le•gal•ism (lē’gǝl•iz’ǝm) n.
1. Strict conformity to law; especially, the stressing of the letter and forms of the law rather than the spirit of justice. 2. Theol. The doctrine of salvation by works or strict adherence to a religious code rather than by grace.
le•gal•i•ty (li•gal’ ǝ•te) n. pl.
1. The condition or quality of being legal; lawfulness. 2. Adherence to law. (As defined by Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary)
There is difference between legalism and the law of God. Obeying the law of God does not make you a legalist. Believing that obeying the law of God will justify or save you, that is legalism. Even though obedience to the law can’t save us, God still requires our obedience.
I have been a legalist before and it was a miserable time in my life–I’m so thankful God saved me from that and showed me that I can not and should not try to save myself. After coming out of legalism though, I went through a time when I wanted to cast off all rules and restrictions and use “grace” as an excuse for whatever I wanted. I am finally starting to find myself in the middle–realizing what a joy and gift the law of God really is. I am starting to see that even though the law is powerless in saving my soul, it is still very powerful in directing my life and helping me be all that God desires.
Like the rules parents set for a home and children, so God sets rules for us–not to bind us up but to set us free. We are free when we obey the laws of God because they are meant always to protect and guide us into a better relationship with God and man. God’s laws are practical, intentional, and always for our good. Obedience to God’s laws puts us on a straight path and helps guard our hearts and lives from unnecessary heartache and trouble. I’m not saying obedience means a life filled only with happiness and ease–sometimes sanctifying heartache is very much a part of that straight path towards God.
All I’m saying is this–don’t despise the laws of God, don’t run from his rules in search of freedom–freedom is found in obedience. David often spoke in the Psalms about how much he loved and delighted in the law of God because he recognized that the law was meant for his good. The times when David chose to disobey the laws of God were also the times when his heart was broken and his life began to crumble. Trust always that God has your best in mind and his laws are meant as a loving guide towards freedom and happiness.
“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” Joshua 1:8 (ESV, italics mine).