Summary: The Dangers of Legalism Being an Authentic Follower of Jesus
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)