Legalism is a term that gets thrown around a lot, and it’s generally referring to an approach to the Bible that is law-centric rather than grace- or love-centric. A legalistic theology (or more accurately, hermeneutic), does not necessarily preclude the idea of grace; but generally pushes love and grace to a very minor role in our approach to God, and establishes our compliance with God’s laws as the primary means of approaching him.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were a legalistic sect. They measured their own closeness to God by their adherence to the Law, and judged harshly those who did not measure up to their own standards of law-keeping. Of course, the legalist would not describe himself that way. He thinks that his standard of law-keeping is God’s. That’s the point, actually. It’s why legalism is such a prideful point of view.
The legalist (and I know, because I spent more than the first two decades of my life steeped in this mindset) cannot see the big picture that his understanding of the law (or misunderstanding, as the case may be) is different than the next person’s. His knee-jerk reaction against moral relativism turns him toward the absolutism of Phariseeism, or legalism. Yes, it’s true that truth itself is not relative; but our understanding of it grows over time as we mature in mental capacity, life experience, and spiritual understanding. Realizing that fact ought to give us some humility and cause us to exercise an abundance of caution in holding others to our own interpretational standards of the “The Law.”
This is addressed in Paul’s letter to Rome (chapters 14 and 15) when he covers the topic of those who may have a weaker conscience on some areas of interpretation. We are not to set up our own interpretation in place of God’s. He sums up this section with the powerful admonition to accept each other just as Christ accepted us. That point is driven right to our heart if we simply ask, “how did Christ accept me?” Did he accept me after I understood all the supposedly deep and complex interpretations of God’s laws, or was it on the basis of our simple faith in Christ and obedience to the gospel? I contend the latter, which means it’s upon that same basis I am told to accept my brother.
Of course, truth is not open to whatever interpretation you or I want to make up for it. But then again, you and I are not the arbiters of truth, just the interpreters of it for ourselves. We are all in this boat together trying to come to a better knowledge of truth. We can share what we think we understand at any given moment in time, but who are we to reach a conclusion today and suddenly raise the bar for everyone else to that level? Isn’t that the height of hypocrisy, as if God’s moving the finish line right behind wherever we are at in the “race?”
Who are we to judge another man’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. So writes Paul to the church in Rome, and it’s good advice, indeed, for trained legalists like me.