I recently published an article on the same theme entitled “Apostasy in the Church” and now look a second time at aspects of Christian life which robs the churches of the presence of the Holy Spirit and leaves them valueless to His new Kingdom. This is a topic which was familiar to Jesus and He had many scathing words to say about it.
The first questions is, What is Legalism in the Church?
Dictionary.com says it is:
a) “strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit.”
b) 1. “the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works” and 2. “the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.”
Wikipedia says it is a:
“sometimes-pejorative term referring to an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct, or legal ideas, usually implying an allegation of misguided rigour, pride, superficiality, the neglect of mercy, and ignorance of the grace of God or emphasizing the letter of law over the spirit. Legalism is alleged against any view that obedience to law, not faith in God’s grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption.”
Or in simple terms Legalism “refers to any doctrine which states salvation comes strictly from adherence to the law.”
As Wikipedia adds:
“Legalism is sometimes confused with obedience. New Testament books such as Romans, speak of grace and obedience together. An example is found in Romans 1:5 (NASV) speaking of Christ “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name’s sake…” The goal of receiving the grace was to bring about obedience of faith. Here grace, faith and obedience are tied together…. Legalism is also confused with discipline, which is often spoken of in a positive light.”
In a church, legalism is not good. Jesus said so with power and clarity. The problem is, that most Christians are unaware of the legalism in themselves, or in anyone else, and especially their own church. They see their church-view and traditions as being correct and above reproach, and wonder why oh why, can’t the rest of Christendom see the error of their ways? Within a church, those who operate in legalism as often seen and glorified as the most righteous, the most pious, the most holy, the most Biblical, the most knowledgeable, the most well read, those whom we should revere and see as role models.
The bible tells us the truth is quite the opposite; as Jesus said of the Pharisees, the ruling class in Jerusalem in Matthew 3:7 when:
“…. seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said to them, “O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?“”
A “generation of vipers,” was how Jesus saw the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the leaders of the Jewish society and Jewish nation. Why?
Let’s take a look at some of the *7 “woes” of Jesus, in particular, Matthew 23:23-28 where we get an understanding of how Jesus saw them in reality, as God sees them.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and you have left undone the weightier matters of the Law, judgement, mercy, and faith. You ought to have done these and not to leave the other undone. Blind guides who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of extortion and excess. Blind Pharisee! First cleanse the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of them may be clean also.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which indeed appear beautiful outside, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so you also appear righteous to men outwardly, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”
The Pharisees and the Sadducees spend all their time studying the Word of God and especially men’s interpretations of the Law, thinking that by doing so, they would come to know God better. Few Christians today would spend as long as these “vipers” did, studying and learning the Word. But in Second Corinthians 3:6 we read of the correct understanding of the Law of the Old Testament, for as Paul says, under the new covenant “has made us able ministers of the new covenant; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit makes alive.” Yes, ” the letter [of the Law] kills, but the Spirit [of the Law] makes alive.” In other words, we are to study the intent of the Law and the Writer of the Scripture, the law giver, and not try to live by trying to make ourselves worthy by compliance with the law. For as the New Testament clearly proclaims “… that no one is justified by the Law in the sight of God is clear, for, ‘The just shall live by faith'” (Galatians 3:11)
In Christian Legalism, we find both a theological issue and a very practical issue. Both Dictionary.com and Wikipedia above address the theological, Jesus spoke to the practical as well. If you spend all day reading the Word and especially man’s interpretation of the Word, to the total exclusion of the Writer of the Word, then there is obviously a problem. The Word of God, but more especially Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ own Laws, became their God. Jesus said this is the fact in John 5:37-40
“And He sending Me, the Father Himself, has borne witness of Me. Neither have you heard His voice at any time nor seen His shape. And you do not have His Word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He has sent. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life. And they are the ones witnessing of Me, and you will not come to Me that you might have life.”
What happens when a Church and or its leaders or congregation embark on Pharisitical Legalism? First they blind themselves to God and His works. In serious cases, God may blind them, such that they are incapable of seeing or hearing the truth and will remain in that state of denial until God saves them. This is what happened to Israel, when we read that “Jehovah has poured out on you the spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes; He has covered the prophets and your heads, the seers” (Isaiah 29:10). What happened then? v11-12 explains that: “and the vision of all has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed, which they give to one who knows books saying, ‘Please read this; and he says, I cannot, for it is sealed’. And the book is delivered to him who does not know books, saying, ‘Please read this; and he says, I do not know books.'”
Yes, Spiritual Legalist blinds us and it blinds the Churches.
Like Jesus, God carefully explained His position, saying in Isaiah 29:13
“… Because this people draw near Me with their mouth, and with their lips honour Me, but have removed their heart far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the command of men…”
Legalism stepped into the Jewish nation and blinded them as they sought to please the Laws of men, rather than communicate and interact directly with God. Christians need to be remembered that our God is a relational God. He wants fellowship with us; as it was in the Garden of Eden as God sought Adam, as Genesis 3:8-9 records “And they heard the voice of Jehovah God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. And Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Jehovah God in the middle of the trees of the garden. And Jehovah God called to Adam and said to him, Where are you?”
When we put man made rules and our Church traditions before our relationship with the Living God, we are in Legalism. The Pharisees and Sadducees for all their diligence and hard work never knew the power of God in their lives, and neither will the legalists of today. Unfortunately, legalism is a favourite place for Churches today, for in it they find comfort and solace in their own company and the company of those like them, away from the perceived demands of a God who loves them so very much, but whom they cannot control and whom they will not serve. Legalists hide behind the claim that all their theological positions are correct and all other’s views are “unbiblical” – not that they are – just that they do not align with their denomination’s view of the matter. Legalists reply in regard to suggested changes, “Well we’ve never don’t it that we before!” Legalists are spiritually dead people, for as God did not deal with the Hebrews of Isaiah 29:13, nor will He deal with them today.
If you became a Christian and then read and studied the Bible, especially the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, before ever attending a Church service or meeting a large group of Christians, I do not believe you would find many Churches which lived up to your Bible-based expectations. How could they, when the Christian Seminaries are turning out theology graduates, pastors and priests who have only a theoretical knowledge of the Bible, who have no experience of the Holy Spirit of His gifts, and who have no personal relationship with The Lord Jesus Christ? Some even deny that Jesus is God.
No, Legalism in the Church is alive and flourishing, but God is now raising an army to bring both the Church and the world back into line with His wishes. The questions is this: Who’s side are you on?
* The 7 “woes” of Jesus:
Matthew 23:13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of Heaven against men. For you neither go in, nor do you allow those entering to go in.”
Matthew 23:14 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and pray at length as a pretense. Therefore you shall receive the greater condemnation.”
Matthew 23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you compass sea and the dry land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, you make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.”
Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and you have left undone the weightier matters of the Law, judgement, mercy, and faith. You ought to have done these and not to leave the other undone.”
Matthew 23:25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of extortion and excess.”
Matthew 23:27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which indeed appear beautiful outside, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”
Matthew 23:29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets, and decorate the tombs of the righteous…”