Rules are not in themselves automatically good, but having no rules at all is automatically bad. Humanity needs the right set of rules, just how rules of the road empower everyone to arrive safely and quickly. The inability to follow any rules at all—whether good or bad—keeps people oppressed by poverty. Anarchy itself is a tyrant.
Legalism has been wrongly labeled as “making absolute what the Bible does not”. Adding rules to the Bible is actually “man-made religion”; “legalism” is the belief that God’s rules are merely moot, serving no pragmatic, sensible, and quite understandable purpose.
Lawlessness, by contrast, is a quasi-religious worldview. Lawlessness applied to the Bible seeks what “sins” God doesn’t care if we commit in the name of “forgiveness”. Both legalism and lawlessness ask whether we should feel obligated or liberated concerning moral rules. The premise is wrong for both.
When Israel obeyed God’s command not to eat pork, they weren’t “mystically better” than other nations; they were less likely to get sick in a world without soap and therefore more likely to survive against attacks from evil nations that instituted human sacrifices. Banning pork had nothing to do with pigs having “less favorable spirits” than cows and sheep, but simple survival. It made common sense. Unfortunately, the erroneous teaching of the New Testament Pharisees was “legalism”, viewing these rules as having some impractical, ethereal value in and of themselves. Pork was simply unhealthy. By Jesus’s time, society knew how to cook. So, God declared it “clean” to Peter, thus the Jerusalem Council did too.
God’s rules in the Bible are not any part of some silly test. People need rules. But, legalistic religious teachers don’t understand this. They oppress people with rules, viewing the Bible as a club to smack people with. Legalism creates just as much anarchy as its lawless worldview counterpart. By not hitting the nail on the head, the nail gets bent. Regardless of whether the nail bends right or left, hitting it again will damage the furniture.
Legalism is an addiction to following rules as an end to themselves. Lawlessness is much the same—addiction to having the free-spirited, uncontrolled life of an wild animal.