The word "legalism" isn’t found in the Bible. According to the Oxford Everyday Dictionary it means "excessive conformity to the law". Among the Evangelical community it is understood as an excessive conformity with the letter of commandments and doctrines, and this is the sense in which we are using it here.
When God prepared the people of Israel for Himself, He gave them a law through Moses in order that they might know how to walk in conformity with His will. As was written by Isaiah the prophet: "The LORD was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake, to magnify his law and make it glorious." Isaiah 42:21 (RSV).
The Lord Jesus confirmed that He Himself obeyed it, when he said: "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfil. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled." Matt 5:17-18 (NKJV). He would fulfil the whole law.
Even though the Israelite nation were required to obey all the law, with its statutes and judgments, some requirements were more important than others, which was reflected in the penalties foreseen for the transgressors. The Lord Jesus gave the following answer to a scribe who enquired which was the first of all commandments: "The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these." Mark 12:29-31 (NKJV).
The Lord Jesus, however, does not fit into the description of a legalist. For example, He approved of the action of David, on an occasion "when he was in need and hungry, and went into the house of God and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him." Mark 2:25-26 (NKJV). He Himself caused scandal among the religious elite of His time, for example when he healed on the Sabbath, when he ordered a disabled man he healed to carry his bed away on a Sabbath, when he permitted his disciples to eat without first washing their hands, etc.
Legalistic were the religious men, like the Pharisees of His time, and the ancient against whom the prophets spoke. We distinguish the following features which characterised them, also called pharisaism, for the Pharisees came to typify these characteristics:
1. FORMALISM: strict religious observance of rules, conventions and practices only to maintain an appearance of piety. Through the prophet Isaiah, the LORD said to the people: "Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to Me… I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting… when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow." Isaiah 1:13-17 (NKJV). The people praised God with their lips, but their hearts were far away from Him, "and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote" Isaiah 29:13 (RSV). When they fasted they bowed down their heads like a bulrush, and spread out sackcloth and ashes, but to find pleasure, to look after their own interests, for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. The fast that the LORD required was "To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh" Isaiah 58:3-7 (NKJV) . "The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." Romans 14:17 (NKJV).
2. SANCTIMONIOUSNESS: making a show of righteousness or piety, by scrupulously obeying circumstantial religious precepts, neglecting the most important foundations of faith: " … you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! … You cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence!… First cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also!… You outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." Matthew 23:23-28 (NKJV). "And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men… do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words." Matthew 6:5-7 (NKJV).
3. PRESUMPTION: impudent behaviour, acting without authority, pretending to be owner of the truth and despising or condemning all those who think or act differently. The LORD said: "I have stretched out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, according to their own thoughts; a people who provoke Me to anger continually to My face; … who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!’ These are smoke in My nostrils, a fire that burns all the day." Isaiah 65:2-5 (NKJV). The apostle Peter said to the centurion Cornelius: "You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore I came without objection as soon as I was sent for." Acts 10:28-29 (NKJV). We are told that in our days, among other things "men will be lovers of themselves, boasters, proud, blasphemers, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, haughty, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!" 2 Timothy 3:2-5 (NKJV).
4. TRADITIONALISM: to follow or uphold traditional beliefs and methods of procedure handed down from one generation to another, giving them the character of doctrine. This came under severe censure by the Lord Jesus, for example: "Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? … you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honour Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' " Matthew 15:3-9 (NKJV). The apostolic traditions, transcribed in the New Testament, are part of the foundation of our faith, but there are many others which have been added to them little by little and wrongfully taken as norms which must be strictly obeyed. The apostle Paul warned: "… how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years." Galatians 4:9-10 (NKJV). "Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility … why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations: 'do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,'… according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh." Colossians 2:18-23 (NKJV).
Believers who practise such things are like the Pharisees who "have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." Paul spoke from his own experience, for he advanced in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries in his own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of his fathers. (Galatians 1:14).
But all changed when Christ revealed Himself to him, for, as Paul wrote "For He Himself is our peace … , who … abolished in His flesh … the law of commandments contained in ordinances". Ephesians 2:14,15 (NKJV) and instructed: "you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!" Galatians 5:13-15 (NKJV).
In Galatia, Paul informs us that "false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage), to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you." Galatians 2:4,5 (NKJV). He referred specially to Jews who intended to submit the believers to the law of Moses, even though he admitted that "the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good." (Rom. 7:12).
We must be on our guard against false brethren who, in our days, endeavour to submit local churches to the strict obedience of some norm prescribed by them, generally of private interpretation, which is not explicit in the Word of God, and with this disturb the liberty we have in Christ Jesus. If they do not succeed in their attempt, they carry disciples away from the local churches to form other assemblies which antagonise the first.