Monday, September 20, 2010

Monday Morning Thoughts: Why Legalism Is Far More Dangerous than Licentiousness

Among religiously conservative people, legalism is the respectable sin. We figure, I fear, that it is far better than license --a necessary corrective to the wanton rebelliousness of our age. Better to be a little scrupulously over-obedient than to dwell in the tents of wickedness with the prostitute and the addict and the tax collector.

Aren't we free to make up rules as we try to work out the thorny issue of obedience?

Admittedly a very difficult issue. Making up rules and expecting others to keep them seem to be evil twins, yet heartfelt obedience is important. How do we keep the Lord's Day without a few rules that govern how we keep it? How do we reign in lust without a few stipulations about what we will allow our daughters to wear, and what entertainment we will watch? No easy answers --it would be legalistic to give them!

Still and all, Jesus has far harsher words for those who are scrupulous about obedience (and, incidentally, often excuse a world of their own disobedience) than he does for the prostitute and the tax collectors, who indeed "go into the kingdom ahead of you." The scrupulous seem inevitably to "treat others with contempt." I know I do.

We make a tragic mistake when we restrict Pharasaism to a strict category, and write ourselves out of it. Our syllogism is simple:

Pharisees believe in justification by works
I believe in justification by faith.
Therefore I am not a Pharisee.

Phew! Glad I got that settled. Not so fast. First, Pharisees weren't (to paraphrase Sinclair Ferguson) Pelagians, they were semi-Pelagians. In plain speech, they didn't believe they were innately free from sin's corrupting influence, who could merit unaided eternal life. Rather, they believed that, with God's help, they could be good people who could lead lives that pleased God --"Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men are...." They were not sinless, but they were not sinners either. They were good people who sinned. The difference between seeing ones' self as a good person who sins, and a sinner is the difference between winding up in Heaven or in Hell.

Jesus tells his disciples, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." Christians can have Pharisee leaven in their dough. Peter acted the part in Galatia. I am a Pharisee every day, when I comment to a friend on the life choices of a congregant. I am not saying at all that we should never speak to anyone about their sin. I am saying, however, when I think or talk to another in passing judgment on a third party, I am pretty well convicted of being a Pharisee.

Pharisaism is dangerous. It is far more dangerous than lust or greed. It is dangerous precisely because it masquerades as righteousness, as surely as Satan masquerades as an Angel of Light. It is, however, the farthest thing from actual righteousness. Pharisee righteousness is self-derived --the product of God's work in me. True righteousness is derived only from God, by faith. I have no merit and standing with God based upon my obedience, either before my salvation or after. My only hope is God's patience and grace.

We ought to accord various sins the same weight Jesus did. The greatest church in the world would be the one where: a.) sinners were regularly coming to Christ and b.) alongside CEO's and politicians there were strippers and addicts. It would really be awesome to be the pastor of a church like that. I think I'll ask God and see if he'll make it happen.


  1. you mean, your church doesn't have strippers, addicts and "respectable" bid-nessmen?

  2. my father-in-law said it best, "we are too skilled at adding more requirements than the people are capable of bearing." Thus, we are pharisees and need to repent. Thanks for your comments!!

  3. Thank you for balm to a sin sick soul.