Photo by Joshua Cook.
“Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” - Mark 7:8 Those are the words of Christ telling the Pharisees basically where they stand in their own hearts. These so called “religious leaders” couldn’t understand why the disciples of Christ wouldn’t wash their hands and follow the ceremonial cleansings before eating. The Pharisees believed that by doing these certain rituals it would make them righteous before God. Even though those rituals weren’t commanded by God, they held that these things must be done or one was considered “unclean”, or worse still, unrighteous. But that’s exactly where they got it all wrong — just like me.
Simply stated legalism could be defined as creating an external standard of righteousness to earn God’s favor. Legalism is what Christ pointed out in hearts of the Pharisees. They thought their own rituals, laws, or whatever would earn God’s favor even though God had never commanded those things in Scripture. Somewhere along the line they started adding to God’s Word with their own, which created all these nit picky (and sometimes absurd) practices which they held to. So it makes sense that they come to confront Christ and his own disciples concerning their traditions. They honestly believed that Christ’s disciples were in sin for not complying to their rules, but the reality was they had completely distorted God’s Word and were placing their law above God’s. It would be nice if I could just leave it there and say it was a problem exclusively for the Pharisees, but I can’t. The fact of the matter is this is exactly what I do and it’s been robbing me of my joy.
Legalism has been taking out notches out of my joy a little bit at a time. This is because, as my pastor clearly stated “legalist’s are more aware of their own sin then what Christ did on the cross.” For a while now I’ve felt that I can’t seem to get it right. No matter how hard I try I can’t seem to always be humble, always trust God, always speak kind words, always be at peace with people, etc., etc., etc. From there I was overwhelmed by the fact that no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t put myself on a daily Bible reading schedule, my prayer times only came before meals, I didn’t share my faith enough at work, etc., etc., etc.. All of these thoughts were stealing my joy because I lost sight of the cross and could only think about myself. Furthermore, I got caught in the trap that I could do enough to earn the Lord’s favor. My own standard of righteousness, like the Pharisees, had taken the place of God’s standard which (or who) is simply Christ. I’ve watched as this has made my heart grow cold as I try and DO everything in my power to please the Lord. I’ve been trying to DO so much to obtain God’s favor, but the truth is I can’t do anything — Christ already did it. That’s the basic premise of the Gospel message! Christ is the only one capable of obtaining favor before the Lord’s eyes because He lived a perfect, sinless life. And as God in the flesh, He then gives up His own life for me so I can reap the benefits and stand righteous before God. It would be impossible otherwise. I can’t stand before a holy God because my sin separates me from Him. But Christ can! Christ can stand for me and God will see His perfect life and not my sin-stained life.
I never expected that Mark 7 would be a life changing passage of Scripture, but it’s been the most freeing thing for my heart. This teaching has has made me more aware of my legalistic heart and in turn my joy has slowly been restored. I’m slowly realizing that I’ve been creating a standard of my own that looks and feels very spiritual, but in the end will cripple only me. My standard will only cause me to look inward and not upward, and that can only lead to a self-righteousness, joyless life. As my pastor also said, “there is nothing you can do to make God love you more or to make God love you less” — Christ finished it on the cross.
If you would like to hear the messages my pastor has been preaching, I have put together a zip file with all 4 sermons. The title of the series is “The Deadly Dangers of Legalism” and as I’ve tried to attest here, the Lord has used it mightily in my life. Click here to download the series.