doors are open because they have a hunger to serve God and learn how to be the best disciple possible. I think we can all agree that is not an example of legalism. Another person can go just as often because he expects God to bless him if he does or out of obligation to a harsh taskmaster. That is not a proper response to a loving God and binds him to legalistic performance to ‘keep God on their side’ or obligate Him to give a reward. Both men assembled just as often but one was righteous and one was legalistic. It is not that act but the attitude. No one can ever accuse the writer of Psalm 119 of being a legalist.
Knowing that we will be judged according to our works and our righteous deeds are the evidence of saving faith, it is then important to ask, ‘What are works God requires?’ First, and most obvious to all, is our duty to demonstrate love to both God and man (Mt 22:37-40). These two commands summarize all the rest of the commands of Torah (the Law). A summary does not, however, supplant or invalidate the details. If a craftsman had to build a complicated machine based on the summary in a sales brochure, he would find it impossible. He needs details, working drawings and specific directions. This is Torah’s function in our lives. It is the blueprint, the specific directions that describe how we are to love God and our neighbor. The ‘religious’ commands detail our relationship to God, how He desires to be approached, worshipped and served. The ‘moral’ and judicial commands establish the context for our relationships with our neighbors. Both are important and they cannot be divorced from each other. ‘Religion’ often gets the same reaction from people as legalism but God gave us a specific context for the expression of the religious desire He implanted in each of us. Religion is merely the method by which we relate to God. It would be the height of arrogance on our part to assume we know better than God how He desires to be approached and related to.
Another way to look at our obedience to Torah is to look at the negative side. Torah defines sin (I Jn 5:17; Rom 7:7). Torah is the standard by which we judge perfection, the Mashiyakh Himself being the example of perfect obedience. If then, disobedience to Torah is sin and through the Mashiyakh we are no longer slaves to sin but to obedience which leads to righteousness (Rom 6:16), in the Mashiyakh we should become more and more Torah obedient, or conformed to the image of Mashiyakh Who was perfectly Torah obedient. After all, the foundation of the New Covenant is that the Torah will now be written on our hearts (Jer 31:31-34). God desires a holy (read sinless-perfectly Torah obedient) people who will be His priests to the world (I Pet 2:9; Ex 19:6).
Obedience to Torah is not, by definition, legalism. In fact, it is our conformity to the commands of Torah that show evidence of the Ruach (Spirit) having regenerated us and written it’s commands on our hearts. Our obedience to the commands of God contained in Torah is the proper response to His love and grace. And there is great blessing in it as well. Yahushua Himself said “Anyone who practices and teaches these commands (of Torah) will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:19).