Legalism

The greatest insult in the Church today is to call somebody a Pharisee. Pharisees are a group of Jews that still exist but at the time of Jesus death they were considered the religious elite. Jesus, however, did not have kind words for them. He regularly pointed out there hypocrisy and exclaimed that they would strain out a gnat only to swallow a camel (Matt. 23:24). Although the label of a pharisee is often misapplied and typically used by a pharisee of a different type, it is important to analyze the nature of legalism so that we can avoid it.

When we were in Israel our Jewish guide explained to us a concept that is key to understanding the heart of legalism. He said that the Jews had 613 (Mitzvot) laws that act as a fence around the commands of God. In other words, if people keep the 613 laws then they will have no chance of actually disobeying God, since the fence protects them from it. How then did something that sounds so noble turn out to be their curse?

Obeying a law does not require any relationship with the person(s) who made the law. There is law against driving more than 100 km/h on our highways but we don't need to know the person(s) who made the law to obey it, although we may meet the people who enforce it! Laws are made for our good but often the context changes without a proper reinterpretation of the law. This reinterpretation of the law is made in the context of the law itself instead of the heart behind the law. The only way to find out the heart of the law is to ask the person(s) who made it.

God, frustratingly at times, does not spell out exactly what we should do. He gives us general commands and principles to live our lives by but leaves the rest up to us. Or does He? It is not that He expects us to make decisions on our own but we need to have a relationship with Him so that we can know what He would do. This is is the reason why building fences for other people eventually leads them to legalism. The person becomes dependent on the fence instead of the relationship. It is often later generations of certain sects of Christianity that become legalistic instead of the original founders.

The Apostle Paul warns us that "we should not go beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6)," or we might start thinking we are the best. Is this not the hypocrisy of the Pharisees? The rules that they followed made them think that they where righteous even though they had little to no relationship with God. Their hypocrisy was exposed because their concern was for themselves and not for other people. Legalism is being blind to the fact that you are following your own rules which makes you think you are righteous (i.e. somehow better than everybody else). To avoid legalism simply be more concerned with their righteousness than your own. "For God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16)."





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