Note: This post is part of a series.
You might be a legalist if you appear righteous but are spiritually decaying inside.
Our sinful flesh is selfish. We love to be seen. Commended. Rewarded. Praised.
Matthew 6 records Jesus calling out three specific examples of this sinful attitude:
- “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1, ESV)
- “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” (Matthew 6:5, ESV)
- “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” (Matthew 6:16, ESV)
We need to beware of spiritual practices that are motivated by the praise of man because it reveals our misunderstanding of the personal relationship we can have with Jesus Christ. His glory should motivate us!
Perhaps Jesus’ harshest words were toward the Pharisees. Matthew 23:25–28 is a striking condemnation for appearing righteous while internally being guilty of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Are you like a whitewashed tomb, outwardly beautiful but internally filled with dead peoples’ bones?
Today, this is called formalism. Formalism is “undue insistence on the outward observances of religion or the prescriptions of a moral code, with a corresponding neglect of the inner spirit or significance which the ‘forms’ were designed to safeguard.”¹
Many people are guilty of just going through the formality of believing in Jesus Christ. We want to look like we’re doing the right things, so we pray, sing, tithe, open our Bible in church and display one on the coffee table at home, walk down the aisle… but our soul is filthy and decaying because our motivation is not pure and our actions are not genuine toward God.
“For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10, ESV)
1 F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 627.