Summary: Following a list of rules and regulations will never lead to spiritual vitality. Grace demands that we avoid judging others according to our standards.
Pulling the Weeds of Legalism
Almost every state in our nation still has laws on their books that would surprise most people. For instance,
In Florida, a woman may be fined for falling asleep under a hair dryer.
In Indiana, citizens are not allowed to attend a movie house or ride in a public streetcar within four hours after eating garlic. That seems like a good law.
And, a little closer to home in Illinois…
In Eureka, a man with a moustache may not kiss a woman.
In Moline, ice-skating at the Riverside pond during the months of June and August is strictly prohibited.
In Normal, it’s against the law to make a face at a dog.
I also checked the statutes in my home state of Wisconsin and discovered that in the Dairy State…
At one time, in an effort to help the sale of butter, margarine was considered illegal, especially when smuggled in by the “flat-landers” of Illinois.
It’s against the law to serve apple pie in public restaurants unless there is cheese on top of it.
And, it’s probably a good thing that I’m not a pastor in Nicholas County, West Virginia because no member of the clergy there is allowed to tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit. Or, maybe that wouldn’t apply to the humor I use…
We may laugh, or groan, at these out-of-date laws, because many of them seem absurd and ridiculous. But, if we were to list all the rules, expectations, and laws that are on the books in many churches today, chances are we’d stop laughing pretty quickly. Most of these religious regulations are not written down anywhere but many of us either attempt to keep them, or expect others to do so.
Last week, we learned that we’re not to just focus on our conversion. Instead, we’re called to demonstrate our commitment to Christ on a daily basis by going deeper with Him. Our knowing should lead to growing.
This growth can be stunted, or even choked to death by the weeds of legalism. Legalism can be defined as a strict adherence to the law. Specifically, as it relates to faith, a legalist is one who believes that performance is the way to gain favor with God. Legalism is the human attempt to gain salvation or prove our spirituality by outward conformity to a list of religious “do’s” and “don’ts.” It’s often disguised in Christian terms and behavior.
Before we jump into our text this morning, allow me to make some observations about legalism.
1. We tend to think others are legalistic, but that we’re not. The fact is that we’re all legalistic by nature. We tend to judge others by our own standards of what is acceptable and what isn’t. In essence, we think our sins smell better than other people’s. As I’ve said before, we have very little tolerance for people who sin differently than we do.
2. Legalism is highly contagious. While it’s usually less conscious and systematized in our minds than it was among the Pharisees, legalism can spread like a bad virus through an entire congregation. That’s why Jesus reserved some of his harshest criticism for legalistic list-makers in Mark 7:6-8: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”
3. Legalism can take a vibrant faith and make it dull and lifeless. It can evaporate enthusiasm, jettison joy, and stifle spirituality. Instead of finding freedom through Christ, many believers become burdened by the church.
4. Legalism produces large quantities of self-righteousness, judgment and condemnation. It majors in guilt and misguided sacrifice, urging its followers to evaluate their relationship with God on the basis of standards and scores and expects others to do the same. Superficial spirituality short-circuits the work of grace.
5. Legalism makes us narrow and divisive. The legalist insists that everyone live up to the standard they have adopted. In other words, everyone needs to be like me. When we think this way, we miss the delight of diversity in the church.
6. Legalism makes it impossible for people to see Jesus. There is nothing that pushes a seeker away faster than a list of rules and regulations. We inadvertently portray Jesus as a drill sergeant instead of the Savior.
Most of us fall into legalism without trying to do so. Let me illustrate. Last Sunday, during the first service, Stella and Hector led us in prayer for the persecuted church. When Stella prayed, she told us she was going to kneel and very graciously invited us to do the same, if we wanted to. Now, let’s imagine that as you knelt last Sunday you did so with very good motives. You wanted to focus on Christ and intercede for the needs of beleaguered believers around the world. But then you took a peek and noticed that only about half of the people were on their knees. A seed of judgment began to germinate, as you wondered why others weren’t doing what you were doing.