What is the difference between trying to please God and legalism?
A measuring stick that only measures the end result will identify anything pleasing to God as legalism. As with most things Jesus taught about, the difference between doing something to please God, and legalism, is found in the heart.
Legalism is when a person does works stemming from prideful self-sufficiency that ignores trust and regards performing good deeds as doing God a favor. It is when one gets so involved in seeking to fulfill every minor detail of God’s law or man-made laws that the heart of God is missed.
If someone is under a yoke of legalism he is probably trying to meet some fence laws (extra rules tacked on to God’s ways) prescribed by men. The yoke of legalism is unbearable. This earned righteousness mentality is a nasty pride. The end result of legalism is a proud confidence in one’s own righteousness and missing God’s will.
A sample of legalism is in Acts 15:5. The Pharisees laid down the position that unless the Gentiles who turned Christians were circumcised after the manner of Moses, and thereby bound themselves to all the observances of the ceremonial law, they could not be saved. This is foolish, as if being circumcised could earn salvation. Jesus spoke firmly against legalism (see Matthew 23:2-4, Mark 7:5- 13).
To have faith in Christ’s saving grace one must have the knowledge that we are completely unrighteous without the atonement of Jesus, unworthy of receiving the gift of life Christ laid down for us. Responding to God in worship and obedience to His Word is evidence of our gratefulness for His gift to us.
- Legalism is focused on a system.
- Desiring to please God is focused on a relationship.
- Legalism is focused on what is required.
- Desiring to please God is focused on love from within.
- Legalism asks How can I meet the requirements?ÿ
- Desiring to please God asks, “What is the Lord telling me about His desires through His instruction?”
- Legalism is horrid, for if it were possible to earn a relationship with God, in and of ourselves, Christ’s death was pointless.
- Desiring to please God is obeying His commands to love Him with all out hearts, minds, and souls. Loving God can never be legalistic!
A Fruit Test
I have been accused of being legalistic because I celebrate the Biblical holidays and don’t eat unclean foods.
Celebrating the holidays can become legalistic. So can going to church, wearing certain clothing, helping the poor, etc. Anything to earn righteousness or done for the outward appearances is legalism. Celebrating the feast days can become legalistic if your heart is not right.
If you feel you have to do the holidays and you’re in a frenzy trying to make everything just perfect, your house is a shambles, children crying, and everyone in a foul mood, you are defeating the point. Time to check your motives.
The woman who decided to wear a head covering to show she was submissive who wore it against her husband’s wishes was not right in her heart. Are you are being controlled by legalism or a desire to please God? It is easy to find out if something is legalistic examine the fruit produced.
If it is from God the fruit will be patience, joy, peace, love, kindness, gentleness and self-control. The fruit of legalism is easily recognized arguments, selfish ambition, unreasonable behavior, deceitfulness, and envy.
We are not in bondage, we are free, free in Christ–free enough to enjoy a cycle of annual celebrations that reminds us that God has done a wonderful work of redemption for us through Christ. Celebrating the biblical holidays is a privileged set apart time of Bible study or family devotions. Do you have to have Bible study or family devotions? No, but will you learn more about God, His ways and His paths if you do?
We can celebrate the Biblical holidays if we do it to learn about God or to worship God. If we celebrate the holidays to earn righteousness there is no reason to observe them.
By celebrating the biblical holidays I am no better than my friend who chooses not to observe these days. Both of our righteousness is as filthy rags. We are only saved by Christ.