“Hypocrisy” and “legalism” are terms that we, unfortunately, hear all too frequently in Christian circles and churches. Usually, these labels are tossed at those we disagree with or those who have offended us in some way, rather than being applied as warnings to ourselves.
Hypocrisy is defined as “a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess.” Legalism is harder to define but boils down to believing that doing good things will prove to God and others that I am a good person.
In Revelation 2:7, we are told by Christ that the church of Ephesus had a serious problem:
“Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.”
At first glance, it might not seem like that has anything to do with hypocrisy and legalism. But leaving our first love means that we no longer live out of a love for God.
If you claim to love God, but do not obey Him, then 1 John 4 says that you are a liar, or hypocrite. It also says that if you cannot obey Him in loving others consistently without partiality, then anything you do is nothing but legalism in trying to prove your alleged goodness to others and God, when you really have none.
The best way to avoid hypocrisy and legalism in our lives is really just to love God as we should, and then we can be sure that our love for others will come naturally as a fruit of God’s Spirit in us.