Within Christian circles is known the term 'legalism'. We know
it when we see it, couldn't possibly be guilty of it, but know
someone who is. When pressed to define it, the bottom line
answer is, "Not what we're doing."
What makes this word so unthinkable? We can confess to lies,
cheating, stealing, adultery, gossiping, and more. But, no way
could 'we' ever fall prey to legalism.
Perhaps, we need to feel superior to each other. Though, surely
we're not claiming superiority over the great men of old!? The
Apostle Paul had a terrible time overcoming legalism and was not
too proud to admit it.
So, what is legalism? Any custom, routine, obligation, service,
regulation, or deed performed to win God's acceptance and favor
fits into that category. The Pharisees were great at it. Paul
gave a simple definition. He called it 'confidence in the flesh'
and 'having our own righteousness' (Ph. 3:4, 9); as if there is
anything we could possibly do to measure up to God.
Acceptance, by God (His unconditional love), cannot be earned.
It was His gift to us from the moment we received Him into our
heart (Ep. 1:6). It has already been given! Though, like any
gift, it is not ours until received.
However, if we want God's acceptance (approval) and divine
favor (blessings) in and as a result of our service, our works
must be our gift from the heart (II Co. 10:18, Ac. 10:35); as
God can't be impressed without the heart (I Sa. 16:7).