Those of us who have fallen into legalism probably did it unconsciously, only wanting to please God.
The problem is that when we make this mistake, we have the idea that God is interested in our works. (It is hard to believe, when we are in this mindset, that Mary and not Martha was the one who choose the “good part.”)1 We think that God must be proud of us, if not grateful for us.
It must have been a huge surprise for the Pharisees to hear Jesus tell people to leave them be, that they were blind guides of the blind, and that the end of their journey would be the ditch.2
The Pharisees felt they had the responsibility of raising the standard of holiness for the people of God. They fasted a lot. They went way beyond what the Law required to make sure that they never broke it. (They created 613 rules apart from the commandments to guarantee that the Law would be fulfilled.)
It must have been strange for the disciples and for all of the people who were with Jesus when he said that if their righteousness did not surpass that of the Pharisees they wouldn’t enter the Kingdom.3 The Pharisees were highly respected, even feared, amongst the people. They were considered very superior spiritually because of their great efforts to obey.
It is at the end of His ministry when Jesus’ words caused the greatest backlash. In Matthew 23 Jesus rebukes the Pharisees harshly for their inner condition — that which was hidden from the rest of the people by their exterior obedience. Jesus said that the Pharisees did things to be seen by men — doing things for testimony’s sake — that they liked receiving honor and respect. They were greedy and their rules did not make any spiritual sense. They were obsessed with the little things.
He also told them that God had wanted to draw them through prophets and wise men, but because the prophets and wise men did not act the way they did and did not sign on with their way of seeing things, the Pharisees had then killed them. He ends His stinging rebuke with the warning that they were a brood of vipers and how did they think they would escape the judgment of hell?4
Being a legalist is a serious thing. Hebrews chapters 3 and 4 say that not entering into the rest is disobedience, a lack of faith and hardness of heart. Three times we are told in those two chapters that not ceasing from our own works is to provoke God. Paul was very hard on the legalists in Galatia. He called the Galatians foolish and unwise for following legalists.5
He told the Colossians that legalistic teachings appeared to be wise, seemed like good worship and humility. They seemed like a severe treatment of the flesh, but that they have no value against the satisfying of the flesh.6
The problem is that we have a mixture in us. We have some left-over legalism in our spirit. Jesus commanded us to guard against the leaven of the Pharisees.7 He warned that a little leaven will wreck the whole lump.8
God help us to recognize this and to have the courage and faith that are necessary to rid our lives of leaven!
1- Luke 10:42 2- Matthew 15:14 3- Matthew 5:20 4- Matthew 23.33 5- Galatians chapter 3 6- Colossians 2:23 7- Matthew 16:6; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1 81 Corinthians 5:6; Galatians 5:9