We all have a strong tendency to want to live by a list of rules—it’s called legalism.
Legalism is appealing for two reasons. First, it makes holiness manageable. A heart wholly devoted to God is a tough demand, but a list of ten rules I can cope with. That was the motivation of the expert in the law who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He wanted to justify himself, to tick the “love for neighbor” box. But Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan blew his manageable system apart. Second, legalism makes holiness an achievement on our part. “Yes, I was saved by grace,” the legalist says, “but I’m the godly per- son I am today because I’ve kept this code of behavior or practiced these spiritual disciplines.” One of its by-products is comparison with other people. We check whether we’re holier than other people or look down on those who don’t appear to be as good as we are.
No one thinks of himself as a legalist. Such persons just think of themselves as someone who takes holiness seriously. After all, it has the “appearance of wisdom” (Colossians 2:20–23). But if you want to see a legalist, take a look in the mirror. Deep in the heart of all of us is the proud desire to prove ourselves. Sin is wanting to live our lives our own way without God. The terrible irony is that we even want to overcome sin our own way without God. The struggle against legalism was not done and stored away two thousand years ago in Galatia or five hundred years ago at the Reformation. The battle with legalism takes place every day in our hearts.
This means we need to repent not only of our sin but also of our “righteousness” when we think of it as our righteousness, which we do to prove ourselves and which we think makes us better than other people.