The best example of being legalistic in Scripture is that of the Pharisees. Jesus described them as follows: “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8).
Jesus desires His people to keep His commandments from a heart of love, just as He did. He taught that the commandments are based on love to God and love to others (Matthew 22:34-40). He said, “I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 15:10). He lived a perfect life of obedience as an example to His followers. And He tells us, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
The person, who keeps the law out of love to God is not legalistic. However, he keeps the law for self righteousness, fear, or compulsion then he becomes legalistic. This is because he has no connection to God who gave the law. The Pharisees were so focused on the law that they lost sight of the law Giver and His character of mercy (Matthew 23:23). They cared more of their appearance of holiness rather than a true heart transformation (Matthew 23:27-28). So, they were legalistic.
This is best seen at the sermon on the mount. Jesus made it very clear that He upheld the law, ”Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill… Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17, 19).
Although Jesus called for obedience, He wanted it in the truest form. “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
He then gives an example of what He means, “Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5: 21-22)
The keeping of the law begins in the heart. Jesus said that our righteousness had to exceed that of the Pharisees. This is because theirs was self righteousness, which is to God is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Jesus wanted true righteousness which is by faith (Romans 3:22). This faith works by love (Galatians 5:6). The works of faith are simply living out the love that God has put in our heart (James 2:14-26). This faith does not do away with the law, but establishes it (Romans 3:31).
The apostle John sums up the Christian’s duty to God (non-legalistic): “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:3 also Ecclesiastes 12:13). “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).
In His service,