Religious “Legalism” with a capital “L” is heresy. It’s the belief that one’s personal virtue and obedience to religious norms or standards merits God’s favor and/or salvation. This “do-it-yourself” religion is antithetical to the gospel of Christ and the Bible’s grace-based religion. “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” writes the apostle Paul. He goes on to remark, “This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). When asked what deeds God requires of men as a condition for eternal life, Jesus surprised his audience with the reply, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29; see also John 3:16, 36; Acts 4:12; 16:30-31; Rom 10:9-13).
I used to think that I could earn God’s favor and salvation on the basis of my inherent virtue and good works. Of course, I admitted I wasn’t perfect. But I foolishly presumed that my good deeds would somehow outweigh my bad deeds. In this respect, I thought and behaved much like the Pharisees, scribes, and Jewish people of Jesus’ day who trusted in their own inherent virtue and religious performance to merit their acceptance before God (Matt 5:20; Luke 16:14-15; 18:9-12, 14; Rom 10:1-3).