We use to have a saying in the church I last pastored that went something like this, “show me a legalist and I’ll show you someone with skeletons in his/her closet.” It wasn’t that the legalists were worse than any other Christians it was simply a matter of legalists having to live a double life. Legalism is a harsh companion because we desperately long to appear one way on the outside, but inside we know we are not the person we portray.
Regardless of how hard we try, strive, work, obey and accomplish good works we know deep down in our hearts that we are not the people God would have us be. Legalism never leads to peace of mind because legalists can never be confident of their relationship with God since they can never be assured that they have done enough to please Him.
In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey cleverly defines legalism as “grace avoidance” and he couldn’t have written truer words. He says about his strict upbringing in fundamentalist schools and churches, “I have little resentment against the particular rules but much resentment against the way they were presented. I had the constant, pounding sense that following an external code of behavior was the way to please God-more, to make God love me. It has taken me years to distill the gospel out of the subculture in which I first encountered it. Sadly, many of my friends gave up on the effort, never getting to Jesus because the pettiness of the church blocked the way.” p. 195
Yancey’s words might sound harsh but they ring very true for any of us who grew up in those situations. Talk to enough former Christians and a pattern of resentment at the way Jesus was presented soon takes shape. For many of our fellow travellers they never had a chance to experience the grace and love of Jesus because it was drowned out with the constant accusations both externally and internally that they would never be good enough for Jesus.
I had a great aunt that use to stand on her lawn and condemn her neighbors for wearing shorts. You can imagine how this went over in the small village where she lived. Structured shame never leads anyone to Christ, only away from Him. Yancey writes, “I have come to see legalism in its pursuit of false purity as an elaborate scheme of grace avoidance. You can know the law by heart without knowing the heart of it.” p. 195
If we do any amount of reading in the New Testament we soon come to the understanding that Jesus did not like what the Pharisees were doing to faith and grace. They were ignoring the internal transformation of the heart that comes from grace for outward externals. Jesus said, “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” Matthew 23:25 Instead of loving God they simply tried to impress others with their piety.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus revealed the motives for legalism, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Matthew 6:5, 6
Leo Tolstoy the great writer struggled with legalism all his life and was often drawn into the dark side of performance based religion. He understood, however, what it was and what it does to the grace of God. He wrote in his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You, “A man who professes an external law is like someone standing in the light of a lantern fixed to a post. It is light all round him, but there is nowhere further for him to walk. A man who professes the teaching of Christ is like a man carrying a lantern before him on a long, or not so long, pole; the light is in front of him, always lighting up fresh ground and always encouraging him to walk further.” Quoted in What’s So Amazing About Grace?, p.198
Christian growth isn’t how pure you are but an awareness of how impure you are. It is then and only then that we turn to grace. As long as we keep thinking we can overcome every sin, every temptation, live a complete holy life and obey every thing God asks of us we will never understand nor turn to grace. Not only does legalism dwell upon the external, but it always leads to extremism. The Jews spent a lifetime of trying to improve on the law they received from Moses.
The great sadness of legalism is that no one who practices it thinks of themselves as legalistic. They honestly believe they are serving God. Even demon controlled ISIL members in Syria and Iraq think they are doing right by Allah as they cut off the head of infidels. Christian legalists think they are pleasing God as well when they impose grace crushing rules on everyone they have power over.
Yancey tells the story of a delegate to the Baptist World Alliance Congress in Berlin in 1934. In the report this delegate sent back to America he noted, “It was a great relief to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold; where putrid motion pictures and gangster films cannot be shown. The new Germany has burned great masses of corrupting books and magazines along with its bonfires of Jewish and communistic libraries.” What’s So Amazing About Grace? p. 201 This same delegate went on to defend Hitler as a great leader because he didn’t smoke, drink alcohol and wanted women to dress modestly. Somehow in the externals it is easy to forget the monster that lurks in the heart.
Monsters lurk in all our hearts because we have sinful natures and those natures condemn us before God. We need grace, pure unadulterated grace that flows from the Father’s love and covers us in the atoning blood of Christ. Legalism says Jesus is never enough; I must do my part, no matter how small to gain God’s love. Legalism undermines all that Jesus did on Calvary’s cross for us because it says His sacrifice is deficient.
If I can add one iota to the cross through what I accomplish or do then I make Jesus of no account. His would be an incomplete atonement and not acceptable to the Father and thus, He and all of us, regardless of our faith would be lost. But Jesus atonement was enough and we are saved by His sacrifice and His grace and nothing we can do can add anything to that.
As Christians we must ever stand against the tendency to look to our good works and actions to receive God’s love. While we were yet sinners Jesus died for us that we might have redemption. Legalism leads to discouragement and defeat. The grace of God leads to grace, joy, peace and the Kingdom of Heaven.
* The atrocities that are being carried out in Iraq and Syria are the result of legalism. Please go to http://thebeggardanced.com/nine-oclock-club/ for updates on the persecution of Christians and as always we need to continue praying for these people.