Legalism is adding commands to the Bible and treating those commands as God-given. The Pharisees were experts at this, and for what it's worth, I believe that their intentions were probably good at the outset. Many of the rules that they made that were not a part of Torah were conceived as a "fence around the Torah"; the idea was, if you never break the command that is not in Torah, then you'll never come close to breaking the command that's actually in Torah.
From Judaism for Beginners:
" Chapter 1, Mishnah 1, from Pirkei Avos:
'Moses received the Torah at Sinai, and passed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, the Prophets passed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly, who said three things: Be patient in the administration of justice; raise up many disciples; and make a fence around the Torah.'
I'd like to focus on 'make a fence around the Torah.' God gave us many instructions in the Torah. All of God's orders, or "mitzvahs," are designed to make our lives better. When we buy a new computer system, there is a handbook which includes instructions. It would be foolish of us to try to handle the computer system without regard to the accompanying manual ('Oh, I don't need that, I know what I'm doing'). Yet, so many of us try to live our lives by doing only what 'feels' good, and we disregard God's instructions, or make exceptions. Our wise sages often felt the need to add 'fences' around the mitzvahs in order to protect us from making mistakes, or misunderstanding, or dispensing with them altogether."
Sounds reasonable. We should stay as far from sin as possible--who could argue with a little help, a few more boundaries just to make sure we don't break the commandments?
The problem is this: I see several places in the Bible that, I believe, contradict this fence-building notion, however well-intentioned it may have been. I'll give a few of the examples I see and comment on legalism in my own life.
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, who were interested in their own "holy" appearance before men rather than their standing with God. They made sure everyone saw their "piety," and they took advantage of those close to God's heart, such as the widows. The passage below speaks to all of these issues. It's interesting to me that Jesus was not as interested in the myriad "traditions of the fathers" as He was the heart of each person before God.
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 'Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.' He answered them, 'And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.' But you say, 'If anyone tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father.' So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
'This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'"
Note that He contrasts the traditions with God's commandments. They are not one and the same. God's commands are recorded in His Word and do not change. Dare we add to them?
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming soon.' Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
It is my opinion that this principle of neither adding to or detracting from God's Word applies to the whole of Scripture as well as Revelation.
God desires us to hear His Words and diligently follow them. His sheep hear His voice; obviously, His voice will always agree with the Bible, as it is God-breathed.
"Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children--how on the day that you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, the LORD said to me, 'Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.' And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.
"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers."
There is a balance to understanding obedience and freedom. The Lord warns us against doing what is right in our own eyes; there is no license to go wherever our flesh leads. In fact, that sounds a lot like the broad way to destruction, and "many go that way." However, on the other hand, we do have freedom in Christ. Even as we abide in the shadow of His wings, there will be differences between us--matters of conscience and interpretation that are within the parameters of His Word. I believe that to distinguish between good and evil, we must be consistently (daily) meditating on the Lord and His Word, and be open to the working of His Spirit in us.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,
'As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall confess to God.'
So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
Those of you who know me also know that I am not promoting licentiousness with this line of thinking (see my post on judging).
I called this post "Coming Out of Legalism" because in my own life, I've been bound by it at times. I think that most believers--true disciples who are intensely interested in finding out what pleases the Lord (Eph 5:8-9) and obeying Him (John 15:14)--run into this problem, probably many times. We must guard against making our own 'rules' for ourselves and others in the name of radical obedience.
Please hear me: I love obedience, because the Lord says this is how I am His friend and shows that I truly love Him. But I want to stay in step with the Lord, because the enemy is prowling and is clever. He knows that one of the best ways to trip up a disciple is legalism in the guise of radical obedience.
Here's a litmus test that has been helpful for me: can I simply obey my conscience in this area, or am I constantly pointing mental fingers at people regarding this disputable matter? Am I judging my brother over something that is not in the Scripture (insert topic here)? Paul used meat as an example; we could use dresses or music as examples. There is never anything wrong with taking a stand of conscience unless it is A) unprompted by the Holy Spirit and B) causes you to look down on your brethren spiritually.