I think an example of such legalistic ideals would be the Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus dealt with. We can see clearly that He felt very strongly about their ways of ministering to the people. In Matthew 23: 23-24 He says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, and dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”
Of course I could go on for quite a while on all the things that Jesus has to say to the Pharisees, but I think this suffices to paint the picture. The people who were supposed to be the guides to the people and the ministers, and teachers were lost in the little rules that made them look good and holy. They were lost in these rules, and their own pride, so deeply that they would not even listen to the truth when it was staring them in the face.
We see this today in the legalistic churches all around the world. So focused on how spiritual they look, rather than how spiritual they truly are. Legalistic churches, those that I have experience with, typically care more about the size of their congregations than the truth of their preaching. You won’t hear about how much of a sinner you are and how desperately you need a savior. You will hear about how nice of a person you are, or how much God loves you, even if you sin. But you will never hear of your sin, or how wretched and filthy you are, and how Christ is your only hope of being presentable to the Father. Because that is unpleasant to hear, and as we see in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
Now this is quite interesting, how it is described in here. The time is coming when people will not ENDURE sound teaching. When someone gets up there in the pulpit and tells you the truth about yourself, as God’s word speaks it, it will not be pleasant to your ears. How can the directions of a holy and perfect God, given to a desperately wicked sinner, sound good? There is a reason that the Bible tells us they loved darkness rather than light(John 3:19). To hear the truth about yourself, you better be sitting down, because if you do not end up on your knees at the end of it, then true repentance is not in you. It should break you’re heart to hear how you have broken the laws of God. Only when you recognize that and accept it, can you recognize your need for the Savior and accept Him truthfully.
So, when it comes to the legalistic ideals, I would say they are both attitude, and as a result of that attitude(which usually starts with pride), then legalistic actions take place. Christ was very clear that He was the only Way, the only Truth, and the only Life(John 14:6). He is the only way to the Father. Now that does not mean that we do not follow the commands of God, quite the contrary. Jesus said, “ Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” If we love Him, then because of that we will fulfill His commands, not perfectly of course, but through the saving grace that He has given to us we will get better every day.
But if our focus becomes more about us than it is about Christ, we are failing to truly follow Him. It is all about the true intentions of the heart. We must constantly evaluate ourselves through His word to ensure that we are truly following His will. If we only care about looking good to others, we will follow all kinds of little rules to make ourselves look better, but we will lose our focus on Christ. Legalism seems to me to be about self, it is a prideful religious practice that causes us to lose focus on the only thing that can save us, Jesus Christ. It is not about how well we measure up, but it is about how Christ already did the measuring up for us, and we can do nothing of ourselves.
Hopefully this helps and thank you for the great question James. If you have anything else to ask, or anything to add, please do. God bless you and thank you.