I can’t remember the last time (or any time) I heard someone in the church demand a new member be circumcised before joining. But that doesn’t mean legalism doesn’t exist in the church today.
Even legalism in the first century was more subtle than you might realize. For thousands of years, God’s people were required to be circumcised. It was hard to let the practice go. I imagine some Gentiles subjected to the Jews’ legalism didn’t think anything of it.
Today, like the past, legalism is typically subtle. But there are warning signs which provide evidence of a legalist in our midst.
Legalists depreciate God’s grace
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness came by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” (Gal. 2:20-21)
This is the hallmark characteristic of a legalist. It is nearly impossible to become one without first “frustrating” the grace of God by taking at least a little credit for our eternal salvation.
They may even confess that salvation is by God’s grace and Christ’s faith alone. However, they amend that statement with a “but…”
Legalists ignore practical grace
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” (Gal. 5:1)
If we’re not giving people a “license to sin” then we’re not preaching the gospel (Rom. 6:1-2). That’s not to say we shouldn’t preach against sin, but we are absolutely free from it (Rom. 8:33).
Legalists may even strongly believe that we are saved by grace but they don’t understand what it means to live by grace.
Legalists pit truth against love
“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” (Gal. 6:1)
To show love or uphold truth is never a choice we have to make. These are not contradictory actions despite what legalists say or do. Of course, legalists inevitably choose truth over love.
We cannot offer pleasing worship to God without both truth and spirit (John 4:23). They are (or should be) inseparable.