Adam Northcroft
Disciple or pharisee? It’s time to kill off legalism

Wow! Jesus really goes for the scribes and pharisees in Luke 11. He calls them fools and hypocrites, then fires off a stinging list of woes designed to highlight their shortcomings. This is not comfortable reading, particularly since Jesus says all of this while a guest at the home of a pharisee. You can only imagine how he and his wife felt after they closed the door when the last person left!

So why is Jesus so strong? To many people at this time the pharisees were the good guys. They were seen as godly and devout, men who kept the law and were protectors of the one true God against the powerful polytheistic religions of Greece and Rome.

However, Jesus sees them as opponents of God, those who don’t just get in the way but as people who want to kill God off!

Jesus is pointing to the problem of religion. At the heart of the pharisees is a desire for legalistic righteousness, something that is rooted in independence from God rather than in a desire to love and honour Him.

Legalism, as it is more commonly known, is the desire to be holy through your own effort, not through receiving God’s unmerited grace and gift of righteousness. It seems to offer something that is hugely attractive to all humanity, a way of earning acceptance and holiness by doing good things. Most religions are based on this concept.

Jesus has none of it. He exposes legalism as a fraud. He reveals it leads to death not life, to an obsession with behaviour rather than an examination of true motives, to pride, secrecy, and ignoring the heart of God. It also completely fails. It doesn’t make you right with God, however much it seems that it does. This can only be achieved by humbly receiving God’s mercy as a gift through faith in Christ alone.

Another essential characteristic of legalism is that it spreads. Jesus makes this clear in Luke 12 by warning us to beware the ‘leaven’ of the pharisees and through His ‘unmarked graves’ comment in Luke 11:44.

St Paul also had major battles with proponents of legalistic righteousness, who attempted to spread it throughout the churches that had only just been formed. The church in Galatia had particular trouble with this and Paul called them ‘foolish’ and asked who had bewitched them. This makes it clear that Christians can start well and then fall headlong into this pit. While it can’t steal our salvation, it can condemn us to a life of dead works that have no value on Judgement Day and an empty attempt to earn something that has already been given.

And we need to see that legalism isn’t just a first century thing. It still operates now. It is just as alive and appealing as ever. However, how many of us could recognise it?

Can we tell the difference between a good work based on love for God, and a dead work of legalism based on trying to earn approval? It’s difficult because they can look the same on the surface.

Part of the problem is that we fail to examine our own hearts closely enough, or maybe we just don’t want to.

If we are involved in charitable works, no matter how great they seem, if in reality they are attempts to justify ourselves to God, to others or even our self, then we are a legalist.

Being serious about following Jesus means we will carry out some serious soul searching that should result in the unlocking of the legalism that can chain up our heart. It exists in us all and if allowed to go unchecked will spread and create pharisees rather than disciples.

Let’s heed the words of Jesus and allow God’s challenge to rescue us.