A text the legalist cannot handle

“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). 

Do everything you can to make sure your church does not put legalists in charge of anything. Doing so is a death sentence for all they touch.

“The letter of the law killeth; the Spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

The legalist is a self-proclaimed Christian who reduces our duties to God to a list of rules. Legalists delight in the Ten Commandments, of course, but since the New Testament does not codify a list of tasks we must do in order to please God, they do it for Him.

How kind of them to help God out.  I’m recalling an old definition of a legalist: He knows God didn’t require this rule in the Bible, but He would have if He’d thought of it.

The legalist has God figured out.

To the legalist, everything God does has to do with our grades, our performances.  And for us to insist, “He has not dealt with me according to my sins nor rewarded me according to my iniquities” just does not compute.  Such a teaching does not work in his system.

This is the text–and grace is the doctrine–which the legalist cannot abide.

The legalist “knows” that mercy is in short supply with Heaven since God is too busy judging works and nabbing sinners in the act.

The legalist has no patience with those who glorify God’s forgiveness and applaud His lovingkindness.  He is disgusted that such weaklings call themselves Christians and are certain that judgment day will vindicate his small-mindedness.

The legalist reduces everything to strict behavior.  If we do good, we’re in. Do bad (or even less than good) and we’re in big trouble.

And yes, he finds plenty of Scriptures to back up his rigid point of view.  All those verses calling on us to “do the Word” are his favorites. He loves 2 Corinthians 2:9, “For this purpose I wrote to you, that I might know the proof of you, whether you be obedient in all things.”  (To be sure, he ignores the rest of the Word and has no use for those urging us to consider “context.”)

I once had some deacons who kept trying to draw the lines tighter and tighter regarding the qualifications for that office.  Whenever they found a text naming something as sinful, they wanted to include that in the disqualifications.

Their thinking seemed to be that now that they were in, few coming after them would be able to measure up to their high standards.

Meanwhile, they were killing the church by the stranglehold with which they held it.

The legalist is into simplicity and has no patience with anything that would complicate their philosophy of “Keep the rules.”  What could be simpler?

Asked the point of the cross, since the Lord sure went to a lot of trouble for nothing if salvation is a matter of our own righteousness, the legalist responds that Jesus’ death on the cross saves us, but thereafter, if we wish to grow in the Lord and be used of Him, grace no longer comes into play. Keeping the rules becomes the thing.

In his Epistle to the Galatian church, Paul shot down this very thinking:  “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to hear from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith?  Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1-3)

Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?  The legalist would answer, “Absolutely.”

Is behavior important? You bet it is.  Our Lord Jesus said, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).  Doing the will of God and obedience to His commands are evidence that we love Jesus (see John 14:15,21,23, etc). Scripturally, love is almost always seen as “something we do” (see Luke 6:27ff).

But there’s more to our salvation than laws and judgment.  If there isn’t, we are all in deep trouble.

After all, the rest of Christendom would remind the legalist that we are all sinners–even you–and in big trouble unless God is a God of grace and mercy.  Psalm 130:3 puts it well: “If the Lord should mark iniquities, who would stand?”

Here are 5 quick words to the legalist….

1) Have you noticed that the standard by which you make judgements is you?  The rest of us have noticed that about you.

You measure the shortcomings of others by your own perceived high standards of righteousness.  The problem with this is you are as self-deluded as the silliest of the contenders on American Idol.  These poor people fool themselves into thinking they are accomplished performers and shock the world by walking out on the stage and revealing they have no voice, cannot carry a tune, are tone deaf, and possess no sense of rhythm. (Other than that, they’re great singers.)

Legalists buy into self-delusion big-time.

2) The legalist delights in his own self-righteousness–without fail, every legalist I’ve ever met gave himself high marks–and looks with disgust on almost everyone else around him.

One wonders if the legalist, the man or woman making themselves the standard by which others are judged, has ever read the Lord’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector praying in the temple, found in Luke 18:10-14.  The Pharisee may seem to us a caricature of the prideful hypocrite (“Lord, I thank You that I am not like other people….I tithe and fast and pray….”), but the drawing is dead-on accurate for the legalist.

3) The legalist puts no prize on God’s mercy since that would imply that he himself did not merit the blessings of Heaven and needed to be given them in spite of his sinfulness.  He is privately insulted by such insinuations.  Others may fall short, but not him. Like the rural dimwit who shot arrows into the barn and then drew targets around them, the legalist sees his pitiful efforts as what God had in mind from the beginning.

The legalist has a vision problem. He is blind.  (Anyone thinking that he himself is God’s standard of righteousness has more troubles than we can address here.)

4) Since the legalist needs no mercy, he places little regard on the Lord’s forgiveness. Others need that but not him.  He will not be one to drop to his knees in tearful prayer to thank the Heavenly Father over and over again for His mercy, for “not giving us what we deserve, not dealing with us according to our sins.”  In the story of the woman anointing Jesus with the costly perfume (John 12:1-8), the legalist applauds Judas Iscariot who scoffed at the waste.  A heart broken over sinfulness and thrilled with Jesus’ mercy is foreign to them.

Such a one with no sins who needs no mercy and receives no forgiveness will exhibit no thankfulness to the Father.

He is a Pharisee of the worst sort.

5) Such a Pharisee–maybe we should resurrect the original Pharisees and apologize to them for linking them with the legalists of our day–looks for ways to bind people, to load them down with heavy burdens. As our Lord said, “(The Pharisees) tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (Matthew 23:4).

The legalist searches scripture for more and more rules.

He wants sinners to show repentance and righteous fruit before they can be saved.

He wants the saved to show maturity before they are allowed to join the church.

He seeks reasons to exclude more and more people from serving as deacons and leaders.

He wants tighter and tighter requirements for Sunday School teachers.

He feels called to raise the bar of righteousness, by which he means making it harder and harder for people to please God.

He loves, loves, loves our Lord’s statements like “Except your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20) and “Be ye therefore even as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Explain all you will about what those verses actually mean and how he is misconstruing their intent, and it falls on deaf ears. He knows what he knows and cares nothing for the biblical instruction from failures like you.

Woe to the church which puts legalists in places of power within a church.

Weak and shallow Christians will see these know-it-alls as Godly and mature, because after all, “they seem to be really spiritual.” Mistaking their God-talk for knowledge of the Word, immature Christians often hand the reins of leadership to these people.

They are not godly and mature. They are carnal to the extreme.

My mentor Pastor James Richardson had a word on pious legalists that has remained with me for a generation: “I never met a one of these pious know-it-alls who was not as mean as the devil.”

There it is.

The closer we get to the Lord Jesus Christ, the more imperfections we see in ourselves and the more we treasure His grace and mercy for including people like ourselves.

That is an ironclad rule.  Let the church never lose sight of it.

A scripture or two we should all treasure….

“The eyes of the Lord roam to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His” (2 Chronicles 16:9).

“He has not dealt with us according to our sins nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.  For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:10-11).

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).

“Their sins and lawless deeds I will remember no more” (found in Jeremiah 31:34, and Hebrews 8:12 and 10:17).






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