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Legalism and Pharisaism

"Legalist! Pharisee! These have to be some of the most annoying charges to endure. It usually happens when one is trying to press some points relative to the need to obey God. So the charge can easily become a way out of having to deal with passages that teach the need to do something, such as being baptized. But consider the charge from a biblical viewpoint. For our purposes here, we will be using the charges of "Pharisaism" and "legalism" to be basically the same, as they are often given interchangeably.

In Matthew 15 (and Mark 7), some Pharisees charged the disciples of Jesus with breaking the "tradition of the elders" by not washing properly before eating (vs. 2). Jesus responded by showing that they actually transgress and invalidate God's word for the sake of their traditions. He illustrated this point with their end-run around the command to honor father and mother. He then called them hypocrites and quoted from Isaiah: "This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men."

Religious hearts that are not close to God result in vain worship and doctrine, along with hypocritical action toward others. Those in this condition know the pat answers and go through the motions, but they are missing something in the heart. The greatest command, said Jesus, is to love God with all of one's heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). The second greatest command is to love neighbor as self (vs. 39). On these commands, everything else hangs. In Matthew 15 we see these things violated. The Pharisees did not truly love God, or else they would not have invalidated His word to keep their traditions. They did not show love for others in that they taught that (given their self-defined traditions) they did not have to honor father and mother. These events give us some insight into the "Pharisaical" attitudes. How might one go about answering the charges?

What Pharisaism Is Not

In order to properly define a misused concept, it is helpful to know what we are not talking about. Pharisaism (and legalism) is not:

  1. Fidelity and loyalty to the word of God. From Matthew 15, and other passages (e.g., Matt. 23), the problem that the Pharisees had was not loyalty to the word of God. Their problem was loyalty to their own system; they took it to the point where they disobeyed God. Given the number of passages telling us how important God's word is, and our need to live by it, one would be way out of line to insist that legalism is loyal adherence to the scriptures (Col. 3:16; Jas. 1:21; 1 Cor. 4:6, et al.).
  2. Faithfully keeping God's commandments. Loyalty to the word of God will also entail faithfulness in doing what God says. This was not the problem of the Pharisees either. In fact, they failed to do what God said on very important matters (see also Matt. 23:23). Again, God's word is clear about the fact that we need to obey what He says (Jn. 14:15; 1 Jn. 2:2-6; Heb. 5:9, et al.)
  3. Teaching the need to keep God's commandments. If the scriptures teach our need to obey, then those who teach God's word must also teach the need to do what God says (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3- 5; 4:1, 13, 16; et al.). Being a faithful servant means teaching others God's will (2 Tim. 2:2).

It is in these areas, however, where the bulk of charges about being legalistic and Pharisaical are made. If one is simply holding on to the scriptures, doing what God says, and teaching others the same, then to make a charge of Pharisaism is to show a misunderstanding of the problems that the Pharisees really had.

What IS Legalistic and Pharisaical?

Here are the real problems associated with the Pharisees:

  1. They added their own customs and opinions to God's law and expected adherence to them (Matt 15:2). The "tradition of the elders" was to wash their hands in a particular way. Don't do it their way, and something is wrong. Is it possible for people today to add opinions and traditions to God's word? It's all around the denominational world. It happens quite easily; and Christians are not exempt from the problems. We may begin to practice something that is "expedient." This expediency soon becomes standard practice, which later becomes unwritten law. Then when another person or group has the audacity to break that tradition, they are considered suspect and perhaps unsound. Be careful. Examine your practices to make sure they are found in God's word, not in some unwritten traditional code.
  2. They thought they could substitute their own "good deeds" for true righteousness (Matt. 15:4-6). This is the problem of thinking that doing enough good works satisfies the requirements for salvation. This is the choice to live and be judged under law instead of grace. What does this mean? Works of law do not justify; no system of law serves as a means of justification (cf. Rom. 3:19-28). When one tries to do this, then he is bound to keep all of the law flawlessly. One slip, and he becomes guilty under that law (e.g., Jas. 2:10-11). However, since all have sinned (Rom. 3:23), we need God to step in with His offer of grace (Eph. 2:8-9). The legalist, however, continues to view perfect law-keeping as the means of justification. Grace is not in the picture. Generally, this attitude degenerates into a summing up that "law" into just a few pet issues and commands to obey, as was done by the Pharisees. This is when those "weightier matters" are neglected (Matt. 23:23).

    As stated, obedience to the will of God is necessary (Heb. 5:9). But this obedience comes from the heart of faith (Rom. 6:17-18). Obeying the conditions of God's grace is not the same as seeking justification through law-keeping. Those who seek to be justified by law invariably end up with a check-list religion. There is no heart, no faith, and no real love for God. It is both empty and impossible. One can do these "good deeds" and neglect true righteousness which comes by faith. Establishing self-righteousness does not lead one to salvation.

  3. They engaged in outward worship, but without their hearts. They had no real meaning or purpose (Matt. 15:7-9). This is the inevitable conclusion when we stress the motions without examining the motives. This is the end of the check-list. "I've sat through worship, mouthed a few songs (though I don't know which ones now), took the Lord's Supper, gave my money, endured a lesson, and now I can go my merry way and do what I want." One can go through all of the motions and yet never have truly worshipped. The attitude makes the difference.

    Two people may be side by side in worship. They both do the same things, perhaps, but one is a legalist, while the other is living by faith. The difference is in the minds of each. One thinks that the motions make him okay. The other understands that living by faith is far more than going through motions. With one, the stress is put on the outward appearance. "Do it the right way." With the other, the outward form, which needs to be in truth, flows out of a heart of faith in taking God at His word. He understands that "sacrifices" are nothing unless accompanied by the proper spirit (cf. Psalm 51:14-19; Jn. 4:24). He does not just want to check off a list of things to do. He wants to glorify God through a proclamation of the "excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9). He does this because he understands that he has received mercy (vs. 10), not because he thinks his works have saved him.

Live the Answer

The Pharisaical mindset is one that exalts human opinions above the word of God. It sets aside God's law in favor of a self-appointed system of righteousness. It demonstrates a trust in self, rather than a surrender to the will of God. It leads to a false sense of security, causing one to think that he is "better" than others who aren't as "good" (cf. Luke 18:9-14). It causes one to give lip-service, with no real understanding of the purpose of service and worship. Ultimately, it will lead to despair and hypocrisy.

The real way to answer the charges of legalism and Pharisaism is to live a life of faith. "The just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17). This is the statement that sums up the life of a child of God. Faith takes God at His word. Legalism, in reality, invalidates God's word in favor of self-designed systems. Faith determines to abide by the word of God because it is His word (1 Thess. 2:13). The one who lives by faith will demonstrate a true righteousness and service from the heart. He will not merely offer outward "sacrifices." He will offer "spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 2:5).

Shall we choose to live by our own standards and thus be judged according to works of law (in which case we all fail), or shall we choose to live by faith, abiding in Christ, and thus stand before Him without being ashamed? (1 John 2:28) It's our choice. One life lives the attitudes and actions of the Pharisees, ultimately trusting in self and leading to hypocrisy. The other life lives according to the grace of God (cf. Titus 2:11-12), takes God at His word, and thereby answers those charges of legalism.

— via Focus Magazine