Being an Authentic Follower of Jesus:
The Dangers of Legalism
I want to start out defining legalism. It has many forms and faces and all of us are susceptible to it. At its worst legalism is a false gospel. Legalism is the damning lie that says God’s pleasure and joy in me is dependent upon my obedience. Legalism causes the Pharisee to look proudly into the sky in the presence of a tax collector. Legalism causes a missionary to think God is more pleased with him than the Christian businessman in Homer. And it is legalism that causes the long standing church member who comes to every church event to think God is more pleased with him than the teenager up here talking during me message.
Legalism is the lie that God will find more pleasure in me because my obedience is greater than others or that God looks at me with disgust because I am not growing in grace as quickly as my friends. It is the failure to remember that God’s pleasure in us comes outside of us and is found in what Christ has done for me. Legalism causes the heart to forget that God sings over us because of the work He has done, not because of what we have done.
Followers of Christ equally bring pleasure to God because the pleasure He receives in us is the purchased pleasure of the work of Christ on the cross, period. Any imagined superiority to other Christians is the sure sign of a legalist.
1. Legalism Demands Conformity to Rules not Scripture (vs. 38)
The Pharisee is shocked and offended that Jesus did not wash his hands. The offense is to a formality of washing to cleanse them ceremonially. It was not a command but a tradition; they had made tradition a moral issue and it was not. Jesus’ response was that the issue for all humanity, us included, is not external defilement but internal defilement. What makes one holy is or not is what flows from the heart. There are two issues here. The first is not that traditions are bad but that traditions had became primary and written law became secondary. Second is that traditions had been elevated to a moral issue. Jesus attacked the very heart of their life – their traditions over and over again. Religious or legalistic people tend to become the most offended, infuriated and irrational about traditions and rituals and that have no scriptural support. Legalism and religion both develop standards or rules that are not biblical and make them morally binding and then they tend to manipulate and guilt others to gain control and conformity. Many Jewish leaders believed in Jesus but would not admit it for fear that the Pharisees would excommunicate them from the synagogue.
2. Legalism neglects the heart (vs. 39-41)
Jesus is not saying obedience is unimportant or unnecessary but that it is secondary, the heart is primary. The motives of the heart are primary, attitude is more important than behavior because holiness comes from the inside out. If you deal with a person’s heart their behavior will change. As their heart changes so does their behavior. In the mind of Pharisees the outside was primary; man is made holy by working from the outside in. But this does not deal with the issue for all of us, the condition of the heart. Genuine faith cleanses and moves the heart. True faith motivates us toward obedience out of relationship and love for God. God initiates and invites and empowers us.
3. Legalism produces Spiritual Death (vs.44)
The fruit off the tree of legalism is spiritual death. Jesus says that the Pharisees become a source of defilement rather than purification. They are lifeless and so defile others without knowing it. To walk on a grave was to defile oneself. The interesting thing is that Jesus’ teaching was much stronger than the Pharisees. The law was and is meant to show us that we cannot make ourselves righteous so as we surrender and look to Christ who gives us the righteousness of God, not our own righteousness. That is why legalism is a false gospel. It says I am more spiritual and God is more pleased with me when I meet the standards defined by others. But the bible says that God is pleased with us because of what God has done for us in Christ.
Legalism produces death two ways: either you try to attain salvation by conforming to standards or you try to secure God’s blessing by conforming to standards. Remember that we obey God by faith in response to his work in us, from a place of acceptance and not moving toward acceptance. Otherwise it becomes a burden and joyless.
4. Legalism Motivates by Guilt Rather than Grace (vs. 45; 52)
Notice Jesus’ woes to the Pharisees insults the teachers of the law. If Pharisees were the laymen, the reformers, the lawyers were the professional clergymen. Legalism seeks to please other people rather than please God. Legalism is motivated by the affirmation and status and significance others give them. If you are insecure as a person, if you look for the approval of others then you will be susceptible to legalism. Jesus points to their teaching as being a burden not a blessing. Jesus’ teaching was stronger yet he tells us that everyone who comes to him will find rest. He is talking to people who are laden down with religion, attempting to meet the standards of conformity, to please God and He invites them to come to him to find rest even though he calls us to a higher standard. We find rest because when we give ourselves to him, he gives us a new heart, new motives, new impulse and a new relationship with him. The Pharisees focus was on external obedience in order to please God but Jesus’ focus was obedience from the heart, and he supplies the new heart.
5. Legalism Neglects the whole of Scripture(42; 47)
The Pharisees majored on the minors and neglected the major issues in the Scriptures. Tithing mint and rue were insignificant when compared to justice and love of God. Secondly they rejected the teachings of the prophets and were even accomplices in death of the prophets. The law focused on the requirements; the prophets focused on heart condition of people and always pointing them back to God because their hearts had strayed far from him. Do not neglect the whole teaching of Scripture. That is why I read through the bible, so I do not neglect seeing the big picture.
What are some symptoms of legalism? First and foremost, do you think God finds more pleasure in you because your obedience is greater than others or do you think God looks at you with disgust because you are not growing in grace as quickly as your friends? Second are you trying to look good when your life is crumbling underneath you? Do you try to motivate your kids towards good behavior in public by what others think of your family? Do you look down on others because of their behavior and think you are more spiritual or more mature than they are.
There is only one solution. That is to accept and rest in the righteousness of God given to you based upon the work of Christ. This does not mean that you are passive and are not responsible. It means that you realize that your standing before God is not based upon your behavior but the work of Christ on the cross. You rest in the reality that you are adopted, accepted, and loved, not because of your behavior but because of the work of Christ. Second realize you will struggle with sin until the day you die; get over it. Third is recognizing the lies of Satan condemning you when you sin and reject them. The difference between condemnation and conviction is that condemnation leads to despair and conviction leads to repentance and change. God’s kindness leads to repentance.