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Confronting The Leaven of Legalism

April 4, 2004


As we present this drama to introduce the message this morning, use your imagination a bit as we transform this stage into a dentist’s office and this chair into the dental chair of Dr. James, the soul-winning dentist in, The Making of Another Legalist.

Drama: “James, the Soul-Winning Dentist” by Tom and Steven Szontagh

Let’s give Tom and Steven a round of applause for their excellent and humorous enactment of Dr. James, the soul-winning dentist and his patient convert, Greg.

We found this drama sadly humorous because it portrays the harsh reality that many of us have experienced in our spiritual lives.

Some of us have probably struggled with some sort of point system in our faith for years, or some point system that someone has pressed on us, or wanted to make us believe.

Like Greg, we were converted, taught by, and served with, people in the Christian faith who were misguided and misinformed about the real truth of Christianity, and it has been passed on through the years to our own detriment and the detriment of the church.

(Illus.: Goebli monkeys, Chgo. Trib., 4/4/04)

We call it “legalism.” It has been an anchor around the neck of true Christian spirituality ever since the New Testament was written.

Tom located a pretty good definition of legalism:

Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God. In other words, a legalist is anyone who behaves as if they can earn God’s approval and forgiveness through personal performance. Thomas Schreiner writes that “legalism has its origin in self-worship.” If people are justified through their obedience to the law, then they merit praise, honor, and glory. Legalism, in other words, means the glory goes to people rather than God.

Are you starting to see what a serious problem this is? Though we might never state any of its underlying assumptions in plain English, the implications of legalism are staggering in their arrogance. Legalism claims that the death of Jesus on the cross was either unnecessary or insufficient. It essentially says to God, “Your plan didn’t work. The cross wasn’t enough and I need to add my good works to it to be saved.”

Of course, no Christian would dare utter such terrible words. But when we shift our concentration away from the Gospel, legalism slowly and subtly twists our thinking until our lives themselves make this awful statement. Our lives then speak more plainly than words.

A more concise definition by Rich Miller, co-author with Neil Anderson on a book entitled, Breaking the Bondage of Legalism: When Trying Harder Isn’t Enough puts it this way:

          The legalist is afraid not to be in control, afraid to be in a [real] relationship with God, because God would then be in control.

Paul had some pointed words to say about legalism. He said that Christ came to set us free from the curse of legalism (law).

“All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righteous will live by faith." The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, "The man who does these things will live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree."” (Galatians 3:10-13 NIVUS)

Now Paul didn’t just say these words on his own. He took his teaching straight from Jesus, and you know that Jesus had a lot to say about the law and the teachers of the law – and not much of it in a positive light.

“Jesus replied, "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” (Luke 11:46 NIVUS)

 “"Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering."” (Luke 11:52 NIVUS)

Jesus didn’t just leave it there either. He also said he had come to set us free.

“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." They answered him, "We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?" Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:31-36 NIVUS)

So what was Jesus’ teaching that would set us free? It was grace.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’" From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14-17 NIVUS)

How could John Baptist say that Jesus surpassed him? It was because grace surpasses the law. It is grace that fulfills the law.

“"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17 NIVUS)

Jesus always seemed to buck the rules in favor of grace and that is why he always seemed to get into so much trouble with the establishment.

“So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?"” (Mark 7:5 NIVUS)

 “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?"” (Luke 5:30 NIVUS)

 “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, "Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?"” (Luke 6:1-2 NIVUS)

 “The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:7 NIVUS)

 “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"” (John 8:5 NIVUS)

So ‘establishment religion’ is a curse from which Christ came to set us free by dying on the cross. Indeed, it was establishment religion and its stranglehold on the people that put him to death on the cross.

It didn’t look that way at first, when Jesus rode on a donkey into Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday a week beforehand, when the people shouted his praises and waved the palm branches.

“They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Blessed is the King of Israel!"” (John 12:13 NIVUS)

“They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Blessed is the King of Israel!" “"Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"” (Luke 19:38 NIVUS)

 “Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, "Hosanna!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!" "Hosanna in the highest!"” (Mark 11:9-10 NIVUS)

 “The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Hosanna in the highest!"” (Matthew 21:9 NIVUS)

Just who was this crowd who praised him?

Luke 19:37 says it was the crowd of disciples. However, Matthew 21:8-9 and Mark 11:8 are generic in the description of the crowd. John 12:12 called them the great crowd that came for the Feast.

No doubt then, the crowd consisted of disciples as well as the common people who had great expectations of this One who claimed to be the Messiah, and so they cheered him on.

But then Jesus began to rationally and systematically confront the establishment. He went on a “Passover” search for the leaven [sin] of legalism among the people (like was explained to us in the demonstration Seder meal last Sunday).

He knew the spiritual freedom he was coming to offer them and what their rejection of it would cost them (and himself) because he knew that, as a people, they would not repent of their legalistic beliefs and expectations. This caused him to weep. But confront them, he must.

 “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace— but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you."” (Luke 19:41-44 NIVUS)

What would have “brought them peace” would have been accepting God’s grace to them in Christ.

Jesus went to the temple to confront and drive out those who thought that true religion could be bought and sold. He said, “It is written that my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.” Legalism sucks the life out of true faith by charging for it.

He confronted the fig tree, representing Israel, and cursed it since it had born no fruit. Indeed, legalistic religion can bear no real spiritual fruit.

He confronted the religious leaders who questioned his authority. He demanded an answer connected to why they had not submitted to John’s authority in baptism to prepare for his coming. He asked them where John’s authority came from. Did it come from men or from heaven? They would not answer because they would not submit to heaven’s true religion of grace.

He confronted them with numerous parables that drew the distinction between those who received his grace and those who did not.

There were the two sons, one who said he would work in the vineyard but did not go, and the other who at first refused but then went, showing God’s approval for those who believed the witness of grace by submitting to grace in repentance.

There were the wicked tenants who killed the servant sent by the owner to reap his harvest. They wanted to take what was not theirs by force, which is the very sin committed by legalists in violation of grace. Grace reaps the fruit of righteousness, but legalism kills it, which is of course the very end pronounced by the owner upon the wicked tenants.

There was the king who called those who were invited to come to a marriage feast for his son. He even went to extra lengths to invite them after they initially refused to come, making numerous excuses. And so he destroyed those who refused his hospitality of grace and sent out into the streets to bring those who would accept the grace of his divine invitation. Now, there was one who got in without wedding clothes, and so he was cast out because he was not chosen by that grace that clothes us with the righteousness of Christ. He was called, like all are called, but not chosen because he refused the grace of Christ, attempting to get in on his own merits.

Jesus confronted those who tried to entrap him with questions. When they asked him about paying taxes to Caesar, he demanded to know the source of their allegiance, whether it was to the taxing ways of the world or to the liberating ways of God.

He reprimanded the Sadducees who tested him with the ridiculously hypothetical and legalistic question about which of the seven brothers would have the first brother’s widow for a wife in heaven. They were hoping to discredit the resurrection in which they did not believe. His answer to them was that they knew neither the Scriptures nor the power of God to bring new life out of their legalistic death.

Jesus spoke to them also about the greatest commandment of loving God and others. His answer about the truth of love defeated their legalistic test.

Then he confronts them with his own question about whose son the Christ is, being the son of David, whom David himself calls “Lord,” and proceeds to level his divine right of accusation against the religious leaders in his series of “woe” statements that condemn their legalistic hypocrisy.

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. "Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’” (Matthew 23:1-7 NIVUS)

“"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15 NIVUS)

And again, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, knowing that they will suffer for rejecting his message of grace.

“"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’"” (Matthew 23:37-39 NIVUS)

So, for all this, they put him to death on a Roman cross because a Messiah who would liberate them from legalism by grace just didn’t meet their expectations. They wanted to hold on to their legalism at all costs, even to the point of shouting, “Let his blood be on us and on our children.”

So what would Jesus say to us today? We can find that answer in the beginning of Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon where he addresses us in the Holy Spirit through Paul saying, “Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is also how he addresses the churches in the beginning of Revelation.

And as we see in Romans, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians and Philippians, we are also addressed as saints. In Philippians 1:1 it even includes the elders and deacons J.

You can place the title or acknowledgement of “saint” before your name on all your correspondence (Saint Timothy). That is how Christ sees us in grace, even if our behavior is often not saintly.

If Jesus had a personal appointment with you or me, what would his first words be to us? (Perhaps ‘do not fear’ considering his resurrected appearance.)

Perhaps you have heard the message ‘shape up or ship out’ at home, at work, at church or elsewhere. In the USNR we had the motto ‘lead, follow or get out of the way’.

Maybe words like this are what you might expect from Jesus. But I think he would say, “Grace and peace to you.” [Eph 1:2 (favor, blessing, wholeness, shalom to you).]

God didn’t have to give us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms (Eph 1:3) but he did.

Jesus called to himself those he wanted that they might be with him (Mk 3:13-14). Jesus calls us “friends” (John 15:15).

Jesus lavishes his love on us as in Eph. 1:8 (like a puppy lavishes love).

We can’t earn any of this, it is given to us freely (Eph. 1:3) just as he chose us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).

He ‘adopted’ us (as in adopting a child where all the rights of natural parents are legally given up). The devil is no longer our parent.

By the grace of God we are the children of God. But there is an enemy of grace that has come to steal joy, kill intimacy with God, and destroy families and churches.

He is the same enemy that kept the Jews from seeing God’s grace to them in Christ, preferring instead the harsh legalism of the law by which no man can be saved.

What is legalism again? It is reducing the Christian life to a ‘to do’ list or a ‘to don’t’ list. It is essentially seeking to attain, gain, or maintain favor with God, or to achieve spiritual growth through human effort. It is a camp where joy is stolen, faith is sometimes killed, and hope is often destroyed. It is the epitaph on a tombstone which says, “I tried my best, but it wasn’t good enough.” Legalism forces us to look good on the outside.

It usually involves some kind of written or unwritten code or standard of performance that we try to keep up to, or measure up to, on our own.

In Gal. 3:1-3 Paul is perplexed about who has bewitched them. Did they receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? (The answer is obvious.) So why are they now trying to gain favor by human effort after they have begun by the Spirit?

Grace is not maintained by human effort.

In the book by Rich Miller and Neil Anderson, Breaking the Bondage of Legalism, the George Barna Research Group was contracted to conduct a nationwide survey of adults to find out how widespread legalism is in the American church.

This December 2002 survey, “Christian Beliefs about Spiritual Life and the Church,” asked people to respond to six different statements. The study had an unusually high 81% cooperation rate. It sadly verified statistically what they already suspected: Christians in America are seriously infected with the spiritual disease of legalism.

82% of respondents agreed with the first statement, “The Christian life is well summed-up as ‘trying hard to do what God commands.’”

But the Christian life is not, and never has been, a human effort to obey God’s commands. It is a very popular form of legalism – a performance-based Christianity that opposes the truth that apart from Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5).

So, for most believers, the Christian life is much more about doing than being; more about striving to avoid sin than pursuing an intimate, personal relationship with God in Christ. However, the Christian life is first and foremost a relationship, not rules!

58% of respondents said they agreed with the second statement, “I feel like I don’t measure up to God’s expectations of me.”

If the Christian life is “trying hard to do what God commands”, the results of the second statement show us that people don’t feel like they’re doing a very good job of it. Just knowing what God expects us to do doesn’t give us the power to do it. The law reveals the power of sin over us but provides no power to overcome sin (Rom. 7:8-11).

It shows that the majority of the body of Christ is living with at least a low grade fever of guilt in their lives.

Where are believers getting this message that the Christian life is summarized by “trying hard to do what God commands”? The burden of responsibility lies primarily with the church.

66% of respondents agreed with the third statement, “Rigid rules and strict standards are an important part of the life and teaching of my church.”

So most people believe that their church is heavily into rules and standards. This is not good news. Either most churches are not truly preaching and teaching grace, or the people in the pews are just not getting it.

The fourth survey statement turned out a little better. 77% of respondents agreed with the statement, “People at my church are unconditionally loved and accepted regardless of how they look or what they do.”

But the other side of this is that almost 1/5 do not view their churches as doing a very good job of welcoming people who are different.

Philip Yancey speaks to this in his autobiographical book, Soul Survivor:

One church I attended during my formative years in Georgia of the 1960’s presented a hermetically sealed view of the world. A sign out front proudly proclaimed our identity with words radiating from a many-pointed star: “New Testament, Blood-bought, Born-again, Premillenial, Dispensational, Fundamental ---” Our little group of two hundred people had a corner on truth, God’s truth, and everyone who disagreed with us was surely teetering on the edge of hell.

Years later, Yancey attended the “burial service” of that church which was, ironically, selling its building to an African-American congregation:

During the expanded service, a procession of people stood and testified how they had met God through this church. Listening to them, I imagined a procession of those not present, people like my brother, who had turned away from God in large part because of this church. I now viewed its contentious spirit with pity, whereas in adolescence it had pressed life and faith out of me. The church had now lost any power over me; its stinger held no more venom. But I kept reminding myself that I had nearly abandoned the Christian faith in reaction against this church, and I felt deep sympathy for those who had.

Our Lord and his apostle, Paul, reserved their strongest, harshest indictments for the hypocrites who were perpetuating and proliferating religious legalistic systems.

We must expose the lies of legalism so we can understand how they keep us from experiencing the joy of our salvation. You may be surprised at how subtle legalism can be. There is a great difference between legalistic adherence to the law and new-covenant, Spirit-filled obedience.

The fifth statement in the survey was also encouraging. 90% of respondents agreed with the statement, “Attending church leaves me feeling encouraged and empowered to live the Christian life.”

There must be a significant number of churches that are conducting uplifting Sunday services. But we can’t ignore the reality that somehow the excitement of Sunday morning may be getting lost during the week, with people feeling like they are just not measuring up.

It may be that many services are nothing more than pep rallies with pastors being the cheerleaders. For an hour each week we allow ourselves to again be convinced that we can will ourselves to live a dynamic Christian life and perform kingdom exploits. Somehow we don’t get taught how to depend upon God.

The last survey statement brings another bittersweet revelation. 70% of respondents disagreed with the statement, “I am motivated to serve God more out of a sense of guilt and obligation rather than joy and gratitude.”

This would be encouraging news if it weren’t for the fact that 25% believe that they are either serving God because they feel duty-bound to Him and are trying to gain His approval, or they are serving God because they are trying to please someone in the church. Either way, the motivation is wrong --- and the blessing is gone.

It all shows that legalism is not only a problem, it is a plague.

Legalism is a killer, but grace is a healer. Embrace grace and let the joy of your salvation return. Then leap like calves released from the stall.

“But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” (Malachi 4:2 NIVUS)

In Galatians Paul cries out, “Who has bewitched you?” and “What has happened to all your joy?”

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” (Galatians 3:1 NIVUS)

“What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.” (Galatians 4:15 NIVUS)

But grace proclaims loudly:

“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:4-6 NIVUS)

Those trapped in legalism are afraid of a relationship with God because they can’t control Him. It feels comfortable in the controlled and sterile world of rules, regulations and standards. The flesh loves to try and measure spirituality but Jesus said, “The one born of the Spirit is like the wind.” You can’t measure it.

Boydie, the legalist cockatiel. Just sits in cage and won’t come out. If you try to take him out, he bites (death-grip). He hasn’t gotten the idea that you want him to experience the fullness of life. This is like what many legalists struggle with. What is it really going to be like, or what is going to happen if God really gets ahold of me? Can I trust him?

As we close this message this morning, let us look at some contrasts between the way of liberty and the way of legalism: (pp. 250-251)

The Way of Libertythe Christian --- The Way of Legalismthe Christian ---
Hungers for God’s Word and listens with eagerness Critiques the sermon 
Lives a life focused upon and centered around a loving God Lives a life focused upon and centered around a disappointed and disapproving God
Fears God in a healthy way Fears people
Gets angry at sin Is angry or bitter toward God, others, or self
Attends services out of a delight to worship God and to love others Attends services out of tradition or with a sense of duty
Receives truth from God and is humbled Accumulates head knowledge and information and becomes proud
Rejoices with those who rejoice and weeps with those who weep Is stifled and fearful in expressing or experiencing appropriate emotions
Rests in being accepted by God already Performs in order to try and gain God’s acceptance and approval
Surrenders control Has to be in control – afraid not to be in control
Yields to right to be right Has to be right
Treats others with grace Puts others under the law
Is secure in Christ, even in the midst of trial Is filled with anxiety and complaining
Is accepting and compassionate Is self-righteous, judgmental, and critical
Is willing and eager to change and grow Resists change and clings to traditions of men
Is willing to be of no reputation Is very concerned about image and reputation
Walks in the light and is honest about sin Hides or denies sin
Is willing to admit when wrong Struggles with saying, “I was wrong”
Is led and empowered by the Spirit of God Is afraid of the Holy Spirit and so is driven by the flesh
Lives by Christ’s life flowing from within (Ez. 36:26-27) Lives by rules imposed by self or others (outside in)
Is dependent upon the Holy Spirit Relies on the resources of religious tradition
Bears fruit and glorifies God Lives a defeated life

Remember, true religion is not bound in regulations, it is released in relationship – with Jesus. Christianity is a religion beyond rules – a relationship beyond rules. Freedom is found in Christ. Legalism will always turn you back to sin because you are not then free in Christ. Let us not allow the leaven of legalism to disinherit our gift of grace.

I invite you to come back this evening at 6:30 p.m. for Steps to Breaking the Bondage of Legalism, a time of healing and hope.

Many Christians coming to faith in Christ from legalistic backgrounds often truly fail to abandon legalism. In a sense, they become so fixated on rejecting past legalism (like Catholicism) that they reframe it in different terms. They set up a whole new system of rules for the way things are supposed to be in opposition (supposedly) to the way things were. And when someone offers them real freedom or preaches it they reject it because it doesn’t meet their new system of rules. We actually find this with fundamental Christians too who tend to impose artificial boundaries to test what meets their approval or disapproval rather than God’s. The truth is in relationship to Christ.

If you have sensed that you struggle with some form of legalism in your relationship to God or his church that has somehow been passed on to you, or that you find difficult to let go of and affects your spirituality – if you want to be set free, this time is for you. Please come and be set free in a life of grace.

80% of those at a large Christian university responded affirmatively to the question, “Do you still feel guilty about sins you have committed in the past?”

 “There are a number of biblically appropriate postures for worship; there is flat on your face before the Lord, there is arms lifted up, there is standing, there is kneeling, etc., but there is one bodily position that is not appropriate for worship – and that is sitting down with your arms folded with a frown on your face.”

“Ten Helpful Hints for a Happy Home” (The Law)

If you are done with it – put it away.

If you leave the room – turn it off.

If you drop it – pick it up.

If you get it dirty – clean it up.

If you open it – close it.

If you spill it – wipe it up.

If you take it off – hang it up (or put it in the hamper).

If you use it all up – throw it away.

If you mess it up – straighten it up.

If you do it now – you won’t forget about it.

Wife would give the only appropriate response for someone being put under the law – she would cry. This is what not to do in marriage.

Movie: “The Horse Whisperer”

Note the process by which Robert Redford breaks the horse who was injured in an accident and afraid. He hobbles one leg, making the horse not able to depend upon himself anymore. We finally come to the place where we stop and let God love us and touch us at the deepest part of our heart level. We are all pilgrims. Will we allow the God of grace to be our Master?

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