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Archive for Legalism

Public Enemy Number One

Pondering from the Ponderosa. Public enemy number one to the Christian’s walk with Christ is not drugs or alcohol, as devastating as they can be. Nor is our enemy abortion, euthanasia, pornography, divorce, sexual immorality, or a corrupt government, or even a pandemic. Paul feared legalism above all else, and so should we.  

Most of the people coming to faith in Christ in the early years of Christianity were Jews. They were saved out of a spiritually bankrupt system called Judaism. They had grown up in that system, and it had a tremendous fleshly appeal to them. Judaism consisted of meetings in elaborate buildings draped in beautiful cloth with furniture trimmed in gold. It also involved religious ceremonies with ornate costumes, attending the temple three times a day, public reading of the law, singing, impressive public prayers, breathtaking sacrificial ceremonies with the smell of the burning altar, and religious festivals. And music. . .oh, the beautiful music.

Days were filled with good times with family and friends. Deep under the outward ceremony, however, were the cold realities of law. Paul had been raised in Judaism. He knew that all the so-called “service of God” rituals were strictly that: rituals. They made no real spiritual impact on anyone – no change of life at all. People went through the motions with no meaning.

This system of religion contained far more bondage than the tar pits of Egypt. Jesus pronounced woes (judgments) on the Pharisees and Sadducees. He called them hypocrites, whitewashed tombs that appeared beautiful on the outside but inside were like dead men’s bones filled with corruption. They came across to the unsuspecting as genuine and sincere. But, in fact, they were not (Matthew 23:27–28).

In spite of the hypocrisy among the religious leaders, some heard the gospel and believed in Jesus Christ and were born into the kingdom of God. They experienced absolute freedom from the guilt and penalty of their sin (Romans 3:24). They were then connected to Jesus Christ by a new birth, by being baptized into Him. They were transformed. They became a new creation in Christ.   

Many of these new Christians failed to grow in their relationships with Christ. There was a strong tendency to go back to the rituals and the beautiful ceremonies to which they had become accustomed. Paul realized that this was Satan’s trap. It is a quicksand from which few escaped. Paul taught them not to go back to the old law system but to go on with Christ.

Caution! Strong meat! The law has dominion over a man only as long as he lives (Romans 7:1). The law’s spiritual dominance is only for those who are alive. What strange words! But they are true. The spiritual cursing power of God’s law has never been abolished. The law is called minister of death and condemnation (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). It demands a righteousness that sinners do not have and cannot earn. So, it pronounces judgment. The law kills! But the moment we understand this (our sin) and trust in Christ, we are identified with His death (Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:3) and His life, His resurrection (Ephesians 2:4-6). Once convicting us of our sin, the law points us to Christ where there is cleansing and life (Galatians 3:13). The wages of sin is death, but it makes all the difference in the world where this death occurs. Believers die in Christ. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life (Romans 6:23). Christians die in Christ, but we are also made alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:1). Wow! 

Paul said that the law is our tutor to bring us to Christ in order that we might be justified by faith (Galatians 3:24). The word tutor means “schoolmaster.” A schoolmaster in the ancient world took the children to school, looked after them, and then brought them home again. Repeat, the law is God’s schoolmaster to bring people to Christ. God’s holy law is to convict one of sin and bring them to the Savior.

Paul continued, saying that after faith has come, we no longer need a tutor (Galatians 3:25). Once we have been brought to Christ, we are never to go back to living the Christian life by means of the Law. The law has fulfilled its purpose! In fact, we are not to live the Christian life by any set of self-imposed religious rules. This is legalism! Legalism is the attempt to live the Christian life based on a system of “do’s” and “don’t’s.” The motivation for keeping these rules becomes self-righteousness or glorifying self through religious ritualism.

A person who is living in legalism has conformed to a set of personal traditions and may think he or she is pleasing God. The feeling is “If I go to church regularly, sing in the choir, give my money, and don’t drink, smoke, chew, or dance, then I’m okay.” The Bible tells us that there is an appearance of wisdom in feeling this way.

“Therefore, if you died with Christ to the basic principles of the world, why, as though you were living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—’Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? 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 2:20–23).

These “doctrines of men” may make us feel good about ourselves spiritually. Paul warned that we should not play spiritual king of the mountain, comparing ourselves with those who commend themselves. Those who do so are not wise (2 Corinthians 10:12). 

Living a legalistic lifestyle produces pride and the lust for the praise of others. Works performed or temptations denied can be a product of self-reformation. A person whose life is built on a faulty foundation of human traditionalism and personal convictions and not upon the Word of God will seldom come to understand what it means to walk by faith and not by sight. This lifestyle becomes so ingrained, so much a part of life that we become blind to our personal walk with Jesus Christ. Legalism becomes a subtle substitute for a pure, simple relationship with the all-knowing, all-powerful, unchangeable living God. This, my friend, is why Paul feared legalism so.

Morality is not always to be equated with Christianity. Many religious people throughout the world are very moral people. They do myriads of good things for others. In fact, many atheists and agnostics, who are disciplined and governed by various personal codes of ethics, demonstrate morality without ever being religious at all.

In many communities throughout the world, the most moral people on the block are not Christians. Don’t misunderstand! Christians should be the very best people on the planet, but being a good person and doing religious things does not make anyone a Christian. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ marked an end to all the rituals of the law. Many Jewish believers, however, had the tendency to gravitate back into this religious climate, but Paul taught them to go on with Christ.