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How Legalism Betrays Christ, Violates the Gospel, and Destroys People

  • Joe McKeever

    Joe McKeeverhas been a disciple of Jesus Christ more than 65 years, been preaching the gospel more than 55 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian publications more than 45 years. He…

  • Updated Jan 25, 2018

“Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem saying, ‘Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?’ … And He answered and said to them, ‘Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?'” (Matthew 15:1-3).

“The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Historians tell us the Pharisees started off well, as revivalists in a way, calling the nation back to faithfulness.  Eventually, however, their insistence on righteousness settled down into a code of laws and rules.  They went from being encouragers to harassers, from lovers of God to bullies and legalists.

The legalist is someone who says, “I know the Lord didn’t say this, but He would have if He’d thought of it!”

The legalist is smarter than God.  He helps the Lord by completing His Word, by filling in the gaps where the Lord clearly forgot to say something, explain something, or require a thing.

The legalist drives the rest of God’s people nuts.  He is forever finding rules we overlooked, requirements we clearly missed on purpose, and laws the rest of us should be keeping.  He insists his way is the only one and can play the more-righteous-than-thou card when we do not agree with him.

The legalist claims to love the Word more than you.  Typically, he takes a single saying of Scripture and builds an entire system around it, then demands that everyone else obey it.  If you refuse, you don’t love the Lord, are in rebellion against God, and unworthy to be a leader or teacher of this church.

When told “The letter of the law kills, but the Spirit gives life,” the legalist will accuse you of taking a truth out of context.  He prides himself in stressing the letter of the law.  He likes to say that “Scripture says what it means and means what it says.” That sounds so good, even to the faithful, that few stop to consider that Scripture often uses various ways of saying something.  And translating a teaching from one language to another often presents difficulties.  So, it’s not always that simple.

The legalist likes it simple.

Woe unto you if the legalist in your church happens to be your pastor.  His sermons will be harsh (he will call it “preaching against sin!” and many will applaud him for it), grace will be missing from his messages (“cheap grace” he will call it), and the people he attracts to your church will be clones of him. It all goes downhill from here.  Soon, he will be pulling the church out of the denomination (they no longer preach the Word!) and disassociating himself from any pastor or church unwilling to abide by such strict adherence to the rules.

The fact is, the denomination is often led by men and women of greater understanding of Scripture than he with his legalistic demands and harsh interpretations.

In former days, such pastors loved to harp on the length of women’s skirts and hair, to require no makeup and jewelry, men’s wearing facial hair,  and people dancing, smoking, attending movies, and reading novels.  In earlier days, they railed against the radio and then the television, followed by the computer.

If a legalist cannot find something to be against, he will make it up.

There is something about legalism that is attractive to a lot of people.  It reduces the Christian faith to a list of rules.  No more of this “search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24).  No more of this “The sacrifices of the Lord are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:17).

It’s rules. Laws. Regulations. Requirements. Demands.

Legalism condemns those not agreeing, those who take liberties the legalists forbid, and those who insist that the whole message of Scripture should be considered, not just a verse here and a verse there.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the gold standard of legalists.  But their descendants are many, vocal, and ever-present.

It was a Sunday night service in Columbus, Mississippi’s First Baptist Church, where I was pastoring sometime in the late 1970s. We had a good crowd that night, including several guests from other churches for some reason I’ve long since forgotten. I was excited and felt great about the service.

The next evening at the deacons’ meeting, Deacon Atwell Andrews said to me, ‘Pastor, the fellow sitting next to me last night at church was a Pentecostal.  And during the handshaking time, he said to me, ‘Your pastor is going to hell.'”

Atwell continued, “I said, ‘Oh? My pastor is going to hell?  May I ask why?'”

“The man said, ‘His hair is too long.'”

Atwell, always with a little mischievous air about him, had the right question for the man.

“And how long should his hair be?”

“The man answered, ‘About like mine.'”

We had a good laugh over that.  It was as clear an example of legalism as we could ever hope to have.

What legalism does…

  • -Legalism makes righteousness a matter of externals and not the heart.
  • -Legalism makes righteousness a matter of rules not found in Scripture (or improperly interpreted).
  • -Legalism neglects the full teaching of Scripture on an issue and goes to seed on one small text and sets it up as the standard.
  • -Legalism sets itself up as the judge.  “We will decide.”
  • -Legalism sets itself up as the standard. “About like mine.”

In all its manifestations, legalism violates a dozen principles of righteous discipleship: the sovereignty of Almighty God, the  proper interpretation of Scripture, obedience to the Holy Spirit, love for people, the prominence of the gospel message, and many others.

We are given a great picture of how legalism abandons people by the story of our Lord and the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15:21-28.  See below.  Not a pretty thing.

Matthew 15 and the attack on Jesus by Israel’s self-appointed referees!

“Why do your disciples not wash their hands before eating?  You know they are violating the traditions of the elders?  We’ve had these rules for a long time.  They are well-established by custom.”

They’re teaching Jesus, they think.  Correcting what is surely an oversight by this untrained Rabbi of Nazareth.  They “just know” He’ll want to straighten out His disciples.

Jesus was having none of this.  He said, “Why do you violate the commands of God by your traditions?”

The Lord didn’t even response to their question, except to give them one of His own.  His question was like a knife to the heart.  And make no mistake–violating God’s commands is a far weightier thing than “transgressing the traditions of the elders.”

This was no gentle conversation between two equals. No dialogue between them. The Lord was speaking bare-knuckled truth to the self-righteous, self-appointed critics;  God’s truth with the bark off.

Told that the Pharisees were offended by HIs statements (Matthew 15:12), our Lord scoffed.  “Let them alone! They’re blind leaders of the blind!”

It reminds us of His response to the compliments of Nicodemus.  Told that He was surely from God “for no one can do these miracles except God be with Him,” Jesus said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God!”  (John 3)  He got straight to the heart of the issue.

The heart of our Lord’s thrust to the Pharisees and scribes that day (still on Matthew 15) was “it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of it.”  And “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 11-20).

Righteousness is a matter of the heart first, then the life.  Get the heart right first.  “Create in me a clean heart,” David prayed (Psalm 51).  “Then, I will teach transgressors thy ways.”  “Then my tongue shall sing of thy righteousness.”  “Then thou wilt delight in my righteous sacrifices”  (Psalm 13,14, and 19).   Get the heart right first.

God looks on the heart.  See I Samuel 16:7.  It’s one of the essential truths of the faith.

What true righteousness does

The rest of Matthew 15 gives us snapshots of our Lord as He ambles along the shore of the Galilee, then walks up to the top of one of the nearby mountains.  The crowds came from all the cities and towns, “bringing with them the lame, crippled, blind, dumb, and many others, and … He healed them.”

He taught the people, then fed the four thousand by one of the great miracles of His earthly ministry.

True righteousness never abandons people in favor of getting the rules right  (See our Lord’s lesson back in Matthew 15:4-6. By the rule of ‘Corban,’ they diverted money into the religious activities and abandoned their own parents.  Our Lord was not impressed).

This is the point of Matthew 25's emphasis on “I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, etc.”  It’s not that doing such earns the way into heaven;  it’s that true faith in Christ causes people to do such things.  As James was to say later, “True religion and undefiled is this: to visit the orphans and widows in their distress….” (James 1:27).

I cannot leave this without bringing in an amazing reference to “good works testifying about our salvation” found in Jeremiah 22:15-16.  It’s unique in Scripture, and we will leave the subject with this:

“'Did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him.  He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; Then it was well.  Is not that what it means to know Me?’ declares the Lord.”

Wow and double wow.


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