Legalism is a ministry killjoy. It destroys the natural joy that comes from serving others in ministry like nothing else I’ve seen. I’ve seen more ministries ruined by legalism than anything else.
What is legalism? Legalism happens when we substitute our rules and rituals for our relationship with Christ. It’s a subtle trap that takes the focus off of what God has done for you and slowly turns it to what you have done for God.
In Philippians 3, Paul tells us flat out that he’s tried legalism. In the process, he points out five different ways he had been a legalist—ways that still haunt many of us today.
Legalism is putting your trust in rituals. Paul says, “I was circumcised eight days after I was born according to the Jewish law” (Phil. 3:5a). Today, a Christian might say, “I was baptized,” or “I joined the church,” or “I took communion.” All of those are good, but they don’t earn God’s approval.
Legalism is putting your trust in a race. Paul says, “Of the people of Israel, I was of the tribe of Benjamin” (Phil. 3:5b). I’ve got the royal pedigree here. It’s like people today who say they have a relationship with God because their uncle was a missionary or their mom was a believer. It doesn’t work that way. Everyone has to make his or her own decision to follow Jesus.
Legalism is putting your trust in a religion. Paul says, “I’m a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5c). Some Christians today say the same thing. They point to their denomination when asked about their relationship with God. When we get to heaven, God won’t ask us what denomination we are—he’ll ask us how we responded to his Son, Jesus.
Legalism is putting your trust in rules. Paul also says, “In regard to the law, I was a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:6a). The Pharisees were the spiritually elite. They turned the 10 Commandments into 613! Ten just wasn’t enough for them. They would not eat an egg that had been laid on the Sabbath because the hen had to “work” by laying it. They would not scratch a mosquito bite on the Sabbath because that was considered work. By bringing attention to his background as a Pharisee, Paul is saying, “You want to talk about rules? I kept the rules!”
Legalism is putting your trust in reputation. Finally, Paul adds, “As for zeal, and as for legalistic righteousness, I was faultless” (Phil. 3:6b). In other words, Paul was saying he was a superstar legalist! Today we might brag on how many people attend our church, how long we pray or how many people we led to Christ last week. The end result is the same—they won’t make God any happier with us.