DayBreaks for 5/15/20: The Problem with Legalism
From the DayBreaks archive, May 2010:
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes many shocking statements that take our breath away. For example, he equates hatred/anger with murder and lust with adultery. Those are not messages that we like to hear, because we’ve been guilty of both hatred and lust if we will be honest enough to admit it. But he just keeps spinning such statements off non-stop. And, he finally tops them all when he says, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Ah, thanks for that one, Jesus…that one’s simple (NOT!)”
Many who heard him that day were the Pharisees and scribes who were always spying on him, trying to learn more about him and his movement – not so they could join in worshipping him – but so they could put an end to it. The Pharisees and scribes seemed to have a competition going between the two groups to see who could be the most holy. They REALLY took holiness seriously! They committed themselves to keeping the Law, to obedience. They documented every law (613 according to them, with 248 commands, 365 prohibitions and 1521 “flavors”), wrote dissertations on the nuances of each one. Why? Because they wanted to be sure that they knew what the Law required so they could obey it and not break it in any way. They were fanatical about holiness…even if they were misguided and proud of their fanaticism.
And, in a crowd surrounded by such people, Jesus makes his bold statement: “Be perfect, even as you Father in heaven is perfect.” Most of us would say that is not possible – in fact, we’d say it was impossible. But the Pharisees and scribes would have loved it.
The problem should be clear. The problem isn’t that the Pharisees and scribes were fanatical about holiness with all their definition of the Law and what it meant and required. The problem is that they were not fanatical enough. They needed to reach a state of perfection in their legalism (both in terms of what the Law really meant and taught) and in their obedience to it. In short, they could never be legalistic enough if they wanted to be saved that way. They just didn’t want to admit it.
Those who insist on legalistic formulas for salvation today are just as misguided – and just as confused. Anyone who says, “If you can’t obey better than that, you’ll never get to heaven” has totally missed the point. Is obedience important? Sure…but it is not the mechanism of salvation – never has been, never will be. Want to disagree with me? Let me ask a simple question: if obedience is that important to salvation, how many times can a person be disobedient before they are doomed? 100? 1000? 10,000? If there were a number, Jesus would have told it to us and we’d be able to keep track. But another part of the problem is that sometimes we sin without being aware of it: I offend through some careless words, I fail to give thanks when I should, I set up an idol in my heart that I’m not even aware of as an idol. Legalists are fond of saying that one unforgiven sin is enough to send a person to hell. And I’d agree with that. The key has to do with the forgiveness of Jesus and God’s grace. Jesus paid the price on the cross for every single one of my sins – past, present and future. That’s why Paul could say that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Jesus doesn’t have to go back to the cross and die again each time I sin for the simple reason that he paid the price, “once and for all” for sin. My salvation is not based on any level of obedience, but on my acceptance, by faith, of the all-sufficiency of the sacrifice of Jesus.
The motive for obedience is to please God and be a blessing to others. It is not for salvation – or we are all doomed because we can never be legalistic enough in our obedience to achieve it.
PRAYER: Lord, we want to honor you with our obedience, but help us understand that we will never be good enough, wise enough, obedient enough, to be saved unless we are perfect like the Father is perfect. Thank you, Jesus, for applying your perfect holiness to us through your blood! In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Copyright by 2020 by Galen C. Dalrymple. ><}}}”>