Why We’re All Legalists

by May 24, 2017

Why We’re All Legalists

by May 24, 2017

Why We’re All Legalists

by May 24, 2017

Legalism isn’t a word you find in the Bible, but it’s a concept you’ll find throughout the Old and New Testaments.

  • God said to the Israelites, “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” (Isaiah 29:13)
  • Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” (Luke 11:39)
  • Paul said to the Galatians, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

It must be an ongoing problem if God keeps bringing it up. We just tend to drift into the belief that he’ll love us more and bless us more if we show external obedience. We start thinking that we can become better people if we just try a little harder. We start emphasizing rules more than relationship.

But as Paul says to the Galatians, we’re not justified by the rules we follow, but by our connection to Christ. And what’s it mean to be justified? If you’ve been around church for a while, you’ve probably heard that it’s a legal term. If you’ve been justified, you’ve been declared righteous, like a defendant who’s been declared not guilty. That’s true, but it’s not the full sense of the term.

When Jesus died on the cross to take away your sin, and rose from the grave to give you a new life, it wasn’t just so he could declare you righteous and send you on your way. He did all that to make things right between you and God. To restore a relationship that had been damaged beyond repair.

It’s like you borrowed $100,000 from your friend. One day you say to him, “Hey, I’m really sorry, but I can’t pay you back.” … “Like, ever? You’re never going to pay me back?” … “Yeah, I just can’t do it. Sorry, man.”

There would be a little friction between the two of you, right? The relationship would break down a little. Maybe your friend used to buy you lunch sometimes. You’d be in line at Subway, and the sandwich artist would say, “Is this together or separate?” and your friend would say, “Together. It’s on me.” And you would look over and say, “Awright! Thanks, man!” But that’s not going to happen anymore. Not until the money gets paid back. Your relationship needs to be made right.

Now imagine that you owed a billion dollars to your friend. How could you ever pay that back? What would you say to your friend? “It’s no problem, man. I’ll drive an Uber.” No way! It’s not going to happen. As Paul says, “By works of the law no one will be justified.” We just can’t repay that debt, no matter how hard we try.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Why do we think more rules will make us right with God?[/perfectpullquote]So why do we keep thinking we can? Why do we think more rules will make us right with God? Why do we drift into legalism?

1. We don’t understand God’s holiness.

We just haven’t read Leviticus enough. Like Leviticus 11, where it says you can only eat animals with divided hooves that chew the cud. You say to yourself, “Hmmm… horses chew the cud, but they don’t have a divided hoof. I guess I can’t eat horses. Pigs have divided hooves, but they don’t chew the cud. I guess pigs are out too. Alright then, cows it is. I’m going to Teddy’s!”

But hold on a minute. It says in Exodus 23 that you can’t eat meat and dairy together. That means no cheeseburgers. You say, “What!?? Why not? Why would God lay all those ridiculous restrictions down?”

Well, we’re not bound by those laws since Christ fulfilled the law, but they’re still in our Bible to remind us that even the smallest thing we do against his will is sin. And God’s disgusted by it. Even a flashing thought that runs through your mind — if it doesn’t match God’s thoughts, it’s sin. And God’s disgusted by it. Even your very best work — if there’s the smallest bit of selfishness or pride in it, it’s sin. And God’s disgusted by it. But we don’t really get that. We don’t understand God’s holiness.

2. We don’t understand our helplessness.

We don’t like to be helpless. We don’t like to be dependent. We don’t like having to throw ourselves at the mercy of God, or anyone. We want to feel like there’s something in us that makes God want to love us. So we wake up in the morning and read our Bibles for 30 whole minutes, and we say to ourselves, “Wow, I’ve gotten so good at this whole Christianity thing.” We volunteer for some ministry at church. We’re working and sweating, and we look around at all those people just standing around drinking coffee and eating bagels and we say to ourselves, “Wow. Nobody else serves God the way I serve God. He sure is lucky to have me. He’s lucky to have someone so humble … so sacrificial … so Christ-like as me.”

We don’t get what Paul says in Philippians 2:13, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God gives me the motivation to work for his good pleasure, and God gives me the power to work for his good pleasure. So anything I do for my own motivations? With my own power? Well, Paul says in Philippians 3 that it’s a loss. He says it’s rubbish. If Jesus didn’t empower it, then it’s worthless. But we don’t understand our helplessness.

3. We don’t understand our hopelessness.

We don’t want to think about it. We’re too busy binge-watching Netflix. We’re too busy standing in line for Comic Book Movies to think seriously about how seriously hosed we are without Jesus. We like to keep things light, and happy, and shallow, and superficial. Just give me a list of things to check off to make God happy, kind of like the list of episodes I’ve gotta check off to finish season 6 of the Walking Dead. Go to church? Check. Read my Bible? Check. Give some money? Check. Volunteer somewhere? Check.

I never take the time to look under the hood, and ask myself why I’m doing all these things. I never take stock of my heart. I don’t really care about how clean the inside of the cup is, as long as people see a nice shiny exterior. I just keep plugging away.

That’s how we slowly drift into legalism. But it doesn’t work for long. As Paul says, “Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (Galatians 2:19). In other words, I kept trying to follow the rules, but I could never follow them well enough. So I had to die to my dependence on the law to try to convince God to love me and bless me. Instead of living for myself, I’m living for God.

And here’s the only way that can happen: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

It’s not about the rules anymore. It’s all about the relationship.