Wow! “Legalist” and “hypocrite” no doubt conjure up many different ideas in your mind. Maybe you’ve been called one of those…or both! Often, people who use those words do so because they don’t like rules and standards. But imagine if it was Jesus calling you a hypocrite and saying that what you were teaching was legalistic! That would carry a lot more weight!
When the Pharisees came to Jesus, they were on the offensive. They wanted Jesus to answer for the moral failures of his disciples because they didn’t go through a ritualistic hand washing before they ate. Mind you, this isn’t a matter of hygiene, it was about tradition. (Just to clarify, you SHOULD WASH YOUR HANDS!) The Pharisees, in their effort to separate from anything impure, had instituted ceremonial washings. However, the act of watching became the main most important thing and the desire for inward purity gave way to external cleanliness.
So when they confronted Jesus about His disciples not following their rules, he turned around and confronted them about their failure to follow God’s clear commands for holiness. He referred back to Isaiah 29:13 where God said, “Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:” This cut straight to the heart of the issue as the fear of the Lord was no longer indicated by how well you kept HIS commandments, but by how well you obeyed the authority’s extrabiblical rules. Oh, they would outwardly say that they were committed to following God, but their hearts had no such desire.
We must be careful that we don’t fall into the same trap. There are things that are good to do, but they must not become the standard by which our relationship with God is measured. That must be determined by how we follow HIS commandments. The only way to know His commandments is to go to Scripture – to know Him.
The commands of Scripture are not an exhaustive list of everything you should do, say, think, wear, listen to, or view. There will be actions that are derived from Scriptural principals. But when we look at Scriptural principals, we must be careful not to conflate that as a standard of holiness.
For instance, the Bible says we should avoid every appearance of evil. Some would view the association of playing cards with gambling. Therefore, they determine that, in order to follow God’s command, they should not use playing cards. That is a reasonable application of the principle. However, if they say that anyone who uses playing cards is not right with God, they have made their application of a principle a test of holiness. This is legalism.
On the other hand, Romans 13 says that we are supposed to be subject to our authorities. It is not legalism to say that if you are declaring your rebellion to authorities that you are not right with God. God has given a specific command to do something and you are not doing it.
But remember, just DOING the right thing without a heart of submission to God is not enough either. The Bible commands us to give back to the Lord a portion of what He has given to us. If you give, but only so that others will see you as a respectable member of the church, you, like the Pharisees have missed the point.
Do right and do it with the right heart – a heart of humility before God. Don’t be a legalistic hypocrite!