landscape shot of white cross during daytime
“Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’  If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. . .Why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience?  If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?”  1 Corinthians 10:25-27 and 29-30

The villains in the four Gospels are clearly the Pharisees.  Jesus calls them hypocrites.  He condemns their superficial spirituality, their self-righteous pride, and their loveless disregard for the hurting.  The Pharisees degraded the Sabbath into 39 classes of prohibited labor, from swatting a fly to combing your hair.  They paraded their tithing and their praying, thinking God’s people and even God himself would be impressed.  Pharisees are the poster child for legalism.  Legalism is making religious rules where God hasn’t.  Legalism is viewing God and others through the demands of the law rather than the love of the Gospel, condemning where there should be forgiving and commanding where God’s way is inviting.  Legalism seeks to manipulate religious behavior with guilt and obligation, while God transforms behavior with grace-induced gratitude.  Legalism is, as a friend described it, “shoulding on people.”

In the first century the legalism that troubled the church was the insistence that Old Testament requirements, laws given by God to focus people on their need for forgiveness and the promised Savior who would deliver that forgiveness, were a necessary addition to faith in Jesus.  From circumcision to Sabbath ritual, legalists insisted that God’s grace was not enough. In Corinth there was a more subtle form of legalism, making it a sin to eat meat that might have been offered at a pagan temple before crossing the counter of a local butcher shop.  Too easily one person’s sensitive conscience became a moral law binding the conscience of others.  St. Paul asserts Christian freedom to enjoy God’s gifts, such as a good steak, without feeling guilty.

A couple of generations back, legalism in the church meant prohibiting movies, dancing, alcohol, card playing and life insurance.  Though the Bible didn’t exactly forbid such things, serious people believed that religious rules were a way to keep people from temptations and questionable associations.  I wonder what legalistic tendencies later generations may see in us, principles pushed too far or tests of orthodoxy beyond Scripture.

Maybe the greater danger, especially in a time where God’s moral law is violated and ignored blatantly, is that we make religion about what people do rather than what God has done.  Maybe we are inclined to think that our above-average moral lives make us better than other sinners and more acceptable to God.  The greatest danger of legalism is pushing Jesus into the background, in our own hearts and in our witness to those outside the church, who will never be brought to faith by the guilt trips imposed by Christians.

PRAYER: Thank you, Lord, for confronting me with my sin and then assuring me that it has been paid for by Jesus.  Keep me from dwelling on guilt, mine and others’.  Accept my thanks for the many gifts and blessings you provide, and encourage me to enjoy them in the freedom of the Gospel.  Let those who view the church negatively see in Jesus a reason to join us.  Amen.

Leave a Reply