Legalism: A Zeal for God, or Self?

David Henke

Jesus had a special relationship with the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. Eight times in Matthew 23 He called them hypocrites, saying "Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites" (Matthew 23:13-29).

What was it about the scribes and Pharisees that would explain Jesus' confrontational attitude? What lessons are there for us in His attitude toward them?

Jesus' approach is not the Dale Carnegie method of winning friends among the religious elite. It would, however, win the attention and respect of those who saw through hypocrisy and shallowness. His words struck a chord with those who were burdened by the traditions imposed on them by the Pharisees.

Jesus defined legalism in Matthew 15:9b as "teaching for doctrine the commandments of men." The 'commandments of men' usually begin with something God commanded and then over-extend it at the expense of some other Godly quality.

Legalism is a zeal for righteousness, the law, truth, and justice. However, it is at the expense of grace, mercy, forbearance, and love. It tends to the spiritual affairs of others without grace, mercy, forbearance, or love. It is unbalanced.

Legalism is not a zeal for God. It is trusting in oneself, as Jesus said of the Pharisees in Luke 18:9. "And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves, that they were righteous, and despised others."

All eight statements by Jesus above can be summed up in a few words. These people were about Power, Prestige, and the Purse (see The News & Views, Vol. 2, No. 5, Religious Dysfunction and Christian Responsibility). These are the root motives behind the desire of one group of people to impose the "commandments of men" upon others.

The Law Is Our Tutor

The purpose of the Law was to teach us that 1) we are sinners, 2) we cannot keep the law perfectly, and 3) we need a Deliverer who can resolve our guilt problem.

In Christ the Law was kept perfectly. In Christ, Who is eternal deity, we find someone Who can absorb all the wrath of God against sin. Therefore, if we will place our faith in His atoning death on our behalf, we will be redeemed.

In several passages in the New Testament we can read of the relationship of law and faith that will give much insight into the subject. Read Romans 3 - 5, the entire book of Galatians, and Hebrews 7.

If we try to add our works, traditions, or any other requirements, to His atonement then we say His death was insufficient, that something was lacking in Him. This is an affront to God.

By faith we receive salvation and a spiritual birth occurs in us. By that new birth we receive the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Law, who then dwells in our hearts. He is the Law of God written on our hearts.

Because the Law is fulfilled in Christ the written Law has been "disannulled" (Hebrews 7:18-19). It has lost its force. That does not mean we may disregard it. It still shows us our sin in contrast to Christ's perfection, and so it shows us how great is our salvation.

Three Kinds of Legalism

Legalism is essentially a performance-based relationship with God. The natural assumption is that we do not receive something for nothing, therefore, our acceptance by God comes with a price. Legalism comes in three forms and it is important to know them.

Salvation by Works

This is the legalism Paul addressed in Galatians. This form says there is something in addition to Christ's work on Calvary that must be included to achieve salvation. All the other world's religions practice salvation by works. Christianity alone says that works are not involved in salvation.

Having said that it must be noted that the people whom Jesus fed with the loaves and fishes asked Jesus, "What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, 'This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.'"

If there is a "work" that we must do it is to believe in Jesus.

Salvation-by-works legalism is what the cults routinely require. With the Mormons it is "keeping all the laws and ordinances of the gospel," going on a mission, temple work, etc., etc.

Jehovah's Witnesses say we are saved by faith. However, they practice works salvation. This is demonstrated by the requirement that they put in the requisite number of hours in the "field service," or, going door to door. They can lose their standing with Jehovah (their prospect of surviving Armageddon) by committing any of a multitude of disfellowshipping offenses.

It is a difficult life to live when salvation depends on the quality of one's human works.

Approval by Performance

This form of legalism says that ones approval by God, self, or others is based upon reaching a level of spiritual performance. This is what Paul referred to when he said, "Having begun in the Spirit are ye now made perfect by the flesh" (Galatians 3:3)?

This performance is not for salvation but for a sense of acceptance. It is seeking for yourself that sense that God is smiling on you, and that others approve of your spirituality. The problem with this is our motive. The good works we do should be for the sake of others, whether that is God or people. If we do them for approval then that is all the reward we are due.

Many Christians get caught up in such a performance-based relationship with God. They may have an unconscious need they are trying to fulfill. Perhaps they have never thought through their motive. Or, they may not fully understand God's grace and love for them.

In any case we have all the acceptance from God that we will ever need. That being resolved we are free now to devote our good works to the benefit of others, and not ourselves.

Dogmatic Dictators

This third form of legalism is found among those individuals who feel they must usurp the role of the Holy Spirit to convict of sin. There is a balance here between being mutually accountable in the Body of Christ to biblical standards on the one hand, and on the other assuming our interpretation of those standards is the only correct one.

Many standards that are assumed to be Christian may have been influenced by our culture. This is illustrated in the church in Antioch where Christians were first called by that name. The church was made up of Gentile and Jewish converts. The Jews had their cultural taboos that had built up over centuries of living under the Old Testament law.

The Gentiles had no taboo about eating unbled meat, or meat offered to idols. When they brought this food to the 'church supper' one can imagine the response of the Jews. This led to a division in the church. To resolve it Paul took the issue back to Jerusalem. The solution was a compromise. This is discussed in Acts 15.

Jesus said in John 14:15, "If ye love me, keep my commandments." As you read that, on which phrase did you focus? Was it the "keeping the commandments" phrase? Or, was it the "loving Jesus" phrase? If you focus on loving Jesus the weight of keeping commandments will be light. It is very much like the many things we do for a loved one. They are not heavy loads if we are motivated by love for that person.

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