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The True Meaning of Legalism

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The True Meaning of Legalism

MP3 Audio (13.04 MB)


The True Meaning of Legalism

MP3 Audio (13.04 MB)

If somebody called you a legalist, how would you respond? What would you say and how would you answer them? What does the Bible say about legalism? In this sermon we will take a look at how do you apply God’s law? How do you live it? 


You know one of the worst things a religious person can be called is a legalist.  Now, most people would look around this room and say, there are a bunch of legalists sitting here.  Once branded as a legalist it is hard to get a fair hearing after that.  Normally the accuser wants people to believe that they are dealing with a modern Pharisee of the worst type.  These people, they just want to keep the law - and so you have the modern Pharisee.  Now of course the fact that we keep the commandments, we observe the Sabbath, the Holy Days, we keep the food laws; we’re falsely branded as legalists.  If somebody called you a legalist, how would you challenge them?  What would you say and how would you answer them?  How would you deal with that because it is an erroneous charge, as we will see today.

Let met give you a definition from Webster’s on-line dictionary, what they say about legalism.  “Strict, literal or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious moral code.” In the specialty section of the dictionary, they add:  “legalism” then “theology” in other words referring to theology, “is a pejorative term” (that means a negative term) “in Christian theology referring to the imposition of excessive conformity to religious rules or behavior”.  So does that mean if you try to keep the Sabbath and Holy Days that you are being legalistic? 

Baker’s Concise Dictionary of Religion offers some other good definitions and I think this probably hits the nail more on the head.

1. Emphasis on the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law.

2. Believe in salvation by obedience to the law rather than by the grace of God or by faith.

3. Undue stress on legal details without balancing consideration of justice or mercy.

Therefore, according to these definitions, a religious legalist is an extremist who distorts the application of biblical law.  Not one who keeps biblical law, but more of an extremist who distorts the application of God’s law. 

What we are going to see, it gets down to, how do you apply God’s law?  How do you live it?  Notice it does not refer to a law-abiding person.  It doesn’t say anything about a law-abiding person who believes in the need of the grace of God or wants to avoid sinning and to please God by stopping sin.  I don’t think there is an individual sitting in this room who believes in salvation by works; believes that you can save yourself.  I believe we all understand that eternal life is a gift from God.  By grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourself.  It is a gift from God.  Works determine your reward and so it is not a matter of earning salvation.  So there is an important difference between being law-abiding, a law-abiding Christian, and being a legalist or a person applying God’s law in the extreme unbalanced way.

Now I am not saying that there aren’t, and maybe all of us apply God’s law in extreme ways sometimes but that is not the normal approach.  How many of you have the booklet, I am sure most of you do, The New Covenant – Does it abolish God’s law?  I think all of you were sent a copy of that at one time, but let me quote from that booklet, what it has to say about this topic. 

“A popular meaning attached to the word today is that any form of biblical law-keeping is legalism and therefore to be avoided.  The word is used pejoratively, especially against such practices as keeping the Sabbath or adhering to other laws given in the Old Testament.”

“However, this use of the word is incorrect.  It is not legalistic to obey God’s laws correctly.  To be legalistic is to misuse God’s laws in a way never intended.”  In a way that God never intended it to be used but human beings come up with their own concepts. 

We need to realize the religious wars had been fought over this concept.  In fact in the sixteenth and seventeenth century the Protestants and Catholics disputed this to such a degree that they even had a war over it.  They fought each other over biblical and traditional church law.  On one hand the Protestants branded the Catholics as being legalists because the Catholics thought that you had to observe Catholic tradition and the sacraments to be saved.  So if you didn’t follow what the traditions of the Catholic Church, you know one of those that you’ve got to believe that the Pope is the head of the Church; you’ve got to believe in certain sacraments of the church.  On the other hand Catholics accused the Protestants of being heretics for teaching that you are saved by faith alone and that is almost true today.  Many of the Protestants today say it is by grace alone.  You don’t have to do anything. 

How many of you have ever seen at a revival or Sunday morning you know, where they call you down to the altar and they are playing “Just as I am” or they are playing some song and people come down, preachers stand there or deacons and they are talking to people.  They ask them two basic questions: Do you accept Christ as your personal Savior?  Yes. Do you repent of your sins?  Yes.  They don’t ask what sin is; tell me what you are supposed to repent of.  Basically people just say, yes.  You are saved!  That is all there is to it.  You go and pour, sprinkle or dunk and that’s it.  You find that that idea has carried on down to our day today.

Between 1618 and 1648 was the Thirty Year War, which ensued largely over the issue of Protestant faith versus Catholic works.  Four centuries later the topic is still being fought over and debated and Catholics, different theologians, disputing it.

What does the Bible say about true legalism?  What is the Bible definition of legalism?  Well, let’s turn over to Matthew 23 to start with and let’s take a look here very quickly.

Matthew 23:1 Matthew 23:1Then spoke Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,
American King James Version×
Then Jesus poke to the multitudes and to His disciples,

V.2 – saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.

V.3 – “Therefore, whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do,” - in other words if they say keep the Sabbath, obey the Holy Days, tithe, you need to fast, you need to prayto God, go ahead and do that – “but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.

V.4 – “For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

V.5 – “But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.

V.6 – They love the best places at feasts” and so on. 

So Jesus Christ summed up the concept of legalism when He described this general tendency of the Scribes and the Pharisees.  They came up with heavy burdens that they placed on people.  Now God’s law is not a burden.  Keeping the Sabbath, being able to rest, not work, come together, fellowship, that is not a burden, but they added 65 do’s and don’ts to the Sabbath which were a burden.  There were all kinds of do’s and don’ts.  There was a whole Talmud, a whole book, of regulations on what you could do and should do and should not do and so consequently they followed that.

V.15“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

The word “hell” there is gehenna“... twice as much …”

Then, beginning in verse 23, you find Christ said:

V.23 – “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.  These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.

V.24“Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

So here they would go - let’s use the example today maybe of tealeaves.  “Nine for me and one for God.  Nine for me and one for God.” They would just really get down and be very meticulous and made sure they didn’t make a mistake.  What about just piling it up:  You’ve got ten pounds.  You’ve got a pound and an ounce or two and just give it to Him?  Well, they would just strain at it; they wanted to make sure and yet they overlooked the weightier matters.

Now Christ did not say, don’t tithe. He said:  You ought to have done that.  You should tithe but don’t overlook justice and mercy and faith, which they did.  Those were foreign concepts to these people.  Regulations, rules, straining at gnats, that was their religion and they overlooked what God wanted them to do.  Then He goes on to talk about how they were hypocrites.  They would clean the outside of the cup but the inside was full of hypocrisy, self-righteousness, self-indulgence.

V.26 – “Blind Pharisees, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of then may be clean also.

You see, God wants us to start on the inside.  You start by cleaning up your act on the inside.  You get your heart right with God; your mind, your thinking, your reasoning, your outlook on life and if you get it right with God on the inside then it is going to reflect on how you live outside. They just did the outside.
So this describes why many of the Pharisees and Scribes had become in Christ’s day. How did they become this way?  Have you ever done any study?  Have you ever looked up - where did the Pharisees come from, the Sadducees, Essenes, all of these various sects but especially the Pharisees?  Let me quote to you from the noted scholar F.F. Bruce.  He traces the Pharisaical movement to a later development of the pious Jews after they returned to Judea from their seventy-year Babylonian captivity.  Remember somewhere between 604 – 585 BC the Jews went into captivity.  They were in captivity for seventy years; they came back out and when they came out they weren’t always as zealous and a whole lot of them just became lukewarm.  It reminds you of our day today. 

Well, the Bible talks about the Laodiceans, but notice here, quoting Bruce:   “At a time when the devotion of the post exile community in Judea under the Persian Empire was but lukewarm at best” Bruce writes, “groups of pious Jews began to meet for mutual encouragement.” So those who were a little more zealous would get together occasionally and they tried to encourage each other.  Let’s be zealous.  “In this development we may with some confidence trace the origin of the Hasidim, the godly people of the pious ones as they were known, who were able to play such an important part in the religious crisis in Israel in the second century BC.” Remember the Maccabees?  They arose out of this group.

“The Hasidim deplored the inroads of the Hellenistic way of life into Judaism under the Ptolemies and Seleucids but their disapproval had little effect.”  So the Hellenistic culture was about to overwhelm the Jews in Palestine.  Again reminds it of our day, doesn’t it?  We have a society today, a culture today that we live in and if we are not careful we can get caught up in this culture, this way of life that the average person lives and it overwhelms and God’s standards begin to just take a back seat. 

“But when the Hellenism showed another side of its nature in the attempt of Antiochus Epiphanes and his advisors to stamp out the distinctiveness of Jewish religion and nation through it, the Hasidim stood firm and refused to compromise. Nor was their resistance merely passive.  Many of them made common cause with the Hassidimian insurgents.  The alliance endured throughout the years of guerilla warfare until religious liberty was regained and the Temple restored to the pure worship of Israel’s God.  Under Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus, who lived around 134 BC to 104 BC, the alliance between these two groups were completely disrupted and it was at that time that the Pharisees began to play a distinct part in the historical records. According to the usual construction of events they are the Hasidims who broke with John Hyrcanus and they were called Pharisees because of their strict avoidance of everything that might convey ceremonial impurity to them for they certainly exercised great care in the matter of ritual purity and food laws, the Sabbath laws and the like.  In the course of their study of the law they built up a body of traditional interpretation and application of the law.”

So they put together a lot of what we would call today, oral tradition.  Now again, does it remind you of the Catholic Church who actually raises tradition to the level of written word and, it goes along side of it, the tradition holds as much authority as the Bible?  Well, among the Jews’ tradition - you remember the song Tradition?  Well, the same thing is true here.  The Catholics and various ones have certain traditions and it was true here among the Pharisees. 

“They tended to assume validity as sacrosanct as that of the written law itself.  Later generations of Rabbi’s indeed represented this oral law.” In other words when they try to justify having this oral law, they said, well, it goes back to Moses.  God gave him the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and then He also gave him other things and he didn’t write the other things down. He whispered it to Joshua. 

As it says here, “Moses received it on Sinai equally with the written law.  While the written law was transmitted by copyists the oral law was transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to the next; Moses to Joshua, then to the elders, then to the prophets, then to the men of the great synagogue and then from Simon the Just, one of the last survivors of the great synagogue, to Antigonus of Soter who delivered it in turn to a successive pair of scholars, Hillel and Shammai.”  If you’ve studied anything concerning the basic teachings in the early first century when Christ was alive, you know these were the two predominant schools of thinking among the Rabbi’s.  So, this is basically where the Pharisees arose; about 100 years before Christ came on the scene you find them coming to the fore.

Let’s turn back to Matthew 5 verse 17, and we read this:

Matthew 5:17 Matthew 5:17Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.
American King James Version×
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets (Christ said). I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.

So He didn’t come to do away with the Old Testament, but to fulfill.

V.18 – “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.

V.19 – “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

V.20 – “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.  

Now I am sure that probably shocked many of them because you couldn’t get any more righteous than the Pharisees.  They fasted twice in the week; they prayed; they paid tithes of everything.  Well, these fellows were so righteous they could walk on water almost.  Of course they were self-righteous.  But Christ said that our righteousness must be deeper.

Brethren do you realize that a Christian’s righteousness is superior because it is much deeper?  When it says:  your righteousness must exceed the Pharisees’, the word “exceed” there, means: much better or abound.  Our righteousness must be much better than the righteousness of the Pharisees.  Christian righteousness is much deeper because it isa righteousness of the heart.  It is a righteousness of the mind and motives that drives an individual.  The Pharisees were doing things on the surface and they would go through rituals but it had not changed their heart.  It did not change their mind, their outlook.  They were not converted in here.  That is what Christ was referring to. 
Now beginning in verse 21 Jesus Christ begins to address the oral tradition of the Pharisees and He does it in two different ways.  Christ introduces a formula here that has two parts:  He first gives a spiritual rule that is narrowly interpreted by the Pharisees and second He gives a wider application of the law.  Notice: 

V.21“You have heard that it was said – so now He is going to refer to things that were written and said – to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’

But notice what Christ said:

V.22“But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.  A much wider application; not just murdering, not just taking out and bashing somebody over the head but just getting angry with someone when you should not is in danger of judgment.  “And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. 

We discover that there is a much broader application here.  Jesus Christ explained the spiritual application of the law which makes it more difficult to keep.  Which is easier to keep - actually murdering somebody or getting angry with someone? Well, getting angry with someone is pretty easy.  We all do that, don’t we?  Most of us had not gone out and murdered somebody – I mean bodily - and taken their life.

What Jesus was contradicting was not the scripture but tradition.  He was not contradicting God’s word but what they had read – their oral instructions.  Let’s notice in verse 27.

V.27“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

V.28“But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

So the Jews would come up with all kinds of ideas and just like they do in Islam today: wear big, long robes; cover up; don’t let anybody see you.  Therefore you have all of these things so you won’t commit adultery but adultery is in the mind, Christ said.  If a man looks on a woman to lust after her he has committed adultery with her.

V.31“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’

He goes on to explain that.

V.33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of old,

Let’s notice verse 43 because I think this one clearly illustrates what Christ was trying to get across.  

V. 43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

Where does it say you should hate your enemy?  The Old Testament very clearly says love your neighbor.  The last part of that verse was an attempt by the Jews to explain the law. In other words, if you were supposed to love your neighbor, what does that imply?  Well obviously you hate your enemy.  You love this one and you hate that one.  But notice what Christ said:

V.44“But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.

So brethren, we are to do just the opposite of what the Pharisees thought.  This is a contemporary addition to the law, which was intended to interpret it when in fact it distorted it.  That was not the intent of what was written in the Old Testament.  It is these distortions that Jesus Christ got upset with, not the law itself.  It is how the Jews or the Pharisees distorted the law, misapplied the law, put their own interpretation on how to keep it.

It says:  “The Pharisees banded themselves together in a local fellowship or brother hood.  Josephus estimated that in the first century there were only six thousand Pharisees.  It was not a huge sect although those who followed them looked up to them.  They also had the Scribes.  They were scribes of the Pharisees and they were also the scribes of the Sadducees.” 

Let’s notice in Mark 7.  Jesus Christ again addresses the situation.

Mark 7:3 Mark 7:3For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.
American King James Version×
For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders.

They could not eat until they washed above the elbows.  It didn’t matter how hungry they were, they had to go through a ceremonial washing.  This wasn’t just for cleaning the hands.  When I eat I try to clean my hands but have you ever eaten a sandwich with dirty hands without ever washing your hands?  Sure you have.  I have been out hunting many times and you get hungry and you reach in your backpack, you get a sandwich and you go to town – you eat it!  No place to wash your hands.  You are up in a tree or behind a bush, you are hiding, you just eat.  Well, I would be condemned as a sinner and if you go out here and you eat off of this table without washing above your elbows the Pharisees would have considered you a sinner because you are not following the tradition of the elders.  Now Christ takes them to task over this. 

V.4When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.  And there are many other things which they have received and hold, (Where did they get this?  Not out of the Bible – their own traditions) like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches.

V.5Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?”
So you see that was their traditions. 

The traditions of the elders were largely designed to mitigate the rigors which a literal application of the written law could impose on people living under conditions widely different sometimes than when the law was first promulgated.  What do I mean by that?

Let’s go back to Exodus 16 and let me show you. When God first gave to Israel as a nation the Sabbath law or revealed it, notice what He told them. Remember He gave them manna.  If they saved any over - on five days it bread worms.  On the sixth day they were told to save twice as much because there wasn’t going to be any out there on the seventh.  So, verse 27:

Exodus 16:27 Exodus 16:27And it came to pass, that there went out some of the people on the seventh day for to gather, and they found none.
American King James Version×
Now it happened that some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found none.

V.28 – And the Lord said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws?

V.29 – “See! For the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days.  Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.”

To do what?  Well, to gather manna.  It doesn’t mean you can’t walk out of the door of your tent but you see that is how the Pharisees interpreted it.  You can’t go out of your place. 

V.30So the people rested on the seventh day. 

Now if God were to bless us in the future - maybe we are in a place of safety and God provides us with manna, I will guarantee you it will not fall on the seventh day but it will fall on the six days and you better gather twice as much on the sixth day and eat it on the seventh day.  God is talking here that they were not to go out. So if you literally interpreted that, it would have prevented any type of movement outside one’s home on the Sabbath.  They interpreted it: What did it mean to go out of his place and the only place they could come up with an interpretation was Numbers 35:5 Numbers 35:5And you shall measure from without the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits; and the city shall be in the middle: this shall be to them the suburbs of the cities.
American King James Version×

So let’s go over to Numbers 35. It has nothing to do with this but they came up with it anyway.  They came up with what is known in the New Testament as the Sabbath day’s journey.  How long could a Sabbath day’s journey be?  It was 2000 cubits.  Where did they come up with 2000 cubits?

Numbers 35:5 Numbers 35:5And you shall measure from without the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits; and the city shall be in the middle: this shall be to them the suburbs of the cities.
American King James Version×
“And you shall measure outside the city on the east side two thousand cubits, on the south side two thousand cubits, on the west side two thousand cutis, and on the north side two thousand cubits.  The city shall be in the middle.  This shall belong to them as common-land for the cities.

There were 48 cities given to the Levites.  There was a city and round the city two thousand cubits was land given to them where they could run their cattle, plant their gardens, put in trees and grow fruit.  They included the distance of 2000 cubits from ones home or wherever a man might place or nominate as his home for the purpose of limiting how far you could go on the Sabbath, which was 2000 cubits.  So Acts 1:12 Acts 1:12Then returned they to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a sabbath day's journey.
American King James Version×
talks about, they went a Sabbath day’s journey.  That is 2000 cubits out, and 2000 cubits back and that was supposedly all they could do.

Let me just mention that if that were true, everyone of us sinned getting here to Church today and I am probably the biggest sinner because I have gone to Rome and back.  It depends – I don’t know how it varies – it varies between 210 and 211 miles there and back so it is one of those things.  All of us had to travel to get here to services but this was the regulation they came up with.  Not what the Bible says but their own reasoning on it. 

“The Pharisees’ concern” (this is in The New Testament History) “for ceremonial purity involved not only strict separation from the Gentiles who were beyond the pale of the law altogether but even a considerable degree of aloofness from those of their fellow Jews who were not so particular with their law of purity.”

Now let’s notice in Luke 18: Jesus Christ took a Pharisee to task over his self-righteousness.  Here was a crowd of Pharisees and this was a typical attitude a Pharisee would have versus somebody who was truly repentant.

Luke 18:9 Luke 18:9And he spoke this parable to certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
American King James Version×
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 

You can begin to think that you are so good that you despise other people. 

V.10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

V.11“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.

Tax collectors were at the bottom of the barrel in society at that time.  They are still down there, aren’t they? 

V.12 – ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’

V.13 – “and the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’

V.14 – “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

So the Pharisees exalted themselves.  They were proud. 

Another meaning of legalism, brethren, is adding the traditions of men to God’s law; adding the tradition of men to God’s law.  Christ pointed out how legalism involves adding traditions; People’s own ideas.  We have already read Mark 7 but let’s turn back there.  We read verses 3 through 5 – let’s pick up the story in verse 6.

Mark 7:6 Mark 7:6He answered and said to them, Well has Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.
American King James Version×
He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.

They could talk the talk but it wasn’t in here.

V.7 – And in vain they worship Me, (Why?) Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’  - The traditions of men.  They are man made ideas.

V.8 – “For laying aside the commandments of God, you hold the tradition of men – the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”

V.9 – He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.

Then He gave them an example of how you are supposed to honor your parents; they didn’t.  Instead of taking care of their elderly parents - if they gave it to the temple then it was Corban and they were free and so they did not have responsibility.

So Biblically speaking a legalist can also mean one who keeps man made regulations above and beyond what God’s law teaches and that is exactly what the Pharisees were doing and as a corollary, one who requires strict compliance to them to be accepted by God.  This is what the Pharisees eventually taught. 

William Barkly gives an example of the Pharisaical mentality.  “The law lays it down that the Sabbath day is to be kept holy.” Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, right? “And with that no work is to be done.  That is a great principle but these Jewish legalists had a passion for definitions so they asked the question:” – guess what question did they ask?  “What is work?  So you have got to define what is work.  All kinds of things were classified as work.”

“For instance, to carry a burden on the Sabbath day is work.  So they defined it as carrying a burden on the Sabbath.  Now we have a problem.  What is a burden?  Now you got to define what is a burden? The scribal law laid it down that a burden is food equal in weight to a dry fig.”  So if you go out there to the table and pick up a banana – I just happened to see bananas on the table out in the lobby – that is heavier than a dried fig by far.  You’d be carrying a burden.  “Enough wine for mixing in a goblet; milk enough for one to swallow” (just a good swallow of milk); “honey enough to put on a wound; oil enough to anoint a small member; water enough to moisten eye salve; paper enough to write a custom house notice upon; ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet” (not two letters, but two letters of the alphabet like A and B); “reed enough to make a pen; and so on endlessly.” 

“They had a whole list of things that were traditions.  So they spent endless hours arguing whether a man could or couldn’t lift a lamp from one place on the Sabbath and move it to another place.”  You’ve got an oil lamp sitting here with a wick.  It is lit and it is dark over here in this other room – you don’t have a lamp in there.  You pick the lamp up and go in here.  Well, the scribes argued.  “Some said it was a sin and some said it was not a sin”.  So this big debate is going on.  Is this a burden?  “Whether a tailor committed a sin if he came out of his shop with a needle on the Sabbath (needle in the lapel).  For many of them it was a sin.  Whether a woman might wear a broach or hair piece.” So apparently they had false hair back at this time.  “Even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb.”  So you decide: I am going to screw my wooden leg on today and you put your leg on – that would be carrying a burden.  “Whether a man might lift his child on the Sabbath day.” 

You see these were all man made traditions.  These things to them were the essence of religion.  Their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations.  No wonder Jesus Christ was turned off with the Pharisees and their approach to God. 

However, many of you have been around a while in the Church.  You remember some of the early days in the Church?  I remember quite vividly first coming out in the field in the sixties and any time a sermon was given on the Sabbath there were always dozens of questions asked:  Can I do such and such?  In fact I even remember giving a sermon once – I don’t think I have ever given that sermon again – but I gave a sermon: can you do this and can you do that and so on, on the Sabbath.  That really went over!  Everybody wanted to know, what I could do or not do. 

In the early days of the Church with Sabbath keeping and even today I would say that we probably, there is not a person sitting here that doesn’t, judge others by how they think the Sabbath should be kept.  “Well, I wouldn’t do that on the Sabbath.”  Remember the people asked a question: Can you read a paper on the Sabbath?  You look at the headlines or front page, would it be wrong to look at the sports page and find out who won the World Series?  What about looking at a cartoon?  The questions become endless. 

There were those who thought you should not receive mail on the Sabbath.  You are making the mailman work so they’ve got a Post Office box.  He is still putting the mail in the box, it doesn’t matter.  What about washing a dish on the Sabbath?  There are those who would not dare wash a dish; not to warm up food on the Sabbath; not turn you TV on, on the Sabbath.  There are those who would not dare turn the TV on, on the Sabbath to even watch the news so you know what is going on.  Then there are others; I heard people who get their best John Wayne movie out on Friday night and watch a movie.  Now I will say that is wrong.  I’ll be a little bit dogmatic about that, but there are those who will judge others; not listen to music on the Sabbath unless it is religious music and then you define what is Sabbath music and what is not Sabbath music.  So somebody might think something is beautiful, inspiring, uplifting, motivating, and others: I wouldn’t dare listen to that. 

So we have gone through the same thing and I would dare say that we are still stuck there in certain things that, if we are not careful, we begin to judge others by our own righteousness, by our own standards, what we think is right and wrong.  We have to be careful about establishing our own interpretation of how God’s law should be kept, judging others if they don’t measure up to what we think is right. 

Now it is very clear that we are to keep God’s law but you are not to add our own do’s and don’ts to it.  Now Paul, if you will remember, said that he grew up as a Pharisee.  Galatians 1 – we might just go back and look at that very quickly.

Galatians 1:13 Galatians 1:13For you have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it:
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For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.

V.14 – And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 

And then he talks about how God called him.  In Philippians 3:5 Philippians 3:5Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;
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he says:

Philippians 3:5 Philippians 3:5Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;
American King James Version×
a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee;

And he went on: concerning the law he was blameless and yet, he said, in looking at where he came from, I count it all as – what? – As dung, he said.  Just a pile of manure because he realized that the traditions of the elders and what he was doing, was wrong.  Paul, all through his ministry had to combat in his writing, going to the opposite extreme of leaving all that you have to do is to be under grace, or maybe a better way of saying it, because you are under grace that you don’t need to obey God’s law.  Let’s notice in Romans 6.

Romans 6:1 Romans 6:1What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
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What shall we say then?  Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?

V.2 – Certainly not? How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?

So because we are under grace, can we sin?  Well, no.  What is sin?  1 John 3:4 1 John 3:4Whoever commits sin transgresses also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
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– sin is the transgression of the law. Why do we need grace?  Because we have broken the law.  We need God’s favor, mercy, forgiveness, because of our sins to be forgiven.

Let’s notice over in Romans 7.

Romans 7:7 Romans 7:7What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. No, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, You shall not covet.
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What shall we say then?  Is the law sin?  Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law.  For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”

So the law tells us what sin is.  It sets the standard, right and wrong, but it cannot save you.  All of your law keeping doesn’t save you because your law keeping doesn’t do away with your past sins - Only the sacrifice of Christ and God’s grace and mercy.

V.12 – Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.

V.14 – For we know that the law is spiritual,

V.16 – If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good.

He goes on to show that the problem isn’t with the law; the problem is with us. We don’t have the power and the strength and the ability to keep the law.  We need God’s Spirit; we need help and it is the Spirit of God; it is our repenting of our sins and asking God to live within us. 

So one aspect of legalism is adding the commandments of men, requiring obedience to them, as if they were a part of God’s law.

Let’s talk about what true legalism is and turn the table on those who might come up and ask you:  Are you a legalist, because you keep the Sabbath and Holy Days. 

If you add to the commandments of God what are man made regulations to supposedly improve things, isn’t that a type of legalism?  That is what Christ condemned the Pharisees for.  They added their own traditions - commandments of men.  So if you add Sunday to the Sabbath law, isn’t that a type of legalism?  Where does the law say keep Sunday?  Well, it doesn’t. It says keep the Sabbath.  Man tries to stretch it to say well, this commandment covers Sunday.  It doesn’t .  It is a man made tradition added to the law. 

If you add Christmas and Easter - are those not also man made traditions, customs?  Where do you find them in the Bible?  Where does it say to keep them?  Aren’t those a form of legalism?  Moreover, are they any worse than the infraction of the Jews because the Pharisees were adding regulations to God’s law and today we find inclusion of pagan regulations being added to God’s law and to say it is okay to keep them.  As a result I think you can turn the tables on those who accuse us of being legalists because we keep the Sabbath, the Holy Days and so on.

There is a great difference between being a law abiding Christian, one who keeps and obeys God because he realizes that sin is the transgression of God’s law, and those who believe that these laws had been done away and have substituted man made traditions instead.  You see this is what so many believe today, that anything you find in the Old Testament has been done away. It has been abolished, so therefore you don’t have to keep that, so they keep man made traditions that arise out of paganism.

In fact, Paul warned that people who constantly break God’s law will not enter the Kingdom of God.  Let’s notice:

1 Corinthians 6:9 1 Corinthians 6:9Know you not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
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Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived.  Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites,

V.10 – nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 

A number of the things that he mentions here obviously are violations of the commandments.  He said if you do that, you will not be in God’s Kingdom.

Paul also pointed out the tendency of legalists to be critical and judgmental of others who do not conform to their pseudo spiritual dictates or the pseudo standards.

Remember in chapter 1 of the book of Romans he took the Gentiles to task showing them that when they knew God they rejected them so God gave them over to a base mind to do the things that they wanted to do.  Chapter 2 addresses the Jews, the fact that they had the law, they knew the law, but they were not keeping the law.

Romans 2:22 Romans 2:22You that say a man should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? you that abhor idols, do you commit sacrilege?
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You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery?  You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?

V.23 – You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law?

V.27And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, (in other wordsthe Gentiles who were not physically circumcised, if he does what the law says) judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law?

You see, you and I know the law. We know what God says and commands and we should be doing it.

So in conclusion, you find the religious legalist according to the Bible, is one who misuses the application of God’s law or thinks his perfect obedience will earn him salvation since grace, he thinks, is not needed.  This is certainly not what we, as a church, profess or believe.  We believe we are saved by God’s grace but are still to be obedient to God’s law, which defines the standards of righteousness and what is sin.  If keeping God’s law is legalism then God’s description of His church in the Bible is erroneous because in Revelation 14:12 Revelation 14:12Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.
American King James Version×
we read this, talking about the Church

Revelations 14:12 Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.

Here is the end time Church, described as keeping the commandments of God.  That is us.  Are they then legalists because they keep the commandments of God?  Well, certainly not. 

So the next time somebody tries to brand us with the false charge of being a legalist for keeping God’s commandments, remember it may be them who turn out to be legalists by doing as the Pharisees did:  By adding commandments of men such as Christmas and Easter; by adding Sunday worship, and by establishing their own standards of what they think is righteousness.

Brethren, let’s realize that God has called us to worship Him in spirit and in truth.


  • Brian Pelkey
    I would answer a charge of legalism by simply saying: "Jesus said: "If you love me, keep my commandments" Would you accuse Jesus of legalism?"
  • D. Miller
    Good sermon Roy. When you talked about how to observe the Sabbath and judging others I perked up somewhat. It seems to me that God is very clear on how to keep the Sabbath. Isn't watching a John Wayne movie, going out to eat, listening to popular music on t.v. or radio, and most of those things you mentioned, well aren't they doing your own thing on the Sabbath? Yes, the things we can list are "endless". But the categories are not....doing our own thing, being in our regular footsteps, devoting the day to our "wants" all this boils down to what it says in the commandment itself. I don't know one Sabbath keeper that doesn't "get around" the commandment in some you? But as far as judging. Well what's judging? Do what I do - or do what God says. One might cause judging....but one does not. Did Jesus say you can't participate in the Holy Days...such as Passover....unless you're a "baptized member"? Or was everyone welcome? I've seen legalism in the church. And outside. John above makes a great point as well. But the legalist lawkeeper also will not admit it when he's being a legalist...but God knows why we do what we do and who is trying to buy salvation. Thanks
  • John Barbush
    I have found that a person cannot be held accountable unless they give permission. The true legalist will not be held accountable because they don't see the need. Therefore they are compelled to accuse the law-keeper. After all, they can't both be right. Also, as long as the law-keeper continues to keep the law, then their behavior is a sore challenge to the legalist to do something about it. They cannot co-exist, in the mind of the legalist. The consequence of this is persecution upon the law-keeper. The irony is that the law-keeper tends to be the tolerant one while the non-law-keeper is not usually tolerant.
  • dust_i_am
    When people call me a legalist, I answer: "I'd rather be legal than illegal." :-) But seriously - I once heard a UCG Pastor say in a sermon: "God loves rules." The difference between that sentence and "God's love rules" is small, but profound.
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