In a previous post, we looked at the legalism which comes from much of what is called ‘Messianic Christianity.’ You can read that here. Now let’s look at another aspect of the damaging work of legalism through other so-called branches of Christianity. You get the emails and comments from time to time from these self appointed protectors of the faith who have a thimble full of truth with ocean sized mouths. Jesus faced them, you face them and I face them. Let us not let our focus get off on them, as they feed off of being the center of attention.
Jesus addressed these types of legalists in His day. They hounded Him every where He went. The book of Acts reveals that these same legalists followed and persecuted the Apostle Paul as he took the gospel of grace to the Gentiles. Let’s look at what Jesus had to say about them and then discuss the earmarks of this type of legalism.
“Then Jesus said unto them, ‘Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees…'” (Matt. 16:6)
One of the truths which ‘leaven’ symbolized was sin. Jesus used this image to describe the dynamics of how sin works. Like leaven, sin works secretly, silently, certainly and from within. The leaven/sin of the Pharisees works the same way. It is a scourge upon the body of Christ and, many times, it comes from surprising quarters. Let’s take a brief look at this.
Around the turn of the 20th Century there was a necessary movement within the Church to stand for and defend the faith given to us from the Scripture. This resulted in what we know as fundamentalism. This term refers to those who believe in the fundamentals of sound doctrine of the Christian faith. However, in recent decades it has come to represent those who are hard, unloving, judgmental and high minded. It is sad that what began as a necessary stand against the tidal wave of theological liberalism and existentialism, slowly became a call sign for such an ugly representation of the Christian faith.
Anytime the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is removed from the practice of sound doctrine, death by legalism will occur. What can be God at inception can within one generation become the work of man, and by the second generation become a tool for Satan. This progression is a result of men abandoning intimacy with Christ through brokenness, humility and prayer.
Just like the Pharisees, which Jesus warned His disciples about, we should beware of the modern Pharisees. They desire to bring men into their legalistic bondage with religious warnings and spiritual sounding threats. Let’s look at some earmarks of this type of legalism so we can avoid the pitfalls associated with it.
Earmarks of Legalism
- Righteousness by works – Legalists fail to realize that works come out of saving faith, they do not produce it.
- Natural minded interpretation of Scriptures – Legalists demonstrate over and over a natural minded and letter bound interpretation of the Bible. You’ll always sense a lack of the Holy Spirit direction and presence in their words and deeds.
- Rules and Regulations – Legalists love adding rules and regulations in order to control and protect their Pharisaical club of self righteousness.
- Small minded view of culture – Legalists fail to transpose the eternal truths of Scriptures into various cultures. Instead they codify their own culture and then impose it upon other cultures. In years past, missions have suffered at the hands of promoting a Western version of Christianity instead of allowing missionaries to move into the culture of the mission.
- Truth defended at the expense of Love – Legalists care very little about the Love of God. They consider such talk as weak or compromising. They fail to obey the very book they claim to defend. “He that loveth not, knoweth not God.” (1Jn.4:8) “Speaking the truth in love.” (Eph.4:15) “Without love you are a sounding brass and tinkling symbol.” (1Cor.13:1)
- Judgmental – Legalists express a constant disposition to critique and condemn others quickly and harshly. They are slow to listen, slow to question and quick to speak.
Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. These modern day and self appointed ‘defenders’ are nothing more than a revival of legalists. They have failed to understand the gospel, want to control others with their ignorance, and have a carnal need for control. Their leaven will intimidate the biblically ignorant and the weak.
Find a church where God’s Word is taught without apology or compromise by men who are broken vessels. Men who understand the absolute need of being in tune with and constantly filled afresh with the Holy Spirit. Men who encourage the weak, warn the unruly and are patient toward all men. (1 Thes. 5:14) Men who will teach you to be a Berean. (A person who is taught to search the Scriptures to test the teaching of any person.)
And above all, fall before the Lord’s throne in prayer. Ask Him to fill you with Himself and guide your heart into all truth. He will lead you to balance, maturity and wise application of His eternal Word. You will then be able to recognize the leaven of the Pharisees and possibly help rescue those trapped by it. Hallelujah for the fundamentals of the faith. However, if we leave out the character of Jesus and the life of the Holy Spirit from our presentation and defense of truth, we’ll be guilty of spreading leaven instead of redeeming the lost!
Lord, make us men who can rise above the ungodliness of the leaven of the Pharisees, and through wisdom and brokenness, properly interpret and apply the treasures of your Word. May our lives, in words and actions, display the fragrance of the Cross as we speak truth in love. Break us, teach us and convict us of the difference between primary and secondary points of theology, as well as the necessity of a life filled with Your Spirit. We can’t do it…therefore, we cry to you in faith. In Your name…Amen!