In contrast to yesterday’s thoughts on liberty, what does it mean to say that legalism puts people under bondage? Legalism is an attitude, a mentality based on pride. It is an obsessive conformity to an artificial standard for the purpose of exalting oneself. A legalist assumes the place of authority and pushes it to unwarranted extremes.
In so many words, legalism says, “I do this or I don’t do that, and therefore I am pleasing God.” Or, “If only I could do this or not do that, I would be pleasing to God.” Or perhaps, “These things that I’m doing or not doing are the things I perform to win God’s favor.” They aren’t spelled out in Scripture, you understand. They’ve been passed down or they have been dictated to the legalist and have become an obsession to him or her. Legalism is rigid, grim, exacting, and lawlike in nature. Pride, which is at the heart of legalism, works in sync with other motivating factors. Like guilt. And fear. And shame. It leads to an emphasis on what one should not be and what one should not do. It flourishes in a drab context of negativism.
Let’s get specific. The one place on earth where we would most expect to be set free is, in fact, the very place we are most likely to be placed into slavery: the church. What happened in the first century can surely happen in the twenty-first. Paul writes to the Galatians of his surprise: “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” [5:7].
Allow me to amplify his thought—”When I was with you, some of you were into the 100-meter dash, others were doing the 440 with ease. Still others were into much longer distances . . . you were marathoners. The truth freed you, and I distinctly recall how well you were running as well as how much joy you demonstrated. Who cut in on your stride? Who took away your track shoes? Who told you that you shouldn’t be running or enjoying the race? Some of you have stopped running altogether” (Swindoll paraphrase).
How many Christians do you know who exercise the joy and freedom to be a person full of life, living on tiptoe, enjoying spontaneous living—as opposed to the numberless hundreds of thousands who take their cues from the legalists and live life accordingly? Isn’t it surprising to anyone who has been set free that anybody would ever want to return to bondage? Surely, that must grieve our God.