You Might Be A Legalist If

You Might Be A Legalist If… (Part 4)

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.

You Might Be A Legalist If… (Part 3)

Note: This post is part of a series.

 

You might be a legalist if you don’t practice what you preach.  

If you demand others to be righteous but then don’t follow your own words, you’re acting like the Pharisees. And Jesus had some pretty harsh words for them.

Look at Jesus’s words in Matthew 23:2-4:

2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.

Within Judaism, the Scribes were experts on the Torah because they interpreted it. The Pharisees were experts in the theological matters that the Torah brought about. They had authority (Moses’ seat), so people were to respect them and observe what they interpreted properly, although they weren’t to mirror their works. They would maybe say the right things, but they wouldn’t do it themselves.

A similar situation is mentioned in Acts 15 during the Jerusalem Council. Peter condemned some there who were trying to put unnecessary demands on Gentile converts.

Today there could be:

  • legalistic preachers, who preach one thing to their people and then neglect their very words;
  • legalistic parents, who demand their children to act in biblical ways and then don’t act that way themselves.  

We can so easily be legalistic simply by not practicing what we preach. We might know what’s right and how to proclaim what’s right, but we don’t always live as if it actually is right.

I believe the answer to this problem is that we need a softened heart that realizes the power of the grace of Jesus Christ. As Peter said, “. . .we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:11, ESV).

You Might Be A Legalist If… (Part 2)

You might be a legalist if you add your rules above God’s as absolute authority.

Note: This post is part of a series.

Some must feel that God’s words are not clearly sufficient or explained well enough because they feel the need to “define them more clearly.” Doing this is dangerous, however, because it puts one in danger of adding to God’s words (Rev. 22:18-19).

 

We see it in John 7:21-23. Jesus referred to healing people on the Sabbath, of which he is condemned by the Pharisees. The gospels contain six records of Jesus healing on the sabbath, all which were contested by the Jewish leaders. Even though the leaders were upset with Jesus’ actions, everything he did on the Sabbath was only unlawful according to the Mishnah, not the actual Law of God. The Mishnah was a “series of interpretations of the meaning of the law” that were eventually compiled around AD 200.1  It existed in Jesus’ time and basically defined God’s Law more clearly.

 

It’s ironic really. Sinful people are judging a sinless God by their finite definition of God’s perfect law.

 

It is easy to put your rules or interpretations of God’s Law above what He actually said.

  • Denominations might do this by creating policies and rules that further define the Scriptures;
  • Churches might create bylaws that go beyond the intended meaning of Scripture;
  • People might trust the words of a Christian author more than the words of God;

 

An easy way to test your heart for legalism is to beware of this attitude: If it’s right for me, it must be right for you. You can fill in the blank with examples. Those examples might be accompanied by good intentions, but enforcing them is putting man’s word above God’s Word.

 

We must study Scripture faithfully and be brave enough to live by what we learn.

 

1Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary, Tyndale Reference Library (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 903.

 

You Might Be A Legalist If… (Part 1)

The Zondervan dictionary of Bible themes defines legalism as “the belief that salvation demands or depends upon total obedience to the letter of the law. Examples of legalism include an excessive concern for minute details of the will coupled with a neglect of its fundamental concerns, and a preoccupation with human legal traditions.

 

The danger of this sinful attitude: one who is committed to it could spend an eternity in hell and can be responsible for sending others there too.  We see this in Matthew 23:13 & 15:  ““But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”   “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”

 

Legalism is more worried about rules than the heart.

You might be a legalist if you condemn someone’s sin while ignoring and denying your own.

 

In John 7:19, Jesus asked the Jewish people why they were seeking to kill him. They thought Jesus was guilty enough of something that he should be put to death, but there was no justification since he was sinless.  

 

So they were condemning a sinless man to death at the same time they were guilty of not keeping the law of Moses.

 

They ignored their own sin while falsely condemning Jesus. While we know that Jesus did not sin, his purity here is actually irrelevant to the Jewish peoples’ argument because they should have looked at themselves first before accusing him.

 

Not only did they ignore their sin but they also denied it. In verse 20, they blast, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?”  They wouldn’t even admit their own guilt of wanting to kill him! But Jesus, in his infinite knowledge as God, knew their hearts, their intentions, and their guilt.

 

It is so easy to do the exact same thing – quickly condemn other people for their sin, while ignoring and denying our own. This is legalism– holding other people up to the laws of God while somehow exempting yourself from them.

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