Category Archives: legalism

Why Jesus Hates Legalism – Luke 11:37-54

What is legalism? Legalism is an attempt to gain favor with God or to impress our fellow man by doing certain things (or avoiding other things), without regard to the condition of our hearts before God. At the root of legalism is the sin of pride, because the legalist thinks that he is able to commend himself to God by his own good deeds. Invariably, he is only looking at externals, not at his heart.

Also, the legalist’s pride motivates him to exalt himself in the sight of others by his outward behavior, again neglecting to see the corruption of his own heart. As such, it is opposed to the gospel of God’s grace. That’s why both Jesus and Paul clashed with the legalists.

The real bottom-line: we never know how we stand before our God!

Jesus hates legalism because it does not deal with the condition of our hearts before God.

What is legalism? Some erroneously confuse it with an emphasis on obedience. I have been accused of being legalistic because I preach that we must obey God’s Word. But every book of the Bible teaches that we must obey God. Being under grace does not mean that we are free to disobey God.

Others say that legalism is when we set up any manmade rules. But there are many areas not specifically addressed in the Bible where we need some rules in order to function as a family or church. Parents are not being legalistic when they set a curfew for their kids. Churches are not being legalistic when they follow certain procedures or practices.

There is probably no sin more tolerated or more widespread in the Christian world than legalism. It may surprise you to hear it labeled as sin. Legalists are thought to be a bit overzealous or “uptight,” but they aren’t usually thought of as sinning in the same sense as adulterers, thieves, liars, and the like. To the contrary, legalists seem to be concerned about holiness.

Yet the Lord Jesus had more conflicts with the legalists of His day than any other group. It wasn’t the adulterers, the robbers and that sort, who put Jesus on the cross. It was the legalists. Later on, the Apostle Paul had the same experience, as the legalists dogged his steps, perverting the gospel of the grace of God.

When you study the life of Christ, it is noteworthy how He deliberately did things to provoke the legalists.

  • He could have healed people on any other day of the week, but He often did it on the Sabbath.
  • He could have been more discreet in violating the Pharisees’ rules, but He did it openly.
  • When a Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner, He could have gone along with their elaborate hand-washing custom, but He deliberately ignored it.
  • When they questioned Him about it, He could have been more polite, but He blasted them for their hypocrisy.
  • When a lawyer pointed out that Jesus had offended them as well, He didn’t say, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to offend you good folks.” He said, “Woe to you lawyers as well!” Jesus confronted legalism as sin.

And yet many Christian churches today are riddled with legalism, but the ministers are too “nice” to stand up to the legalists and say, “You’re not going to do that in this church!” The evangelical church today is plagued by “niceness.” Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that to be like Jesus means always being nice, never offending anyone, never confronting anyone. But clearly, if we want to be like Jesus, we must confront sin. And, legalism is sin!

Christianity is primarily a matter of the heart. Everything flows from a heart relationship with God, who transforms our hearts when He regenerates us. The Jewish religious leaders seemingly were seeking after God, but in reality they were self-seeking. They didn’t see themselves as sinners in need of a Savior. They saw themselves as good people because they kept the Law.

But in reality, they didn’t keep the Law because they didn’t apply it on the heart level. Thus, Jesus in effect said that if they would be as careful about clean hearts as they were about clean hands, then they would be what they ought to be.

The structure of our text is that in 11:37-41 we have the setting and overall theme, that legalism puts the emphasis on the external to the neglect of the internal.

Then, in 11:42-44 Jesus pronounces three woes on the Pharisees in which He sets forth some of the specific problems with legalism. At this point, an expert in the Jewish law speaks up in self-defense, pointing out that Jesus’ remarks not only condemn the Pharisees; they also insult the lawyers.

Rather than apologizing, Jesus launches into a series of three more woes on the lawyers (11:46-52). The result was not repentance, but rather increased hostility on the part of the Pharisees and lawyers in an attempt to trap Jesus in something He might say (11:53-54).

The overall theme: Legalism puts the emphasis on the external to the neglect of the internal (11:37-41).

37  While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table.
38  The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.
39  And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.
40  You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also?
41  But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.

Before we look specifically at the theme, take note that Jesus accepted social invitations from unbelievers. But, also note that He did not hesitate to confront unbelievers with their sin! He deliberately provoked this confrontation by doing something that surprised His host.

But we need to be careful about how we apply this. Jesus was in a cultural context that understood the bold language of the prophets. Also, He is the Lord and as such has both the insight and authority to speak in this manner.

Paul instructs us, “Walk with [NASB, margin] wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (Col. 4:5, 6).

The metaphor of salt implies that we can and should be provocative, but we also must speak in a gracious and sensitive manner. But in every social contact with unbelievers, keep your purpose clear. You’re there to be the instrument of the Holy Spirit in convincing the person about sin, righteousness, and judgment, and to proclaim the good news of God’s grace in Christ.

In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees, ostensibly in an attempt to keep God’s Law, had devised and added hundreds of manmade laws. But in so doing, they had shifted the focus from the heart to the outward man. This included elaborate rituals for washing themselves before meals and for cleansing their dishes and utensils. While there was a basis for these practices in the Book of Leviticus (11:33-34; 15:12), the Pharisees had taken them far beyond what God intended. Jesus uses this practice to confront the main issue.

Religion apart from God is always trying to fix the outer man to look good to other men, but it neglects the fact that the Lord looks on the heart. Jesus (11:39) confronted the Pharisees with the fact that although they went to great lengths to clean their cups and platters, they neglected to cleanse their hearts, which were full of robbery and wickedness. The Pharisees despised those who were openly sinful, but God looks not only at the outward person, but also on the heart.

Inwardly, the Pharisees were greedy and wicked. Jesus compares this to washing the outside of a bowl and then eating out of it, even though the inside was filthy! The God who made the outside made the inside as well. Genuine religion is a matter of the heart, not just of external compliance.

The meaning of verse 41 is debated, but Jesus seems to be saying that if we deal with our hearts before God, then everything that flows outward is clean. As J. C. Ryle explains, “Give first the offering of the inward man. Give your heart, your affections, and your will to God, as the first great alms which you bestow, and then all your other actions, proceeding from a right heart, are an acceptable sacrifice, and a clean offering in the sight of God” (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:48-49).

Then Jesus launches into the three woes on the Pharisees:

1. The first woe: Legalism majors on minors and minors on majors (11:42).

42  “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

      The Pharisees were meticulous about giving a tenth to God to the degree that they even tithed their spices! (Rue is a strong-scented herb.) While Jesus upheld the obligation of tithing (Lev. 27:30 was used to support the tithing of spices), He condemned them for neglecting the weighty part of the Law, namely, justice and the love of God.

As He elsewhere affirmed, the love of God and the love of neighbor sum up the entire Law (Matt. 22:37-40). But the Pharisees would cleverly tell even their parents that they could not help them financially because their money had been devoted to God (Mark 7:11). Technically, they were tithing, but practically, they were neglecting to love their own parents!

Modern day legalists also major on the minors and minor on the majors. Some churches and Christian parents put major attention on rules about other issues, such as dress codes or certain activities, but they tolerate serious sins, such as gossip, greed, and pride. If we shun people because of how they look, or over certain behaviors that, according to the Bible, are not major, we are guilty of the sin of the Pharisees.

2. The second woe: Legalism focuses on self-glory (11:43).

43  Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.
     Jesus next condemns the Pharisees because they loved the front seats in the synagogues and the respectful greetings in the market places. They loved to have people notice how important they were! It made them feel good to be addressed as the Reverend Doctor So-and-so. But pride was at the root of it. They were focused on their own glory, not on God’s glory. Pride is at the heart of legalism; humility is at the heart of true Christianity.

The legalist can take pride in himself and his attainments because he is looking at outward matters, not at issues of the heart. He doesn’t acknowledge that his heart is just as sinful as the heart of the prostitute or robber. If he had been reared in their circumstances or had encountered the problems in life they had faced, he would have engaged in the same behavior, because he had the same heart of lust and greed. No, he sees himself as a notch above these sinners. He has attained a righteous life by his own hard work and discipline. The legalist is puffed up with pride.

Scripture declares that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (Prov. 3:34; James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). One sure mark of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts is that we see ourselves as terrible sinners in the sight of God. We see that we deserve His judgment because of our pride, selfishness, and rebellion. Rather than comparing ourselves with others and concluding that we are basically good, we compare ourselves with God and conclude that no good thing dwells within us. Thus convicted of our great need, we flee to the cross for mercy. But legalists don’t like the message of the cross, because it confronts their pride.

3. The third woe: Legalism subtly corrupts others (11:44).

44  Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”
     Jesus compares the Pharisees to concealed tombs. If a Jew came in contact with a tomb or a dead body, he was ceremonially unclean for seven days (Num. 19:11-22). The picture behind these ceremonial laws was that sin leads to death and that the contamination of sin and death spreads to others if it is not dealt with. The Jew who became contaminated by contact with a dead body had to take responsibility for cleansing through the ashes of a red heifer and ritual washing (Num. 19:1-11). Here, Jesus accuses the Pharisees, who were meticulous about such laws of cleanliness, of defiling the Jewish nation through their own spiritual death! The charge must have shocked them!

The application is that the sin of legalism contaminates unsuspecting people. It turns off unbelievers and keeps them from the truth of the gospel, because they can see the hypocrisy of the legalists. It contaminates young believers, who are mistakenly taught that if they do certain things and do not do other things, they will grow in holiness and be pleasing to God. But invariably, the things that they are told to do and not do are not the important issues of the Bible, such as the love of God and neighbor (as summed up in the Ten Commandments). Rather, they are petty things, often things that Scripture does not directly command.

One reason many kids who grow up in Christian homes later reject the faith is that the parents and the church have been shot through with legalism. Instead of the joy of knowing God and of having our sins forgiven through His grace, the focus was on the rules and the outward conformity that had to be maintained so that everyone else would think that the kids (and parents) were good Christians. I’m not saying that Christian homes should not have any rules. But the emphasis in our homes and church should be on the joy of knowing God. As Paul says, “the kingdom of God is … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

At this point, an expert in the Jewish Law who was at the dinner spoke up. Probably he thought that this young rabbi did not grasp the full implication of His words. He was not only indicting the Pharisees; His scathing words also insulted the lawyers and the entire Jewish religious leadership. But rather than apologizing or backing down, Jesus laid into the lawyers with three more woes:

4. The fourth woe: Legalism burdens people with peripheral commandments (11:46).

46  And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.
    The lawyers had taken the commands of Scripture and had multiplied them into hundreds of minute adaptations. But, like lawyers in every age, they had also come up with legal loopholes that enabled them to skirt around their own rules, while the average guy was still burdened with them.

For example, on the Sabbath the lawyers determined that you could only travel 1,000 yards from your home. But if a rope was tied across the end of the street, the end of the street became his residence and he could go 1,000 yards beyond that. Or, if before the Sabbath a man left at any given point enough food for two meals, that point technically became his residence and he could go 1,000 yards beyond that.

On the Sabbath, you couldn’t tie a knot, because that was work. But a woman could tie a knot in her girdle. So if you needed to draw water out of the well on the Sabbath, you couldn’t tie a rope to the bucket, but you could tie a woman’s girdle to the bucket! (These examples are in William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke [Westminster Press], p. 158.)

The Sabbath laws were given for our benefit, so that we would set aside one day in seven for worship and rest. I believe that modern Christians err by throwing out the entire Sabbath principle. Most Christians treat Sunday just like every other day. But some err by coming up with specific lists of what you can and cannot do on the Lord’s Day.

The main issue is our heart before God. We are to honor Him one day each week by ceasing from our normal routine and worshiping Him.

Legalism burdens people with peripheral issues and rules. Biblical holiness frees people by pointing them to the beauty of God’s holiness and love. As 1 John 5:3 states, “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.” When we obey out of a heart of love for God, even though it is not always easy, it will always result in great joy and blessing.

To summarize, Jesus is elaborating on the theme that legalism puts the emphasis on the external to the neglect of the internal. He has shown that it majors on minors, it focuses on self-glory, it subtly corrupts others, and it burdens people with peripheral rules.

5. The fifth woe: Legalism dodges the personal application of God’s holiness, but pretends outwardly to honor it (11:47-51).

47  Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed.
48  So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs.
49  Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’
50  so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation,
51  from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation.
     The religious leaders of Jesus’ day did not submit their lives personally to the message of the Old Testament prophets, but they built monuments to them to make it look as if they honored them. But Jesus lumps the current leaders with their ancestors who killed the prophets. He is saying that the current leaders are finishing off the job that the earlier generations started. As in all the other woes, the underlying problem is that though outwardly they act as if they honor the prophets, inwardly they do not repent of the very sins which the prophets condemned.

When Jesus refers to the wisdom of God (11:49), He is not quoting any specific Scripture, but rather is summarizing and personifying all of God’s wisdom as revealed through the prophets. Abel was the first man to die because his righteousness convicted his brother of his evil deeds. In the arrangement of the books in the Hebrew Bible, Zechariah was the last prophet to be killed (2 Chron. 24:20-25). Jesus is saying that the blood of all the righteous men who were martyred in the Old Testament would be charged against this current wicked generation, because they rejected God’s revealed wisdom about their sin. This may point to the awful judg­ment on Jerusalem in A.D. 70 or it may also include the final judgment. The point is, legalists don’t apply God’s holiness to their hearts; they just put on an outward show of honoring it.

6. The sixth woe: Legalism misses the true knowledge of God and misleads those who seek to know Him (11:52).

52  Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”
     The key of knowledge refers to the personal knowledge of the living God through His revealed Word. As Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). True religion is a matter of knowing God personally and growing in that relationship with Him. Legalism is a matter of going through rituals and of keeping rules, but it’s devoid of the personal knowledge of God.

In many well-meaning but legalistic Christian homes, parents mistakenly think that the way to keep their teenagers in line is to lay down and enforce a lot of rules. But the way to keep your teenagers in line is to lead them to a personal knowledge of the Holy One. He’s with them when you cannot be there. If they truly know Him and know the great love of Christ who gave Himself for their sins, they will want to please Him, beginning on the heart level. As our kids grow in their walk with God, we should be able to ease up on the number of rules, not impose more. Our goal is to get each child to live under the lordship of Jesus Christ, in a growing personal relationship with Him. Legalism takes an external approach; biblical Christianity focuses on the heart relationship.

53  As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, 54  lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.

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Posted by on October 20, 2022 in legalism


A study of legalism #3

legalism (1)Legality is a mechanical and external behavior growing out of reliance on self, because of a desire to gain a reputation, display a skill, or satisfy an urge to personal power.

That is legality. It is religious performance, scrupulous and meticulous in its outward form, but, inwardly, as Jesus described it, “filled with dead men’s bones,” {Matt 23:27}. It is relying on self, personality, background, training, and talent or skill instead of the grace of God through the Spirit of God. And it is operating for and on behalf of one’s own personal glory. 

The thing that is appalling to us is to remember that there is no way to cheat in this matter. God knows our hearts. He sees us as we are and he turns off the power immediately when a legalistic spirit is present, even momentarily, in our life. What we do out of that spirit never produces anything of value in the kingdom of God. We can’t fool him. We may fool others, but we can’t fool him. God acts immediately upon the basis of what he has said he would do, and so legality results always in death.

That is why it needs constant evaluation on our part. You can’t live the Christian life and never take a look at yourself.

If you go on week after week, year after year, never examining yourself, never asking, “What kind of a Christian am I? Where am I before the Lord?” you cannot escape a legalistic spirit. We must always be asking, “What kind of attitudes do I manifest? What kind of disposition do I display to others?” You must ask these questions repeatedly. That is why the Scriptures say, “examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith,” {cf, 2 Cor 13:5}. The life of faith requires this.

Furthermore, it requires an openness to the help of others in this respect. Not only are we to examine ourselves, but we are to let others examine us, because it is amazing how little we can see ourselves. At times we can. We all have moments of truth. You know how they feel. Moments of truth come when you are suddenly aware of what you are. But God doesn’t leave us to depend on these alone. He also gives us the rest of the body of Christ to help us. So pay attention to what others say about you — especially if they say it in love and not in harshness. Listen to their appraisal. They may be seeing something that you are not seeing, and it is important to consider and to face honestly what others make clear to us.

We don’t like that, do we? We all want to deal with God directly. We don’t mind his seeing us. We don’t mind his telling us what is wrong because he does it in secret. But it really gets to us when he chooses to use someone else to do it. As Oswald Chambers says:

“God never allows you to choose the scene of your own martyrdom. If you object to the fingers by which he crushes his grapes, you will never become wine poured out to bless the hearts of others.”

So don’t object to them. Allow others to minister to you and to help you with their insights into your life. That is why we need the body.

Well, then, what is the cure of legality? Suppose you find it in your heart — and we all will. If you can go on week after week and never find any evidences of legality in your life you are utterly blind. There is something wrong with you, because legality is there. It is present. It is always waiting to be manifested at any moment of weakness, and there are plenty of moments of weakness, aren’t there? But what do you do with it when you find it?

The Scriptures suggest a very simple and unfailing remedy: Those who are baptized believers (“in Christ”) …repent and believe — that is all. Repent of it. Change your mind about it. Don’t justify it. Don’t excuse it. Don’t call it something else. Don’t try to cover it up and pretend that it is something acceptable.

You may fool the people around you but you won’t fool God. He knows. So repent of it. Admit it. Say so, openly and freely. And then believe that God has already taken care of it, that death need not follow. Commit it to him and out of death will come resurrection; from death will come life. The moment you acknowledge the death, the resurrection immediately follows — always. God brings to life that which would otherwise be barren and dead. That is the secret of handling legality.

How much grief we would be spared in our lives if we gave people the same liberty we expect for ourselves. We don’t want somebody else to tell us how to dress in order to come to church.

There is no rule in the Bible that says you must wear shoes to church or anything of the sort. I know this is not a problem with us any longer, but there are plenty of places where it is. And I am sure that we have lingering moments of other kinds of legalism. But I am not trying to judge anyone, I simply want to say, “Let’s look at the legalistic attitudes we find within us and judge them in the light of the Word, because legality is death.” Legality is hypocrisy. Legality is phony Christianity. It is a false way to trying to appear right, and, therefore, it is a stench in the nostrils of the God of truth who loves to have people be honest and true as he made them to be. (borrowed)

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Posted by on December 26, 2019 in legalism


A study of legalism #2

LegalismOur study continues on the subject of legality, or legalism. There is much misunderstanding on this subject by many.

First, one form of legality is to have the wrong standard. Legality then becomes making unwarranted or unnecessary demands on yourself or on someone else, especially in areas which are not prohibited in the Scriptures. That becomes legality.

There is a standard which is prescribed. As I have mentioned, the Law of God never changes and it is always right, always applicable and relevant to a Christian. For instance, it is always wrong to murder, or to lie, or to steal, or to commit adultery, or to covet your neighbor’s things. These are always wrong. They are never right. There is no way ever of justifying them.

But there are other areas in which we are given a great deal of personal liberty, and it is legalism to make standards (particularly for someone else) in these areas. Here we must be careful, because, for ourselves, it is proper to set standards or rules which apply to us. When we have difficulty with some situation, or we discover a weakness within ourselves, it is wise to make a rule for our own protection:

“I will not go to bars because I have a weakness toward alcohol and I believe it is something I should avoid. I tend to lose control and get drunk, therefore I won’t go there.” That may be a perfectly proper rule for your life.

“I find myself easily inflamed by pornographic literature,” you may say, “therefore, I won’t read that kind of stuff…plus it is wrong. I find myself sexually aroused to the point where I want to do the wrong thing, so I won’t read literature or go to movies which do that to me.”

It is right to set these kinds of rules and limitations upon yourself. And you will find they will change as you grow as a Christian.

But legality comes in when a group of Christians makes rules for each other, or for anybody else. That is what is wrong. That becomes legalism. We may sit down and explain a situation to somebody and ask him, “Would you agree to observe this standard of behavior if you work or study with us?” If he says “Yes,” then he has agreed, and has adopted the rule for himself. But the Scriptures are careful not to command behavior in certain areas.

When the Corinthians wrote to Paul they asked, “What about these Christians who are eating meat offered to idols?” A group of them were upset about this and they wrote to the apostle, saying, “We don’t think that is right; to us that is demon worship.”

But Paul wrote back and said, “Now be careful!” He said, in effect, “It would be the easiest thing in the world for me, as an apostle, simply to say, ‘Yes, you are right, don’t eat meat offered to idols,’ but I am not going to say that. What I am going to say is that here is an area where each man must be fully persuaded in his own mind. You can’t make rules for each other, and you have to honor a weaker brother’s conscience. If he is troubled by a certain action then don’t flaunt your liberty in his presence, but be careful of one another and love each other.”

So it becomes legality for Christians to levy standards of achievement or behavior or spirituality upon others. Today this involves matters concerning clothing styles, length of hair, certain demands of ritual observance — like whether you may cut your lawn on Sunday or not, whether or not it is right to eat meat on Friday, food and behavior restrictions — all these things become legality when they are legislated upon somebody else.

These are areas in which we are left free to be guided by our conscience, instructed by the Word of God in general principles. We are free to counsel one another, and help one another, but not to legislate. It is wrong, absolutely wrong, to do so. It becomes legality when we make unwarranted demands upon others in an area not prohibited by Scripture. This focuses upon the what of an issue, what it is you are supposed to do, and you can be legalistic at this point.

A second form of legalism (and it is the same basic thing, even though it takes another form) has to do with the power upon which you rely in order to act. Legalism is also the making of quite proper demands, but making them on those who have no awareness of the proper power it takes to fulfill them. That becomes a very subtle form of legality because it is always based on a proper demand. It is in the realm which Scripture authorizes — thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, and so on — a moral code which is approved of in the Scriptures. But even in that area it is wrong to make a demand upon someone who doesn’t understand the power by which it is to be met. It becomes legality.

Do you see how subtle this can be? The actual behavior can be exactly the same in the case of a legalist or of one behaving as an authentic Christian. They both may be real Christians and their behavior may be exactly the same, but one is legalistic and the other is not. It is what is going on inside that is the issue in question. It is a matter of inner reliance. What are you reckoning on to meet this demand? Are you counting on your ability, your own adequacy, your talent, your personality? Is that what you are reckoning on in order to accomplish what is expected of you? Well, if you are reckoning on anything other than the activity of God at work in you, you are a legalist!

We all do this from time to time. Who has not found himself falling back into some form of reckoning upon himself — either his ability (to try to show someone what he can do) or his inability (to use as an excuse). If you do this you immediately become a legalist. This is focusing now on the how you are going to do something. The most widespread form of legality in the Christian church is the flesh — trying to do something before God which will be acceptable to him.

The flesh is the old life, the natural life inherited from Adam, with its apparent resources of personality, of ancestry, of commitment, of dedication, and so forth. You can do all kinds of religious things in the flesh. The flesh can preach a sermon. The flesh can sing in the choir. The flesh can act as an usher. The flesh can lead people to Christ. Did you know that? The flesh can go out and be very zealous in its witnessing and amass a terribly impressive list of people won to Christ, scalps to hang on a belt. The flesh can do these things but it is absolutely nauseating in the eyes of God. It is merely religious activity. There is nothing wrong with what is being done, but what is terribly wrong is the power being relied upon to do it. That is legality.

That is why, in any Christian activity, you have to be careful that your inner reliance is on God, and not on you. Otherwise it comes out all wrong and makes all the difference between heaven and hell, life and death. You can do exactly the same thing that someone else is doing, and, if you do it with a sense of reliance on anything other than the Spirit of God, what they do will bless people but what you do will curse them. It is the very same action, absolutely the same. What you do one moment, trusting in God’s Spirit, will bless people and strengthen them and bless your own life and enrich and fulfill it, but the very next moment you can do exactly the same thing in the power of the flesh, and it will be damaging and destructive and hurtful to others and to you. That is why you need to recognize the subtlety of all this and to be aware that God looks not at the outward appearance, as man does, but at the inner heart. What is going on inside is all-important to God.

It is paramount that we understand that. Because other Christians around you approve of what you are doing is no sign at all that what you are doing is acceptable to God. What you are doing must be done out of a reliance on the power he provides or else it is nauseating, religious hypocrisy, in his sight, and it will ultimately prove to be that in the eyes of others as well.

Now let’s move to the third area. You can go wrong in the motive which moves you to do things. Legality is also the fulfilling of external requirements for reasons of self-exaltation or personal merit. Here we are focusing on the why of what you do. You must be right in what you do, how you do it, and why you do it.

Why do you do things? Are you trying to build a reputation for yourself? Do you want a name as a spiritual Christian? — and so you let it be known how many Bible verses you memorize each week, how many hours you spend in prayer, and how much you give to the missions.

That is exactly on a par with the religion of the Pharisees. This is what Jesus is highlighting in the Sermon on the Mount — men who love to be seen before men instead of being content to be visible only to the God and Father who sees in secret. If what is motivating you is a desire to gain preeminence, some prominence as a Christian, if you long to have your name blazoned before others, published around the world, known here and there, and if you love to table-hop at Christian conventions (believe me, I know plenty about this in my own heart), this is legality. It is a stench in the nostrils of God. It will end up producing only death in your life and increasing the shame and reprobation of Christianity before the world.

Of course, combinations of these failures are possible. You can be wrong at two points as well as one, or at all three — and then you are really a legalist! You can be an obvious legalist as well as a subtle one. But it is all legality. It is what the Scriptures fight unstintingly and what the enemy is clever to cover over and make look like something good.

Now we are ready to attempt a definition of legality which I hope will fit all the circumstances we have looked at. (more to come)

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Posted by on December 19, 2019 in legalism


A study of legalism #1


Ancil Jenkins (a fellow servant for several years in South Florida) shared this illustration:  ‘Fasten your seat belt,’ I said to my wife, Elaine. ‘It is the law, you know.’ As she fastened her seat belt, I thought, ‘Dummy, that is not the reason you want her buckled up. You want her protected from the harm of any accident you might drive her into.’

How shallow would be my concern if I was more in fear of paying a fine than in her being seriously hurt!

“How much this can describe our approach to our obedience to God! Almost all we do is from mixed motives. Yet which motive is overriding? Do we obey because we fear God’s wrath and judgment? Do we feel He will break our leg or burn down our house if we disobey? Do we feel that Christianity is just a set of rules to be obeyed and our satisfaction comes from doing a good job of keeping rules?

“The result of such an attitude will only breed fear and guilt. Fear comes from any failure to obey, and there will be such failure. Guilt comes from many sources, such as finding there was a law you had been failing to obey. Any failure at perfect obedience can lead to regarding some laws as more important than others. All this can lead to a disregard of others who do not keep laws as well as we do (Luke 18:1). It can lead us to giving more attention to the minute details and neglecting the major virtues God desires us to have (Matt. 23:23). We become ridiculous gnat strainers and camel swallowers (Matt. 23:24).

“We should obey God because we love Him. We obey because He has done so much for us and we have done so little for Him. We obey because love is never content to accept but must always give. Jesus said, ‘If you love Me, you will do what I command’ (John 14:15). We then come to realize that our disobedience not only breaks the laws of God, it also breaks the heart of God. How often they rebelled against Him in the wilderness and grieved Him in the desert! (Ps. 78:40).

“Such obedience is far fuller, richer, and freer than can ever come from a legal motivation. Imagine a woman who is a nurse and a mother. She may work at a hospital all day caring for the sick. When she has worked eight hours, she goes home. Upon arriving home, she finds her child is seriously ill. She will then give her child the same care she gives the hospital patients. However, when she has cared for her child for eight hours, she will not quit. She gives care no one can buy. The difference is the motivation.

“What is your major motivation? Seek to know God better, and you will find yourself obeying out of love. It will become ‘richer, fuller, deeper’ and will become ‘sweeter as the years go by.’ “

We want to begin a study of legality, or legalism.

There is much misunderstanding on this subject by many. We tend to think that everybody else has it, but that we don’t. We often treat it like the common cold. We don’t understand what it is or how to cure it, but almost everyone suffers from it, and we find it to be very highly contagious.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to liken it to hay fever, since I see that some of you are joining me in a chorus of snuffing and sniffling and wheezy breathing. Legality can be very much like that. It comes upon you and you hardly know what has happened. But there it is. The symptoms are suddenly present and you don’t know what to do with it — certainly not how to cure it — and so you suffer through it, but don’t know what is wrong.

But legality is one of the favorite weapons of the enemy. He loves to get Christians to be legalistic, for then he has destroyed their enjoyment of the Spirit and he can use them to spread havoc among a generation or a company of believers, and ruin a vital, active, and growing Christian group.

The enemy wants us to doubt our relationship with God…to doubt the work of grace in our life…to think we need to ‘earn our way’ in order to be pleasing to God.

That is exactly what happened in Galatia, and is what drew forth the letter to the Galatians from the Apostle Paul.

Here was a group of young Christians who had a fantastic beginning. Their response to the preaching of the apostle was heartwarming. They had given themselves totally to Christ. Paul was greatly enthusiastic about this group of growing young Christians. But, after a while, word came to him that legality had set in, legalism was taking its toll.

What had been a bright and marvelous testimony of the grace and glory of God was being turned into a dull, apathetic group of religionists — cold, barren, and empty, almost devoid of spiritual life.

That is what legality will do. Legalism destroys! It did then, and it does the same thing today. I know of no affliction in Christendom which is more widespread, and more devastating in its destructiveness, than this.

Across the world today many churches are sunken into a pall of boredom and futility largely because of the legalistic spirit which has throttled their spiritual vitality.

Legalism can also be described as false Christianity because that is essentially what it is. It uses Christian language and biblical terms. It sounds evangelical. It loves to use phrases like “evangelism,” “fundamentalism,” “biblical literalism,” and such. It sounds Christian, and looks Christian, but it is emphatically not true Christianity.

It as a spurious fake, an imitation Christianity, an empty, hollow counterfeit of the real thing. It is a burdensome drag upon the spiritual life that creates a sense of bondage and guilt. It is a sickening, nauseating fraud in the eyes of others.

God describes it in the Scriptures as a stench in his nostrils. That is what legality really is. We ought not to be proud of it in any degree although, strangely enough, I find Christians boasting of their legalism. They don’t call it that, but they nevertheless boast in what is in effect a legalistic spirit. But God does not boast of it. He finds it disgusting. Yet it is so widespread.

Why is that? Why should it be so universal? Surely the answer is that the enemy strives diligently to keep us in ignorance as to what legalism really is. We recognize certain forms of it and try to divest ourselves of those, but then we are not aware of other forms of it that are gripping our lives and holding us in bondage. So while we are denouncing legality on one side, as practiced by others, we ourselves are practicing it in another form. Thus it spreads its noxious influence throughout a local Christian body, across the nation, and throughout the entire worldwide church.

How can you recognize legalism? That is the question we want to zero in on. We must first understand that since legality is basically false Christianity, then you can never recognize the false unless you understand the true. That is where I want to start.

What is real Christianity? What is Christianity as the Scriptures set it forth — true Spirit-filled living? Let me attempt a definition:  True Christianity is to manifest genuinely Christ-like behavior by dependence on the working of the Spirit of God within, motivated by a love for the glory and honor of God.

That is the genuine article. You will notice that it has three essential elements, and without all three it becomes legality. If it fails in even one point it is nothing but legality:

First, there is an expected pattern of behavior. There is a law, if you like, a code, to which we are expected to conform. Many Christians make the mistake of thinking that to be free from legalism you must become free from any law whatsoever. Nothing is further from the truth.

The Scriptures never endorse that notion but what we are talking about is not freedom from the Law but freedom from the curse of the Law. That is something quite different.

There always must be law. This is a law-governed universe because the law reflects the character of God. God himself is reality. God is behind all things, and his character is the law which governs everything. Therefore, Christians must always be related to law — the law of the character of Christ, of the law of the Ten Commandments — it is the same thing.

The Ten Commandments simply describe the nature of God’s character. So true Christianity isn’t freedom from the existence of law. There is always a standard, always a code of conduct to be observed. That is essential. But be careful what the standard is! You can go wrong selecting the law. You can be legalistic in the standard you have set.

The second necessary element is a sufficient and adequate power. That is absolutely essential to true Christianity. The whole glory of the gospel comes in right at this point. The good news is that God has given us a sufficient and adequate power, indwelling us, available to us at all times, so that we never have an excuse for not being what we ought to be. In the Spirit of Jesus Christ, indwelling us, we have what it takes — a sufficient and adequate power.

The third essential is a motive which moves us to action — a powerful, compelling hunger for the glory of God, an urge that God be honored and glorified. If I can put all the foregoing in another way, the true Christian life is fulfilling a law by means of a unique power because of an overwhelming desire.

It requires: An outward standard or code of behavior, An inward power which makes it possible to meet it, and A motive which drives us on to do so.

But it takes all three. You cannot manifest genuine Christianity without all three. If it fails at any one point it immediately becomes legality. The other two can be perfect and yet it still will be legality. You can go wrong at any one of three places.


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Posted by on December 13, 2019 in legalism

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