All the world religions can be placed in one of two camps: legalism or grace. Humankind does it or God does it. Salvation as a wage based on deeds done - or salvation as a gift based on Christ's death.
A legalist believes the supreme force behind salvation is you. If you look right, speak right, and belong to the right segment of the right group, you will be saved. The brunt of the responsibility doesn't lie within God; it lies within you.
The result? The outside sparkles. The talk is good and the step is true. But look closely. Listen carefully. Something is missing.
What is it? Joy.
What's there? Fear. (That you won't do enough.)
Arrogance. (That you have done enough.)
Failure. (That you have made a mistake.)
Legalism is a dark world.
Legalism is slow torture, suffocation of the spirit, amputation of one's dreams. Legalism is just enough religion to keep you, but not enough to nourish you.
So you starve. Your teachers don't know where to go for food, so you starve together. Your diet is rules and standards. No vitamins. No taste. No zest. Just bland, predictable religion.
Can I give you the down and dirty about legalism?
Legalism doesn't need God.
Legalism is the search for innocence - not forgiveness. It's a systematic process of defending self, explaining self, exalting self, and justifying self. Legalists are obsessed with self - not God.
Legalism puts the fear of man in you. It makes you approval-hungry. You become keenly aware of what others will say and think, and you do what it takes to please them. Conformity is not fun, but it's safe. The uniform doesn't fit, but it's approved, so you wear it. You don't know why you are marching or where you are going -- but who are you to ask questions? So you stay in step and plod down the path of least resistance.
And if you dare explore another trail, you must do so at night, like Nicodemus did.
We religious teachers like to control and manage. We like to define and outline. Structure and clarity are the friend of the preacher. But they aren't always the protocol of God.
Salvation is God's business. Grace is his idea, his work, and his expense.
"God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
Nicodemus has never heard such words. Never. He has had many discussions of salvation. But this is the first in which no rules were given. No system was offered. No code or ritual. "Everyone who believes can have eternal life in him," Jesus told him. Could God be so generous? Even in the darkness of night, the amazement is seen on Nicodemus's face. Everyone who believes can have eternal life. Not "everyone who achieves." Not "everyone who succeeds." Not "everyone who agrees." But "everyone who believes."
Note how God liberates the legalist.
39 Nicodemus, who earlier had come to Jesus at night, went with Joseph. He brought about seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes.40 These two men took Jesus' body and wrapped it with the spices in pieces of linen cloth, which is how they bury the dead.41 In the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden. In the garden was a new tomb that had never been used before.42 The men laid Jesus in that tomb. (John 19)
Strange how a man can go full circle in the kingdom. The one who'd come at night, now appears in the day. The one who crept through the shadows to meet Jesus now comes to the cross to serve Jesus. And the one who'd received the seed of grace now plants the greatest seed of all - the seed of eternal life.
quoted from pgs. 118-122 of He Still Moves Stones by Max Lucado