The Dangers Of Legalism


The following quote is taken from “Mark” in St. Andrew’s Expository Commentary by R. C. Sproul.  I thought the teaching was particularly informative and beneficial.

Mark 7:6 – 8; “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.  And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’  For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men – the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”

“ . . . Legalism raises its ugly head in the lives of the people of God in many ways, but when religious authorities bind people’s consciences where God has left them free, adding human regulations to the law of God, that is the worst and most devastating form of legalism.

Here is the irony: every time we add to the law of God, we inevitably subtract from it, because instead of putting our attention on the things that God is concerned about, human regulations cause us to lose sight of what concerns Him.  We begin to major in minors.  We begin to give our devotion to our own traditions, our own human regulations.

We have seen this in the Christian community again and again.  In some groups, Christian piety is defined as refraining from wearing lipstick, dancing, going to movies, playing cards, and so forth, as if these activities had anything to do with the kingdom of God.  In one sense, when these kinds of regulations are established, authentic righteousness is not simply obscured, it is discounted.  After all, it is easier to refrain from wearing lipstick than from displaying pride.  It is easier to stop going to movies than to start loving one’s enemies.  We have all we can do to seek the righteousness that God’s law sets forth for us without worrying about petty issues.  But that is what had happened in Israel.  The Pharisees were absolutely majoring in minors.  They had turned the supreme law of God into petty regulations, which obscured the majesty of the law of God.

I am an ordained minister of the gospel, but I have no right or authority to bind anyone’s conscience absolutely.  Only God has the power and the authority to do that.  You might not like the traditions that I like.  You are not going to be judged for that.  However, there is an apostolic tradition.  This is the tradition that has been passed down in the church from God Himself.  That is where our focus is to be, and we must not let anyone or anything divert us from that to something of human invention.

No person in the history of our planet has come close to obeying the whole law of God – except Jesus, who kept it perfectly.  Only Jesus could dare to say to His contemporaries, ‘Which of you convicts Me of sin?’ (John 8:46a).  In other words, ‘Show Me where I have ever broken the law of God.’  His food was to do the will of His Father (John 4:34).  As the new Adam, it was His obligation to keep every jot and tittle of the law of God, and He did just that.  However, He could not have cared less for human conventions.  When Jesus saw a person suffering with leprosy, He touched him.  When He saw a man who could not walk, He healed him, even though it was the Sabbath day.  When He saw a man in the throes of demonic possession, screaming in a graveyard, He went into that place and cast out that evil spirit.

The major problem with legalism is that it is a subtle form of idolatry; it elevates that which is human above that which is divine.  It substitutes human traditions, human policies, and human regulations for the very Word of God.  Whenever we serve the creature rather than the Creator, we are involved in idolatry.  The Pharisees and scribes thought they were the most righteous people on the face of the earth, but they were idolaters.”