Are You Free in Christ?
“There have always been those in the church who regard themselves as more spiritual than God Himself, and have a stricter set of rules for living than God does.” David Guzik
Legalism kills Christians and non-believers. It squeezes the life Jesus gained on the Cross out of those who are trying to follow God. If you are struggling in a dry and painful church environment it may be because of legalism. It also repels those who are seeking Jesus. If a life of dead rules is what Jesus offers, why would a lost sheep heed that call? That is not good news. The legalists do as much damage to the Body of Christ as the atheists…perhaps more. This might be hard to believe. Legalism tends to look good. It presents as super-serious Christianity. It is often difficult to detect a modern-day Pharisee. Yet, legalism drives people out of churches. It subtly presents death as life and selfishness as holiness. It chokes off the good things in Christian life and encourages the bad to flourish. For more read 13 Exciting Bible Verses on Freedom in Christ
Jesus ate with sinners. He welcomed Roman soldiers, commended the faith of Gentiles and embraced the outcasts. Jesus encountered sinners and lost sheep of every kind and welcomed them. This same Jesus repeatedly rebukes the legalists in the strongest terms possible. To the lost Jesus says “Come to Me”. He says Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees.
For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. 5 But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. 6 They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, 7 greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi. Matthew 23
The question is why is legalism such a problem? If it involves things that look good and seem God focused on the outside, why does God have such an issue with the legalists? Communities overrun by legalism tend to be moral and follow rules. Why are the legalists condemned so strongly by Jesus?
It is All About Me
Legalism is not really about God. It is all about the person – what that individual does or does not, eats or eats not, how they dress and what rules they can create for others. Jesus is not present where legalism thrives. The life of a legalist looks good on the outside. It looks like they are worshipping God and filled with the Spirit. Their inner reality is quite different. It is just man’s selfishness and sin presented in a manipulative package. The inner life of a modern-day Pharisee stinks. They just cover it up.
The practices of the legalistic look good. They involve self-control, appearance, and service. They seem “churchey”. This is not the point with Jesus. He never stops with just appearances. Jesus truthfully notes the Pharisees of His day look good on the outside. He calls them whitewashed tombs. It is not a compliment. This means while Pharisees were keeping all of the exterior rules of strict Judaism they look clean and shiny. They would shine brightly in the hot Middle Eastern sun like the outside of a building that was just painted a bright white. Yet, in reality, the structure that looked pristine was actually greatly defiled. The Pharisees are pictured as filled with dead men’s bones. The Spirit of God was not actually in them. Dead bodies were ritually unclean in Judaism.
“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” 22 which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? 23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. Colossians 2
Legalism leaves you unclean and without the Spirit of God according to Jesus. Since it is total reliance on yourself and your goodness, it also leaves you without hope. You are going to fail again and again in life. In legalistic systems, the only thing to do in response to failure is trying harder and keep going. You do the same thing that got you into trouble in the first place but under the pressure of guilt and shame pretend it is not happening.
An Empty Religion
You see the perils of legalism clearly with the Temple in Jerusalem after Jesus’ Ascension. The Temple was originally meant to be the center of worship for all of Isreal. It is supposed to be where the entire nation goes to encounter God. It initially starts out this way when the glory cloud of God descends on the Temple when Solomon dedicates it in the Old Testament. It becomes the focal point of all worship as it was meant to be. Millions came from all around on the Feast days. The Temple at the time of Jesus appeared to be the height of God’s glory on the Earth. It was even considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Pilgrims were said to be blinded by its beauty as they approached it on their journey.
This holy structure is controlled by hypocritical religious leaders at the time of Jesus. These are the same men who eventually plot to murder Him. Their primary concern regarding the Temple was not honoring God. That was forgotten many years prior. It was making millions of dollars per year off of those who came there to worship. The Courts of the Temple were filled with crooked merchants and money changers looking to get rich off the piety of the regular people. This is why Jesus turns over the tables in the Temple. They have made God’s house into one that is synonymous with theft and greed.
The entire system looks good on the outside. The people seem like they are following all of the rules. They present themselves as the chosen of God in God’s dwelling place. Yet, God’s house has become a den of thieves who are robbing the faithful, poor, desperate and oppressed in reality. The religion meant to honor God has descended into outward obedience covering inward evil.
Then a wonderful thing occurred – Jesus came! He fulfills all of the Old Testament types and shadows in Himself. He is the Ark, the Mercy Seat, the Temple and God in flesh. He is the center of all worship and the fulfillment of prophecy. He dies, rises again and establishes an entirely different way to follow God. Jesus then ascends to heaven leaving the disciples to go into all the world preaching His good news – the Gospel. Millions around the world are saved and enter eternal life.
God Left the Building
Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, the Temple still stands. It is empty. It has lost all meaning. Yet, it still has all of the trappings of God’s system. Jesus has literally left the building for the last time. The sacrifices continue. Millions still come every year. The structure still stands and looks great from the outside. Yet, it is filled with dead man’s bones. No amount of rule-following, weeping, hard work or outward beauty can cure those who have rejected Jesus as Lord and Messiah.
Reliance upon rules and regulations rather than faith in Jesus ensured the Temple worship was on the exterior only. A tomb is filled with death, darkness, and decay no matter how good it looks on the outside. This is the problem with legalists. Jesus came so that we can have life abundantly and they are filled with death. Legalism is the enemy of a full life in Jesus.
The problem faced in the Christian world is legalism still reigns in many places. There are groups and churches who call themselves Christian yet they are not following Jesus as Lord. Their worship is just as dead and pointless as the Temple after Jesus. God left their building and they did not notice. They were too focused on their own rules and piety. God may have never been there in the first place. When Jesus stands at the door and knocks in Revelation, it is a church that He is speaking to. He is on the outside. The Christians are on the inside and they have not let Him in. Jesus is prevented from getting in by the structure men have created in order to worship Him.
Do you find yourself doing things at church to please people? Are you free to say no to church leaders? Is your church life all about guilt, shame, and obligation? Are you being strangled by rules that you don’t understand and that don’t come from the Bible? Are you living a Christian life ruled by fear of your church people?
If you are being honest, do you feel compelled to put on a show at church? Is your church life dead, dry and filled with tasks, fear, and obligation?
You might be dealing with legalists.
Your liberty in Jesus is extremely important to God. Christ paid for your freedom with His life. God gave up His son for it. It is not something that should be thrown away for any man or woman in a church. You must guard it against those who seek to steal it.
There are so many who will tell you how to live a Christian life according to their rules. Yet, what does the Apostle Paul tell the Galatians to do in response to the ancient legalists?
Stand firm and do not let yourself be burdened
Legalism does not make you more spiritual. It certainly does not make God happy. It is not about God. It is an expression of yourselves with a veneer of God. It takes attention away from the glory of what Jesus did and focuses it on you.
That is a terrible exchange. If you could do anything worthy of good standing before God, you would not need a Savior.
Stand firm in the true faith, in freedom today. Don’t let anyone steal the freedom Jesus bought for you with His blood. It is for freedom that God set you free.