What is legalism? Is it ONLY trying to earn God’s acceptance through obedience? It turns out that it often runs much deeper in the heart.
Legalism, at least to me, seems like a pretty straightforward sin. It’s trying to earn God’s acceptance and forgiveness through keeping his law. It’s trying to, in some way, supplement the finished work of Christ through my own good works.
The Galatians were legalists because they were attempting to add circumcision on to the gospel. Thankfully, that’s not my struggle, but you get the point.
But it turns out that legalism goes much deeper in me than merely external behavior. Even though I may not be blatantly trying to earn God’s acceptance through my actions, there are still many insidious ways legalism still works and worms it’s way into my life and heart, turning me into a modern day Galatian.
As I’ve said before, legalism is like a deceptive disease. It remains hidden under the surface, only revealing itself through subtle symptoms. You can only spot it if you know what to look for.
One of those symptoms is constantly looking down upon other Christians.
THANK YOU THAT I’M NOT LIKE HIM
Jesus told the story of a Pharisee and a tax collector who came into the temple. The Pharisee stood loud and proud before God and prayed:
God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get (Lk 18:11–12).
It’s not exactly a prayer as much as a proclamation. The Pharisee looked at the tax collector, felt a cold moral shudder run down his spine, and passionately thanked God that he was not like that godless scumbag.
The tax collector, meanwhile, couldn’t even lift his gaze to heaven. He was so crushed by the weight of his sin that he dared not lift his eyes to God.
Instead, he beat his breast and pled with God for mercy.
At the end of the story, Jesus drops the mic by saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Pharisees would have been sucker-punched by this statement. I can imagine them huffing and puffing, “What do you mean the tax collector went home justified rather than Pharisee? Tax collectors live large on the money they skim from innocent Jews. Tax collectors have sold out to the pagan Roman government. How could the tax collector be justified and not the Pharisee?”
GOD LOOKS DOWN ON LEGALISTS
The Pharisee in the story relied on his fasting and his tithing and his praying and his do-gooding to justify him before God. That’s textbook legalism. No surprise there.
But what was the tell-tale sign of the Pharisee’s legalism? He compared himself to the tax collector and looked down on him.
“God, thank you that I’m not like that man!”
Of course, you and I are probably likely to say, “But I’m not like the Pharisee!”
Yeah. I’m not so sure about that. How often have we said, “Lord, I thank you that I…”
– Don’t parent like that person.
– Don’t school my children like them.
– Don’t arrive late at church every week like that family.
– Don’t spend my money like him.
– Serve more frequently than her.
– Don’t watch the same movies as them.
– Keep myself in better shape than him.
– And on and on and on…
When I compare my moral achievements to someone else and then get satisfaction from the difference, that’s legalism! I’m basically saying, “God, thank you that I’m more righteous than that person!”
Honestly, it’s a wonder God doesn’t smite me.
My personal righteousness, apart from Jesus, is totally bankrupt. This isn’t spiritual exaggeration here. That hymn we sing about nothing in our hands we bring, only to the cross we cling – that’s no joke! It’s reality.
God loves me because he loves me. It originates in him, not me. And he forgives me because Christ died for me, which also originates with him, not me.
My 9 year-old daughter was convinced she was faster than me because she was faster than her much younger siblings. Then we had a race and I went Usain Bolt on her (I know, I’m a terrible dad).
When I compare my spirituality to others, I’m being like my daughter. I’m comparing myself to the wrong person. When I match myself against the moral perfection of God, I find myself damnably lacking.
How do I know I’m a raging legalist? When I’m playing the spirtual comparison game.
Legalism AIN’T NO JOKE
Legalism isn’t something to be taken lightly. Who did Jesus eviscerate most ferociously? The Pharisees. Paul only began one epistle without thanking God for the recipients: Galatians.
I may not be as blatant as the Pharisees or Galatians, but there are so many times when I follow in their footsteps. When I look at another Christian and then find my heart trumpeting, “Man, I’m so glad I’m not like THAT guy.”
Spurgeon put it well when, speaking of legalism, he said:
It would appear that God does not know the best way of saving men, and men are so wise that they amend his methods! Is not this a refinement of blasphemy?
The gospel reminds me that my righteous deeds aren’t enough to remedy the great problem of my sin.
Thankfully, God himself provided that remedy for me.