Coffee Talk 2015: Week 8 {Legalism}

Biblical Solutions for Problems with Ourselves
I Just Love Rules, Don’t You?
By Brittany Cady

coffee talk online edition pictureWhen I read the title of this chapter, I knew it would speak to me. When I read the pages of scripture, I don’t see myself in the naïve disciples, the forgetful Israelites, or the idol worshiping Gentiles. I see myself and hear my words whenever I read about the Pharisees. I knew this about myself from an early age. In fact, I can remember reading Luke 18:11 where the Pharisee is praying and thanking God that he isn’t like that sinner sitting with him in the temple. I actually wondered what was wrong with that; isn’t it good to be washed and clean and free from “obvious” sin? The problem is that my rule loving heart has always just been a big fat distraction from the real problem: my sin.

In recent weeks, Pastor Matt has been faithfully and clearly teaching us the true nature of our sin and just how overwhelming and strong it is. Legalism makes light of sin and whispers in our ears that we are not that bad if we haven’t murdered, or stolen, or committed adultery. Legalism tells us that if we follow the rules (maybe the Ten Commandments or maybe the rules we’ve made up for ourselves) then we’ll earn favor with God. Unfortunately, the enemy uses legalism to deceive us and make us complacent. Suddenly, we stop examining the motives of our heart, and forget how much pride, selfishness, and idolatry can live there. In our comfortable legalism, we forget the debt we owe and the price that Jesus paid for us. One of Martha’s main points about legalism is that “because of man’s nature and propensity to sin, he wants to make the Christian life workable in the flesh,” p 121.

Another point about legalism that Martha also makes is that many of us misinterpret the object of the Old Testament narratives when we walk away with rules to obey instead of principles to follow. She says on page 123, “Have standards, and base them on biblical principles, but do not elevate them to a ‘thus said the Lord’ level.” An example of this can be seen in the story of Gideon. At one point in his journey, Gideon decides to put out a fleece to make God confirm again what He already had said. In this story, we should not surmise that God wants us to put out a fleece (or look for a “sign”) every time we have a decision to make. Instead, there are several principles we can take away like the importance of obedience to what God says the first time. Another is that our God is merciful (He gave Gideon a sign to confirm what He already said, which He didn’t have to do. God showed Gideon mercy in his doubt) and there are likely others.  The key to remember is that these narratives are telling us what happened, not necessarily what we should do in similar circumstances.

In the end, the very best weapon I have to fight against the tendency towards being a Pharisee is the gospel. Matthew 9:12 tells us that the healthy don’t need a physician, but the sick do, and verse 13 goes on to tell us that “I [Jesus] did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Preaching the gospel truth of our utter sinfulness and lack of any quality deserving of salvation will remind us of our need for a Savior. The songs we sing at church preach the gospel truths back at us while we sing. A favorite song of mine which fights my legalistic heart is Not In Me. The verses combat my natural desire to fight sin with rules, and remind me of the utter foolishness in even attempting to!

      No list of sins I have not done, no list of virtues I pursue
      No list of those I am not like, can earn myself a place with you.
            O God be merciful to me! I am a sinner through and though.
            My only hope of righteousness is not in me, but only you.
      No humble dress, no fervent prayer, no lifted hands, no tearful song,
      No recitation of the truth can justify a single wrong.
            My righteousness is Jesus’ life. My debt was paid by Jesus’ death.
            My weary load was born by Him, and He alone can give me rest.
      No separation from the world, no work I do, no gift I give,
      Can cleanse my conscience, cleanse my hands, I cannot cause my soul to live!
            But Jesus died and rose again. The pow’r of death is overthrown.
            My God is merciful to me, and merciful in Christ alone!

What tools have you learned to use to fight legalism in your own heart?
What is one way that legalism has tricked you into thinking you’re not that bad?


  1. christie b says:

    Brittany, this was written nicely. I especially liked that you used the song at the end. Those words were perfect to support your point. They are truth and worthy of much thought. Thank you for this post.

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