Though the term “legality" occurs not upon the pages of Holy Writ, it is one which is found more or less frequently on the lips and pens of God's servants, and we believe rightly so, providing it is given its proper import and legitimate application. Yet this is by no means always done, for often the word is accorded a significance which it does not bear and is ascribed to persons and things very erroneously and unjustly. In theological parlance “legal" has quite a different force from its dictionary meaning, where “legalese" is defined as “to render lawful" and “legality" as “lawfulness." It is this etymological significance of the term which has led many ignorant people to form a false conception of it when employed by theologians with quite another and distinctive sense. When we hear it said in religious circles that such and such a person “has a legal spirit" we should rightly conclude that he is infected with something harmful, yet when David exclaimed, “O how love I Thy Law," he certainly averred a “legal spirit" in the dictionary meaning of that expression.
From what has just been pointed out we may perceive the need for and the importance of defining our terms. What, then, does a preacher mean when he warns his hearers against a “legal spirit," that is, when he employs the term properly, in a religious sense? He means that we must beware of looking within for something to commend ourselves unto God, to beware of trusting in any of our own performances to gain the Divine approbation, to beware of esteeming any of our works as meritorious or deserving of something good at the hands of the Most High. This is what the Pharisees did; this is what the deluded Papists do, thinking to earn God's favour by their good deeds and to be justified by Him on that ground. Nor is such senseless egotism by any means confined to Papists, though all are not so frank in openly affirming it, nay, many are not aware of such madness and self-conceit, for the heart is exceedingly deceptive and its workings often concealed from our consciousness.
It has been rightly said that all men are “essentially legalistic by nature." Nor is this to be wondered at when we consider that sin has so darkened man's understanding and blinded his judgment that he calls darkness light, bondage liberty, and good evil. Being completely under the dominion of the Devil, fallen man is puffed up with pride, and instead of humbling himself beneath the mighty hand of God and confessing his ruined condition he is lifted up with complacency and foolishly imagines that he can not only do that which will meet with God's approval, but actually make Him his Debtor, so that justice requires Him to reward him for his excellent performances. For though the natural man is not so destitute of moral sense and conscience as to be unaware that in certain respects at least he fails in the discharge of his duties, yet he is so deceived by his wicked heart as to conclude that his good deeds far outweigh his wicked ones, and therefore he is entitled unto favourable consideration.
In view of the facts stated in the last paragraph we should not be surprised that the natural man—every man while unregenerate—makes an evil use of the Moral Law. That which is provided for the purpose of revealing the ineffable holiness of God, man turns into an instrument for advancing his own self-righteousness. That which is furnished to give man a knowledge of sin, he perverts into a means for proclaiming his goodness. That which is designed to make man conscious of his spiritual impotency, he twists into an ordinance for exercising his powers. That which is calculated to serve as a schoolmaster unto Christ, man distorts into a refuge in which he hides from Christ. Though the Law is spiritual and man carnal, though the Law is holy, and man corrupt, though the Law sets before him a standard of excellence which no fallen creature can possibly attain unto—yet the unsaved are so deceived by their own hearts and so deluded by Satan, they one and all imagine they can so far perform the Law's requirements that they have nothing to fear—and it is impossible to disillusion them until a miracle of grace is wrought within them.
Here, then, is “Legality" in its baldest form, stripped of all disguise. It consists of a spirit of independence, of self-sufficiency, of self-righteousness. It refuses to acknowledge that man is a fallen, depraved, lost sinner, “without strength," without a spark of spiritual life. It refuses to acknowledge man is utterly incapable of recovering himself, of bettering himself, of doing anything which can meet with the approval of a sin-hating God. Even those who have sat under sound preaching, who have an intelligent knowledge of these solemn truths, who profess to believe them, yet, while they remain in their unregenerate state they have not the slightest spiritual apprehension of them nor do their hearts consent to their verity. Though they read in God's Word, “by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight" (Rom. 3:20), they believe it not, but continue in their vain attempts to keep the Law in order to be justified by God. A spirit of legality binds them hand and foot as in fetters of steel.
In like manner a spirit of legality causes every unregenerate hearer to pervert the Gospel. Though the Gospel be exactly suited to the dire need of fallen man, yet it is far from being suited to his proud heart. It calls upon him to “Behold the Lamb of God," but in order to do so he must look away from himself—that is, he must renounce himself, deny himself, repudiate all fancied goodness in himself—and this is something which he is very far from being willing to comply with. The Gospel is a revelation of pure grace, of sovereign mercy, unmerited favour, offering to enrich spiritual paupers, to clothe the spiritually naked, to save Hell-deserving sinners: but that is something the self-righteous and independent heart of fallen man cannot tolerate. Yet few are frank enough to openly avow their antipathy to Divine grace; rather do multitudes pretend to admire it, and profess to receive it. But in fact they still trust in their own religious performances and simply bring in Christ as a make-weight to meet their deficiencies. In reality, they believe in grace plus works, Christ plus something of self.
Even Christians themselves have the root of legality still left within them and are to a greater or less degree infected with a self-righteous spirit to the end of their days. Though a Divine work of grace has been wrought in them, enabling them to see, feel and know they are depraved, polluted and vile creatures—causing them to close with Christ as He is presented to them in the Gospel and cast themselves upon Him as their only Hope, their Deliverer, their all-sufficient Saviour—pride still works within them, and as it does they are ready to give heed to some of Satan's lies and imagine that they are now in themselves something more, something better than Hell-deserving sinners. The whole Epistle to the Galatians demonstrates our danger at this point and most solemnly warns us to what fearful lengths a legal spirit may carry those who have savingly trusted in Christ. False teachers had introduced “another Gospel," affirming that Christ was not sufficient, that they must be circumcised and submit to the whole ceremonial law in order to be justified, and instead of rejecting this error with abhorrence, the legal hearts of the Galatians so far accepted it that the Apostle had to say “I stand in doubt of you."
Even where Christians are preserved from such awful lengths of legality as the Galatians, this root of bitterness is constantly bringing forth its foul and poisonous fruit, though for the most part they are quite unaware of it so subtle and secret are its activities. Whenever we are pleased with ourselves and our performances, a legal spirit is at work within us. When we are less conscious of our deep need of Christ pride is to that extent possessing our hearts. Whenever we feel that God, in His providences, is dealing severely with us and we ask what have I done to call for such chastisement? a self-righteous spirit possesses us. When we entertain hard feelings against God because He does not answer our prayers as quickly or as fully as we think He should, we are guilty of this sin—when we should marvel that He ever deigns to hear us at all! When we are hurt because fellow-Christians slight us and do not pay us that respect we feel we are entitled to, it is sure proof we think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. “Your glorying—whatever form it takes—is not good: know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (1 Cor. 5:6)—a little “legality" or self-righteousness will defile the whole soul and grieve the Spirit of God.—A.W.P.