February 2011 - Vol. 47
.The Problem with Legalism: 
Our Rules Aren’t Strict Enough!

by Sam Williamson

I once belonged to a prayer group which was splitting down the middle due to a rift in its leadership. A friend and fellow member had heard of another group whose leader had committed adultery and raided their bank accounts. “At least we’re not as bad as them” he whispered to me one day, “at least we’re not that bad.”

Great, I thought, that’s the epitaph I want chiseled on my tombstone:

Here Lies Sam Williamson
He could have been worse
Criticizing legalism in parishes and prayer groups is popular today. And it should be. Legalism breeds a sense of superiority: Somehow I am better because I avoid this and I do that. “What’s wrong with everyone else anyway? At least we’re not as bad as them!”

This will not be one more article criticizing the evils of legalism. There are scores of such. Instead let’s concentrate on what must be done in our own hearts. As a start, let me summarize the three features that form the foundation of legalism. These elements interrelate, feeding off each other in some parasitic symbiosis. Without one, the others starve. But examining each unique feature is illuminating.

First is a sense of Superiority. 
Deep in each human heart lives a God-given longing for glory. We crave significance. And if we don’t get filled from God, we go elsewhere. Some of us go to career (or money or power); some to family or romance; and many, many, go to religion. This is because religion (not the gospel) falsely promises the opportunity to create a self significance, of feeling a little better than everyone else. Like my friend said, “We’re not as bad as them.” We need to feel good about ourselves, and religion – done legalistically – provides the opportunity.

Second is Consumerism. 
We subconsciously think God should treat us well because of good we’ve done; it is a type of bargain with God.  It is as though we transform him into a vending machine. When I slip in my seventy-five cents, I deserve a Coke. We return to that vending machine as long as the product (his blessing) is decent and the price (our goodness) is reasonable. Theological-consumerism completely robs Christ of his grace.

Lastly we get Aesop’s Fable-ism. 
This says scripture is about us and the morals we should follow: it is about how we are to be good little boys and girls. If we don’t lie (as the boy who cried wolf) and if we are kind (as Androcles pulled the thorn from the lions’ paw) then God will bless us. It makes Jesus just another good teacher and scripture merely another set of moralistic fables. Scripture says of itself, however, that it is the story of God pursuing humans – who are incapable of the goodness required – because of his love for us. 

Before we move on, I need to address one painful and personal point: We are all guilty of legalism. Even as I write this I realize I’m criticizing those legalists and censuring those anti-legalists. I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not as bad as them! Charismatics look down on the Frozen Chosen; Eldridge fans look down on those who haven’t discovered their wounds; theologians look down on air-head laity; and the rest of us look down on those egg-head doctrinaire hairsplitters. 

We all do it. There is a deep-seated need for us to feel good about ourselves, and we all – the writer of this article as much as the reader – try to satisfy this need by affirming something about ourselves at the expense of others. 

Jesus questioned by a lawyer, painting by James Tissot

So what are we to do?
We need to look at the deepest foundations of our legalism, and that is what I will call Enough-ism. Enough-ism creates a focus on external behavior, asking ourselves, “What is enough to make me acceptable to ourselves, to others, and to God.”

Enough-ism breeds dangerous legalism. It subtracts from the fullness of God’s holiness. Jesus said our standard of “Do not murder” is Enough-ism; he said calling our brother a fool is also murder. Jesus said our standard of “Do not commit adultery” is also Enough-ism; he said simply lusting in our heart is adultery. 
Jesus specifically addressed Enough-ism when he spoke with a religious lawyer in Luke 10. (How would you like that career? The religious lawyer’s profession was to be a legalist!). The lawyer told Jesus that to be saved you needed to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said, that’s right, now go do it.

The lawyer responded by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” That reasonable question exposes the heart of the legalist. He asked the question, “in order to justify himself,” and in it the fig leaves of Enough-ism are revealed.

The lawyer is actually asking, “What is the least I can get away with? What is the minimum standard of behavior that God requires?” In short, “What is enough?” The lawyer asks for a detailed set of rules that he can follow, and once he has those specific rules, he’ll work hard to accomplish them, and then,

a) He’ll feel superior to others who don’t work as hard as he does, and
b) God will now owe him for his great acts and hard work, and 
c) He will read Jesus’ words as one more Aesop’s fable, that is, moralism.
Jesus’ response is brilliant (duh!) and he answers the lawyer by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable a man has been beaten and robbed. Three other men happen upon him and two of them pass by. The third man is a despised enemy, and yet that very enemy cleans him up, nurses his wounds, and pays an innkeeper whatever is needed for the wounded man’s care, food and lodging.

There are three ways to interpret the Good Samaritan parable, and understanding the parable through all three interpretations – in sequence – will provide the answer we need to kill the legalism that is choking us. The three interpretations answer the three questions the lawyer asks. 

The Good Samaritan by Delacroix

Who is my neighbor?
When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” he is really looking for limitations to the Love Your Neighbor command: moral limitations (they are good people) or geographical limitations (they live within a 100 – yard radius) and giving limitations (we only need to offer ten hours a week and up to 5% of our earnings).
Instead, Jesus answers that everyone is our neighbor, even those of foreign religions whom we despise, and that we need to provide all they need, no matter what the cost.

The typical first interpretation of the parable is to picture ourselves finding a hurt neighbor and to care completely for his wounds and to help fully with his finances.

In general, people have one of two responses to this interpretation. Some of us say, “Yes, I can do that,” and we feel confident and we try. And some of us say, “I could never do what this demands,” and we feel condemned and we despair.

The confident ones among us imagine ourselves showering people with random acts of kindness. We see ourselves helping the homeless and showing compassion to our spouses and loving our bosses and caring for street kids…. And we begin to feel pretty good about ourselves. Why aren’t other people working as hard as we do!

But eventually we say, “Whew, this is exhausting. What is enough?” Then, like the lawyer, we begin to construct limits. We say, “That person isn’t genuinely poor, he just spends foolishly; and those people brought it on themselves, and this person is so broken that she is exhausting me. I’ve done enough.”

In a sermon on this parable, Jonathan Edwards, a famed revival preacher of 18th century America, said,

  • [With regard to the excuse of their not being truly poor] That is not agreeable to loving neighbors as ourselves. We get concerned about our own situation long before we are destitute. Love your neighbor as you love yourself …. 
  • [With regard to self inflicted suffering] But Christ laid himself out for you to relieve you from all that want and misery which you brought on yourself. Should we not love others as Christ loved us? 
  • [With regard to the personal cost] We may – by the gospel – be obliged to give to others when doing so means we have to suffer ourselves. How else is that rule “bearing one another’s burdens” fulfilled?
When we deeply probe the meaning of this parable, those of us who try to obey it will join those who don’t even try, and we’ll despair. So, what can we do with this parable? Where is the hope of the good news of the gospel?

The answer lies in reading the parable a second time, and this time answering the lawyer’s first question.

What must I do to inherit eternal life?
When we see the Good Samaritan as an example we must follow, we might obey and feel good about ourselves for a time – disparaging others who don’t try – but eventually we’ll say, “I can’t do it.” 
And this is a great place to be. 

I encourage us all to ponder for a moment this realization that, “I can’t do it.” In this realization we are beginning to ask, “What must I do to be saved?” Because whatever we do isn’t enough.

In almost every parable – some say in every parable – we can find both Christ and ourselves. Let us rethink the parable here a second time. This time, instead of seeing ourselves showering kindness on the beaten man, let us picture ourselves on the road, beaten, robbed, naked and left to die; and then we see two men representing religion pass by (religion, not gospel); and finally we see someone coming to us, someone we have treated horribly our entire lives, someone who we would ignore if the circumstances are reversed.
In this parable, Jesus describes a Samaritan rescuing the beaten man. The Samaritans were despised and hated by the Jews; and the feelings were mutual. Jesus does this purposefully. It is one thing to see ourselves saving the day by being good, wise, and gracious.

It is another thing to be literally lying in our own blood, dying, and see someone come by whom we’ve ignored and treated callously. That is our condition when Christ comes to us. We don’t like to think of him as the Samaritan because we don’t like to think we’ve treated him so horribly; but we have. We ignore him, we take credit for the mercies he’s shown us, we treat his other creatures with contempt (look at all those stupid legalists, or moral failures, or Democrats, or Republicans, or charismatics, or non-charismatics…), and we expect God to bless us because of all the “good” we have done.

Yet, despite how we’ve treated him, he sees us lying on the road, bloodied and beaten, naked, and penniless; and he heals us, clothes us, and provides all that we need.

When we see our own hopeless condition and when we see him doing that for us, doesn’t it melt our hearts? When we see someone that we hate – yes, in some ways we have actually hated God – coming to rescue us, doesn’t something shift in our hearts? When that happens, we can safely look at the Good Samaritan Parable one more time.

The parable ends with Jesus telling the lawyer to “Go and do likewise.” Scripture does not record the lawyer’s final question, but that lawyer must have been asking:

Where do I get the power to be like the Good Samaritan?
In our first reading of the parable, picturing ourselves as the Good Samaritan either made us proud (Why can’t everyone else be as generous as I am?) or it made us despair (I simply cannot give as much as God requires). 

After seeing Christ stoop down to love and care for us when we deserved the opposite of his healing help, we can now read about the Good Samaritan and see ourselves caring for and loving others. Because we cannot be proud – however bad the people are we help, they are wonderful compared to how we have treated Christ. We also cannot despair – he lovingly gives us all that we need even when we deserve nothing.
As we see Christ caring for his enemies – us! – we can now turn and pour out our hearts in love for those around us. We don’t need to grasp at self glory; for Christ is pouring himself into our hearts daily. We are filled with abundance; we are overflowing; we have more than enough to give.

When we limit the moral code – to who is our neighbor, or what defines murder, or how is adultery committed? – we also give ourselves rules that we think we can obey and then declare ourselves okay.
Instead, when we see the breadth of love and the flourishing life that God envisions for all humans – his ultimate loving us as his neighbors – then we fall on our knees and say, “We cannot do it.” We are forced to cry for help. Our snobbery is removed, we fall too far short. How can we despise others when we fall so far short ourselves? So we are finally freed from Legalistic Superiority.

And then we see him removing his own robe to dress us in it, and pouring his love on our wounds, and not only risking his life but losing his life for us. Then, in the humility of our weakness and in the confidence of his love, we can go and shower others with love because we are overflowing with what he has given us. So we are finally freed from Legalistic Consumerism.

Why didn’t God just start over after Adam and Eve rebelled against him? God knew from the moment of that first sin that he was on a road that would eventually lead to the cross, dying for his enemies. As we see him in scripture loving us, pursuing us, healing us, and raising us up with him, we are finally freed from Legalistic Aesop’s-Fable-ism; because we finally see that scripture is all about him.

And finally, we see his pursuit of us and his love for us, and we say: he alone is enough for us. And the legalistic snake is killed.

© Copyright 2011, Beliefs of the Heart, Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sam Williamson grew up in Detroit, Michigan, USA. He is the son of a Presbyterian pastor and grandson of missionaries to China. He moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1975. He worked in London England from 1979 to 1982, helping to establish Antioch, a member community of the Sword of the Spirit. After about twenty-five years as an executive at a software company in Ann Arbo he sensed God call him to something new. He left the software company in 2008 and now speaks at men’s retreats, churches, and campus outreaches. His is married to Carla Williamson and they have four grown children and a grandson. He has a blog site, www.beliefsoftheheart.com, and can be reached at Sam@BeliefsoftheHeart.com. 

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