Holiness vs. Legalism

You shall be holy, for I am holy. ( 1 Peter 1:16)
There can be little doubt that God's desire for us on this earth is to become holy. This is especially obvious when we consider that it is the Holy Spirit that indwells us and that the discipline that we endure on this earth from God our Father is to enable us to share in His holiness (Heb. 12:10). Holiness is not only something that God desire for us, but we should also desire it for ourselves so that we can see Him and that others can see Him through us (Heb. 12:14).

It is no secret that the greatest insult in evangelical circles today is the charge of legalism. The problem is that legalism is often confused with holiness, since the difference between the two comes down to hypocrisy. Unfortunately, many Christians are so afraid of being labeled legalistic that they don't strive or expect holiness from themselves or each other.

Legalism, embodied by the Pharisees at Jesus time, were hypocrites because their desire was not to please God but themselves. They didn't really want to follow the law in their hearts, they wanted to be seeing as following the law by other people, most likely by their own people.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matt. 23:23-24)
Many Christians seem to forget that the Pharisees were not condemned for straining out a gnat, but for neglecting the more important issues like justice and mercy and faithfulness. Nowadays, "Christians" seem to have reversed the formula and fallen back into legalism from the opposite side. We try to to focus on justice and mercy and faithfulness without being concerned about the state of our hearts. For example, we are concerned about sex slavery, yet are addicted to pornography. This is the essence of legalism.

  • They do all their deeds to be seen by others. (Matt. 23:5)
  • You clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence (23:25).
  • You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness (23:27).
  • You also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (23:28).

Legalism is concerned with looking righteous before other people, where as, holiness is concerned about being righteous before God. The person who is legalistic will look at the surface very much like the person who is holy, but their hearts are completely different. As Christians, we need to be careful to not judge a book by its cover. Let's strive for holiness and not be quick to label someone as a Pharisee just because they seem to be nitpicking. Remember, Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for straining a gnat, in fact, He confirmed that they should. He condemned them for not being holy while pretending to be. Let's also examine our hearts to see if we are trying to please other people rather than God. Also,  let's not stop striving for holiness for fear of being called a Pharisee.
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14)


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