I’ve heard it said that we are all legalists at heart. Are there some subtle ways we fall into it?
Isaiah 37 & 38
Could You Be a Legalist?
What Is Legalism?
Have you ever spoken the truth to someone concerning some area of sin, only to have them say, “You’re being legalistic!”? Perhaps you’ve even said those words yourself. But is a call to obey God’s clear commands legalism?
Millard Erickson says:
Scripture does not give us any basis for disregarding God’s revealed commands. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (Jn. 14.15), and “You are my friends if you do what I command” (Jn. 15.14). We are not at liberty to reject such commands; to do so would be an abuse of Christian freedom. Therefore, we must seek to guide our lives by these precepts. Such behavior is not legalism. Legalism is a slavish following of the law in the belief that one thereby earns merit; it also entails a refusal to go beyond the formal or literal requirements of the law. It is ineffectual because it ignores the facts that we never outgrow the need for divine grace and that the essence of the law is love.
The words legalist and legalism don’t appear in the Bible, but Jesus painted us a portrait of a one in Luke 18:
9 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Legalists are opposed to grace. Like this Pharisee, legalists often have a strict set of rules and regulations that must be kept. They often add to the Bible’s commands or apply them in harsh, judgmental ways. They fail to understand that the law was our schoolmaster to show us our need for Christ (Gal. 3.24-25) and that none of us can keep it perfectly (Rom. 3.10-12).
Legalism doesn’t change the heart. Paul said:
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Col. 2.20-23).
In today’s reading, the Galatians, who had received the Gospel of salvation by grace, had been infiltrated by Judaizers, men who wanted to impose their own legalistic requirements on them. It’s as if someone came into your church or mine and began to hold his own Bible study telling people they are not really saved unless they’ve been baptized, become vegetarians, get circumcised, take communion every week, worship on a certain day, or some other list of requirements. It may sound foolish, but if you don’t know the truth and have it firmly fixed in your mind, you will fall for anything!
A Subtle Trap
Legalism can show up in other, more subtle ways. Many people who sit in church every week, when asked if they’re sure they’ll get to heaven will say “yes,” but when asked why, will say “because I’m a pretty good person.”
What is that? It’s salvation by works. It’s one form of legalism! They may have received the gospel on an intellectual level, but in their hearts believe they must add something to it, and certainly must do something to keep themselves saved.
Another subtle sign of legalism is the expectation that if I keep my set of rules, I can expect God to keep what I see as His end of the bargain. I do “A,” God somehow owes me “B.”
“I can’t believe God is allowing this to happen to me, I go to church every Sunday.” Or …
“I homeschool my kids, take them to church, raise them right so, how could my son say he doesn’t believe?” Or …
“We tithe and give to other good causes, how could God have allowed my husband to lose his job.” Or …
“I live a healthy lifestyle, how could I have cancer.” Or …
“I’ve prayed and prayed, I don’t understand why my wife is still unsubmissive or my husband is still harsh, or my children are still rebellious or _____________.” You fill in the blank.
The truth is we could do nothing to save ourselves and we can do nothing to keep ourselves saved! And the corresponding truth is that if all God ever did, was save us from an eternity separated from Him, it should be enough. He doesn’t owe us anything!
Please don’t misunderstand me. We should be doing those things: going to church every Sunday, raising our children in the discipline and the admonition of the Lord, praying for the people in our lives, and giving generously and joyfully. We should be doing other things to help ourselves grow like: daily Bible reading, going to Bible studies, memorizing and meditating on the Word.
And there are laws of sowing and reaping. God blesses His people and their faithful obedience. But we should do those things out of love and gratitude for all He has done in our lives. We should do them because we desire to please Him. We should not do them with an entitlement attitude or think those things make us righteous before God (Is. 64.6).
Today’s Other Readings:
Isaiah 37 & 38:
That All the Kingdoms of the Earth May Know
In yesterday’s reading, an emissary from the King of Assyria had set up camp outside the city trying to intimidate the Israelites into surrendering without a battle. When threatened, Hezekiah turned to God, not on the basis of what he deserved, but on the basis of who God is:
“O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, the One who dwells between the cherubim, You are God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Incline Your ear, O LORD, and hear; open Your eyes, O LORD, and see …” (vv. 37.16-17).
“Now therefore, O LORD our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the LORD, You alone” (v. 37.20).
This needs to be, not just the prayer of our lips, but the underlying desire of our hearts, as well, that God would receive glory through His work in our lives.
And sometimes that means walking through a trial instead of escaping from it. While it’s fine to pray and ask God to deliver us from tests and trials and difficulties, we must hold those requests in an open hand, just as Jesus did when He prayed, “… nevertheless, not my will, but Yours, be done, O Lord.”
In the case of Hezekiah, God worked in an incredible, supernatural way, destroying the invaders without a battle!
David ends his prayer against his enemies and the enemies of God and cries out for God’s mercy in his life.
But You, O GOD the Lord,
Deal with me for Your name’s sake;
Because Your mercy is good, deliver me (v. 21).
Like Hezekiah, David prayed on the basis of God’s character, not his own.
Not Fit for a Fool
“As snow in summer and rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool.”
When a fool is elevated to a place of honor it can be just as destructive as rain at the wrong time in the growing cycle.
In the next few days we’ll talk about how we’re not only saved by grace, but kept by God’s grace, more about legalism, especially in our parenting, and more.
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* Christian Theology, 2nd Ed. by Millard Erickson p. 990
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