Jesus directed a large percentage of his teachings in the Gospels against the legalism of the Pharisees and other religious teachers of the day. A legalist is a person who thinks they have earned God’s love and affection based upon either how much they know, how many good things they do, or how many bad things they don’t do.
Now, legalism is the human heart’s problem. Non-Christians can be legalists but unfortunately Christians are the worst legalists.
Despite the definition of a relationship with God as salvation by faith alone, human hearts are always going to be tempted to look at how good they think they are and think that even if God’s not impressed at least, everyone else should be. The alternative to the life of legalism of course would be making your lone hope for forgiveness the work of Jesus, trusting only His righteousness and His goodness.
Now, when hearing the two side by side (trusting your goodness or trusting Jesus’) you might ask, “Why would anyone trust their goodness when Jesus’ life of love and perfection is so infinitely better?”
Simply: we don’t see as God sees. God sees our heart clearly, and we don’t.
He sees our sinful motives clearly, and we don’t.
And He sees Jesus’ work on our behalf constantly, and we don’t.
You would think that the church would fight harder against legalism, especially when Jesus uses such harsh language against legalists, calling them “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33) and “white washed tombs” (Matthew 23:27).
But I’m afraid the church in America is a legalist factory. We just keep churning them out. In fact, we are good at it. Let me show you it’s done.
Here is the 5-point plan for building a better legalist.
One: Withhold affection when someone sins or makes a mistake.
Two: Invent rules for Godliness without either the desire to explain your reasoning or explain their benefit.
Three: Care more about other’s opinion of your performance than you do God’s opinion.
Four: Assume what you say or what you do gives you a place of superiority or authority.
Five: Speak often of others who used to be really good but aren’t any more.
We are so prone to these 5 things, we often don’t see that those types of actions actually blind us from grace and inhibit compassion towards other. We don’t see that those types of actions are traps that lead to self-righteousness, Christian ghettos, and hardness of heart. Unfortunately, we are all susceptible to these types of thoughts and actions because we just don’t see our hearts and the hearts of others like God does.
1 Samuel 16:7 For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart
Thankfully, God sees differently than you and I see. That means that God not only knows the things we think and do in secret, but He can also see all the great things that He is going to do in our lives.
So, when we are discouraged or sad, we can trust that God sees things and knows things that we don’t, and that gives us a great hope as we have faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins.