“Legalism” involves legislating ideal behaviors, trying to gain practical righteousness by self-effort, and focusing on externals more than the heart motives. The Galatian church fell into this trap due to false teachers: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:1-3). These believers had been saved by grace through faith, but later had been duped into trying to complete their salvation by attempting to keep the law of Moses.
They were also seeking to grow spiritually by trying to keep external standards in their own strength. Their view of Christian living needed a grace awakening. The apostle affirmed, “For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:5,6).
Whether obvious or subtle, legalism can become a root of insecurity. To the extent that disciples “keep the rules” they will be tempted to have pride and make comparisons. Or, if they fail to live up to these rules, they will be burdened by guilt and condemnation. This feeling of estrangement from God raises questions as to whether the disciple is really saved after all. “If I were truly saved, wouldn’t I be more obedient? More consistent? More victorious?”
The most comprehensive description of the legalist’s inner struggle is found in the seventh chapter of Romans. Although space prevents a detailed exposition of the chapter, some essential observations help to navigate this passage. Remember that Romans chapter 5 explains the nature of justification by faith and chapter six teaches identification with Christ by faith. However, before a fuller statement of the victory of faith through the Spirit-filled life (chapter 8), Paul is guided to convey the frustration all believers have experienced: “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (Rom. 7:15).
Paul speaks of an earlier time in his life as a present conviction. To the extent that a Christian lives according the the flesh, he/she will find themselves feeling that “… I am carnal, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14b). This condition is intensified when a believer tries to live a holy life by means of external standards in his/her own strength. This legalistic paradox drags the frustrated Christian to the point of despair and misery: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).
Thankfully, the way of deliverance is explained in the passages surrounding this ‘page from Paul’s journal.’ Those who are in Christ are totally forgiven and justified! “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus …” (Rom. 5:1; 8:1). From this assured standing the disciple is to walk according to the Spirit and live out of his/her union with Christ by grace through faith! We have been freed from sin’s authority through our union with Christ: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).
Therefore, if you have been burdened by the weight of legalism, realize that this is no proof that you’re unsaved. Rather, the law has magnified the sinful tendencies of your flesh: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells …” (Rom 7:18a). The flesh, however, is distinct from your new human spirit where you are unified with Christ.
Here is a testimony of your innermost desires if you are born again: “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man” (Rom. 7:22). In the Grace Economy assurance is not a license to sin, but an incentive to respond in loving gratitude to God. Motivated from this secure relationship, “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3b). “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).
So instead of maintaining a holding pattern of insecurity and doubt due to legalism and guilt, base your assurance on God’s promises and move ahead by walking in the Holy Spirit’s fellowship and power.
 For an exposition of the chapters of Romans see Robert Jones’ The Gospel for the Believer at https://gracenotebook.com/the-gospel-for-the-believer-exposition-of-romans-5-8-chapter-1/
 This struggle was probably part of his three year sabbatical in Arabia after his conversion (Gal. 1:17). Paul’s testimony as a Spirit-filled apostle is that he lived an exemplary life with a clear conscience (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Acts 23:1; 2 Tim. 1:3).
 Technically, the flesh is not a co-equal “nature,” but the body and soul’s residual patterns and tendencies from “the old man.” The flesh is IN you, but it’s not YOU. This is not hair splitting but dynamically important, since Paul went on to declare, “Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Rom. 7:20). This doesn’t excuse the believer from personal responsibility. Rather, this distinction reveals the true source of spiritual opposition–the Sin principle (Rom 7:17). This principle results from the world/flesh/devil influence that opposes the Holy Spirit’s purpose for your life. Thankfully, in Christ you have been set free from the law of sin and death through the resources of the abundant life–Christ in you, the hope of glory (Rom. 8:2; Col. 1:27). The “old man” was co-crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6) and is no longer your nemesis (Col. 3:9). See https://gracenotebook.com/definitions/ and David Needham’s analysis of the differences between the “old man” and the “flesh”: https://gracenotebook.com/the-relationship-between-the-terms-old-man-and-flesh/
For further study on the dispensations of law and grace, see http://www.Gracenotebook.com/law_vs_grace.htm
Copyright 2007 by John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint for non-commercial use. Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version, Copyright by Thomas Nelson.