Neither the mere avoidance of evil deeds, nor the mere doing of good works makes one righteous. One cannot claim righteousness on the basis of abstaining from certain acts or engaging in others. Such is the pursuit of righteousness as if it were attained by works (Rom. 9:31-32). This is a law-centered approach to righteousness.
But the truly righteous don’t need a law code to keep in step with what’s right. A law-centered approach will in fact restrict us to minimal obedience. One asks, “How much, or how little, do I have to do in order to be right with God?” So one stops at conformity to the letter of the law, like the Pharisees who thought that hatred was okay so long as one didn’t cross the line into murder. A law-centered approach to obedience is legalistic.
Some legalists work themselves silly attending every church event, visiting the sick, delivering food to shut-ins, and volunteering for every ministry. There is certainly nothing wrong with dedication to religion and good works, but what is your motive? Some think they must work their way to heaven by measuring up to all the commands in the New Testament. The problem is that no one measures up.
So we are left with either the self-defeatists who, in spite of all their hard work, are never quite confident of salvation’s assurance. There is always a lingering doubt as to whether they are actually saved. In contrast to the self-defeatist is the self-righteous. The self-righteous think they’ve somehow secured their own salvation by either superior understanding or superior obedience. They are judgmental of those they deem to be less informed or less committed than themselves. Consider, for example, the Pharisees’ attitude toward the tax collector in Luke18:9-14.
While self-righteous legalists live as if they’re earning a grade (or demerits) there is another category of legalism I call “progressive legalism.” Self-righteous legalists are typically identified with conservatives or traditionalists. But progressive legalists are just as law-centered in their approach. They confine themselves to what the “letter of the law” requires, committing only to the irreducible minimum. This is evidenced by many progressives’ lack of involvement in the local congregation. Attendance, for example, is considered optional when the letter of the law doesn’t seem to require it. If Sunday morning is understood as the only requirement, the involvement of a “progressive legalist” will be limited to Sunday morning.But why should we need legislation compelling us to worship, fellowship, and study Scripture? While progressives accuse conservatives of being legalistic, it seems the progressives have learned the craft well. While conservatives ask, “How much do I need to do?” the progressives are asking “How little must I do?” It is simply two sides of the same legalistic coin.