One of the hardest things in all of the Christian life is to figure out where rules fit in. All of us know we need them, but we often don't appreciate them. Without them we are a mess, but with too many of them we are just as big of a mess. For some, rules are the backbone of all morality, the gateway to God. For others, even the word "rules" turns the stomach. The problem arises when we realize that both of these inclinations are flawed.
An over-valuing of rules is legalism. It takes right rules, combines them with wrong motivation and wrong understanding to create a toxic brew of wrong application. Rather than serving people, these rules burden people. The rules themselves become the end, or point to the wrong end. They are understood as the means of righteousness, the highest virtue, and the means to justification in the eyes of God. They undermine the gospel and supersede it. And the trickiest part is the subtlety of all this. Every legalist I have ever known believes he or she is not adding to the gospel but truly upholding godliness.
On the other side are people who wretch at the slightest whiff of legalism. As a result the temptation is to throw burdensome rules to the wind and strictly adhere to the three R's of "liberty" toward them: renounce, reduce, remove. Believers are under grace, we say, and thus any restriction of our perceived freedom is a hindrance and is to be cast off. And so we slip-slide into casual sin under the guise of grace and this so-called freedom. We have no framework for holiness, so we lose standards and risk our souls just as badly as those souls burdened by rules.
So what are rules? Are they a means of holiness or a burden to be cast off? Such a question can only be answered by determining the motivation for a rule. Is it in place to judge a person or protect him? Is it a means by which he can be condemned or a solid structure on to which he can hold in tempestuous moral times? The first group of people needs to lay down the judging rules altogether. And the second group must take up the protective and stable ones. They may be the exact same rules but with entirely different aims.
We do not need rules to get us close to God, to make us right before Him. But we do need rules to keep us close to God and keep us from drifting. Rules ought to not be a burden under which we are crushed, but they should be a wall to protect us from sinful inward inclinations and external temptations. God gave us rules to protect and to guide, not to justify. He gave us Jesus to do that.