In my understanding, legalism is an overemphasis on law rather than on God which usually results in the creation of additional rules. Legalists typically become judgmental of those who violate these laws. In short, legalism is idolatry. It's putting man-made laws above God Himself.
So, than what's with my peculiar title? If legalism is the overemphasis of law how can lawlessness be the new legalism? Didn't I just contradict myself? Just a few months ago I would have answered yes to that very question. However, then I got to thinking about the way that we often label people as legalists.
We take people who don't listen to rock or families that don't watch R-rated movies or girls who only wear dresses and then label them legalists. But what are we focusing on? The outward appearance. Laws. Rules.
There are many people in churches today who have strict rules about not having strict rules and then when people violate their no-rule rules they judge them for being judgmental.
I've seen families who homeschool their kids, don't listen to anything with a beat, hardly every watches movies, only read certain kinds of books, would never hear of dancing, dress in a very conservative way and attend a Fundamentalist, family-integrated church. But no one could ever justly call them legalists. They aren't focusing on rules. They're focusing on Jesus and this has caused them to live their lives in a certain way. They don't judge others who don't have their same standards, but focus on living their lives in a way that would please God.
On the flip side, I've seen believers who walk around like they're at a pop culture festival and live very legalistic lives. They may not think they have rules about dress or media, but they actually do. Their rules just have the extra convenience of commanding them to act 'lawlessly'. When people use the argument that the Bible never says "thou shalt not
But before I start judging the lawless legalists, I must remind myself that we're all legalists at heart. We all have this natural, God-given draw toward order and it's much easier for that order to be controlled by rules rather than love.
We must all guard ourselves against the dangerous snares of legalism. At the end of day, if you're driving down a precarious road it doesn't really matter if you fall into the ditch to your left or the ditch to your right.