Sometimes it seems easier to be a legalist. A legalist frequently has a simple checklist of things they have to do or, more often, not do. They go down that list and check them off. And if they make it down the list, they are okay. But real service to God is more complicated than that. Real service to God is rooted in grace. The Scripture says that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6) and that Christ paid the price for those sins on the cross (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). We are saved by putting our faith in Christ, apart from anything we can do to earn it (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). This results in a love for God which seeks to obey Him (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Romans 12:1,2), which can only be done through His power (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 1:29). But does that bring us back to the checklist?
God’s basic commands are love for God and for our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13,14). This starts with the development of inward character, rather than simply requiring outward behavior (1 Corinthians 13:4-7; Galatians 5:22,23; Romans 12:9-21). Now it does result in specific things that are or are not to be done (James 2:8-13; Matthew 15:15-20; Galatians 5:19-21). But we should approach the Christian life based on broad principles, not just a checklist.
As we approach things that are not clearly commanded, there are some basic principles we need to apply. We need to beware of judging those who do not hold to our convictions or of looking down on those who do not enjoy our freedom in these areas (Romans 14:1-12; 1 Corinthians 8:1-6; James 4:11,12). But we are then called to consider the effects of our behavior on the weaker brother and the people we are trying to reach for Christ (Romans 14:13-23; 1 Corinthians 8:7-13; 9:19-23). Now there is a careful balance here. There is a place to stand up against unbiblical commandments and refuse to submit to them (Matthew 15:1-14; 12:1-14; Galatians 2:11-16). Also, if we make pleasing other people our ultimate standard, we will fail to meet it (Galatians 1:10; Proverbs 29:25; 1 John 2:15-17). So we have to ask the hard questions: Is there a principle involved here? Is there a real need I should meet? What is really for the benefit of the other person involved? We also need to use caution in terms of ourselves, realizing we may not be as strong as we think we are (1 Corinthians 10:1-14; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22). Now we must remember in all of this that God is gracious and forgives sin (1 John 1:9; Proverbs 28:13; 2 Corinthians 7:10). But we should not try to reduce His commandments to a checklist. For God is more interested in what is in the heart than in outward appearances (Romans 2:16; 1 Samuel 16:7; John 4:24).