The Danger of Legalism
By Joe McKeever
“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).
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.
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
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the gold standard of legalists. But their descendants are many, vocal, and ever-present.
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.
Editor’s Note: Part of this devotional was taken from How Legalism Betrays Christ, Violates the Gospel, and Destroys People by Joe McKeever. You can read the full blog post here.
Have you listened to our newest podcast, The Bible Never Said That? In it, we unpack some of the most popular "spiritual statements" that have made their way into popular culture and the church, even though they are not theologically sound. Check it out and let us know what you think!