What Does it Mean to be a “Legalistic” Christian?
“Legalism” is the wrong use of laws or rules. For example there is a form of legalism that uses rules or commandments as a way of salvation. Such laws in and of themselves might be good and proper, but they cannot save a soul. Thus, Paul warns against the view that salvation can come about by keeping the law, as the Judaizers erroneously taught.
Among Christians there is also a kind of legalism that teaches that, although we are saved through faith in Christ, sanctification is a matter of submitting to certain rules or standards. Thus, one’s Christian progress is judged by whether or not one keeps the prescribed rules: such as no movies, no dancing, no gambling, etc. Make no mistake, these rules might have value to keep Christians from certain select sins, but they are not a substitute for the fruit of the Spirit. Thus, once again rules are misused.
Another form of legalism elevates mere human preferences to the level of biblical absolutes. For example, there are churches that teach that no Christian man should have a beard or that no woman should wear lipstick, etc., and these cultural differences are held with the same convictions as important doctrines.
When various man-made standards are elevated to be an essential doctrine of Christ, or held as a pivotal element of salvation, even what is believed with good motives ends up being serious false teaching about holiness and the doctrine of the Gospel. Many of the New Testament epistles (especially the book of Galatians) contain sections intended to correct legalism, which was warping the pure teaching of the Gospel. We encourage believers to study the Scriptures and discern whether or not their personal standards and communal teachings align with the spirit and content of the Word of God (Acts 17:11).