Why legalism destroys churches and kills Christians
The law as a guide to salvation is a terrible taskmaster.
What if your church’s elders passed down a fiat that members could not take more than 1,999 steps on the Lord’s Day without facing church discipline? One more step would be too closely akin to taking a long trip and that is a no-no on the day God set aside for worship.
What if they forbid you to carry your Bibles to church because such heavy lifting would too closely resemble work? Anything heavier than a dried fig is strictly taboo on this day, they say.
Or, what if they added a clause in the constitution and bylaws that members must not leave a radish in salt because that vegetable might become a pickle and pickle-making is work, which is, of course, forbidden on this day.
And, they added sub-paragraphs to the constitution that prescribed disciplinary action for those found guilty of other activities on the Lord’s Day such as carrying a pen (lest you be tempted to write with it), carrying a needle (lest you be tempted to sew with it), helping those who are sick but with non life-threatening maladies (it can wait till Monday), looking in the mirror, spitting, removing dirt from clothes. You get the picture.
Such boorish legalism would make both a congregation and its elders miserable and would likely lead to an elder election. Yet, these were merely a few among the dozens of Sabbath laws added to the Torah by the Pharisees who lived in the Roman Empire during New Testament times. Ironically, the Pharisees and their scribes were the theological giants of the day, yet in Mark 2:25-26 and in other passages in the four Gospels, Jesus asks them, “Have you not read?” In other words, don’t you understand the Scriptures? Jesus tweaks the Pharisees in John 5:39 with similar words, telling them, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”
In the Mark passage, the Pharisees are watching Jesus—who is a rabbi—to see if he breaks their rabbinic laws related to the Sabbath. In the final verses of Mark 2, they charge Jesus with spiritual criminality because his disciples pick the heads of grain while walking through a field and eat the kernels to satiate their hunger. Jesus points out that David and his band of brothers ate the showbread in the tabernacle with divine impunity while on the run from Saul (1 Sam. 21:1-6). At the outset of Mark 3, Jesus heals a man with a lame hand in direct violation of the Sabbath laws of the Pharisees.
Of course, the Pharisees are infamous for encrusting the moral law of God with hundreds of their own manmade laws and traditions. And we get the idea from the New Testament that trying to obey the laws as a means of salvation made them a miserable people.
Alive and well today
While few of us today seek to follow the Pharisaical model, this level of misery is alive and well among those who misunderstand the complementarity of law and gospel and seek to earn favor with God through both keeping the law and misappropriating it to extrapolate a set of personal convictions—often related to modes of dress, music, movies, etc.—that become a system of expected ethical norms to which they hold both themselves an other Christians. As Spurgeon once said of the legalist, “His slogan is, ‘You cannot be spiritual unless you are uncomfortable.’”
The law of God as a ground for salvation, as a means of accruing merit, leaves the worker exhausted, miserable—and lost. The law as a guide to salvation is a terrible taskmaster.
For this reason, discussions of law and gospel remain vital and deeply practical. After all, in 1 Timothy 1:8, Paul wrote, “The law is good if one uses it lawfully.” But how can Paul say the law is good? Elsewhere, in Romans 7:11, Paul says sin came alive through the law and killed him. In Galatians 3, Paul says the Law once held us captive and he calls it a “guardian.” If the law kills, holds us captive and leads the Pharisees to lead such shriveled up lives of pure misery, then how is it good?
I think Paul gets at it earlier in Romans 7:7, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have know what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” The law exposes our sin. The law shows us the holy, spotless character of God. The law produces despair in us—not a despair the leads us to forego attempting to merit any favor with God and drives us to the only place it can be found—in union with Jesus Christ, in his person and work.
Rightly appropriated, the moral law of God unmasks our self-righteousness and exposes us for who we really are: sinners devoid of the righteousness necessary to salvation, sinners hurtling headlong toward a just destruction at the hands of a holy God, sinners in desperate need of a mediator before God.
It shows us that we have indeed sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It points up our desperate need for the gospel. As the Puritans so well put it, the law breaks sinners, the gospel heals them. Calvin saw three good functions for the law: it serves as a mirror, clearly showing our sin, it reveals the will of God (as a guide to sanctification), and it works to restrain evil—protecting God’s people from the machinations of unbelievers.
The law left the Pharisees (and their disciples) miserable because they viewed it as a vehicle to glory, a means of salvation. They used it unlawfully and the result was a shrunken, joyless, bitter existence. This is the result when we misinterpret Scripture and replace the grace of God with legalism. But rightly understood, the law of God is good, unmasking our self-righteousness and exposing our depravity. It sends us running for cover in the righteousness of Christ won at Calvary through his selfless love. It liberates us to rest from our labors at keeping the law, and leads us to green pastures of deep and overflowing joy in Christ alone.
“Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).