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Holiness or Legalism?



(Matthew 5:17-20 NIV)  Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.  Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.


(Romans 3:20-22a NIV)  Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.  But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.


(2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV)  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.



By this point in His sermon, Jesus has laid some major groundwork for citizens of God’s Kingdom.  Notice how His approach has been one of establishing attitudes (“be’s”) rather than rules (“do’s” and “don’ts”) for God’s people.  All this stuff probably seemed very new to many of the Israelites, who were now accustomed to the legalism of the Pharisees.  This is probably why Jesus now comes full circle and re-emphasizes the divine purpose of the Law of Moses and His Mission regarding it.


“Jesus’ teachings did not replace the Old Testament. They represent the completion and accomplishment of the Old Testament. He lived out what He taught and thus, was the only person to be what the Old Testament taught all people should be. Jesus’ teachings completed the Old Testament at the level of motivation and intentions. Jesus called people to join God's kingdom and be like God.”— Disciple's Study Bible.


The Pharisees had gone to such extremes in their legalism that they had forgotten what the Law was there to do. They perceived Jesus as a lawbreaker rather than someone who was teaching them to use the Law to become more like God in His righteousness.  The element of mercy and compassion was forgotten.  The Spirit was taken out of worshipping God “in Spirit and in Truth”.  They worshipped the Law instead of God.  Jesus was teaching them about the ultimate reality of the Law—to point out God's holiness.  The Law, however, in and of itself, cannot make us like God or grant us holiness (Romans 3:20ff).  Obedience to God’s Word, out of having sincere faith that God speaks truth, is what is credited unto us as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).  God gives us His Law to establish a relationship with Him, not with His Law.  The Law was made for man, not man for the Law (Mark 2:27).


“The righteousness of God is all that God demands and approves, and is ultimately found in Christ Himself, who fully met in our stead every requirement of the Law. Through accusation Christ has ‘become for us . . . righteousness’ (2 Corinthians 5:21)”-Scofield’s Study Bible.


(Philippians 3:8-9 NIV)  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.


(Romans 8:3-4 NIV)  For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.


In His Footsteps © 1998                                                    





Holiness or Legalism?




What is legalism?  Mark 7:1-13 shows us an example of legalism.  Jesus points out that the Pharisees had gone above the Law.  What concern did the Pharisees bring to Jesus?  Was their concern for God's Law, or the traditions of men?  Is it wrong to practice traditions, or is it wrong to hold on to them as if they were God's Law (verses 6 & 7)?  When is it OK to practice traditions (verses 8 & 9)?  We become aware of two examples in this passage where teachings of men took precedence over God's Law in the Pharisees’ hearts.  The Pharisees had instituted traditions for washing cups and other items where the Law had made no such provisions.  In the next instance, they make a loophole in God's Law to benefit themselves and please men.  Although the world defines legalism with negative connotations, as a strict adherence to a code of law, the Bible presents the “legalism of the Pharisees” as having nothing to do with strict observance of the Law.  As you can see, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for raising men’s teachings to the level of God’s doctrine, not for observing every letter of the Law.  The word legalistic, appearing only once in the New Testament (Philippians 3:6), is not used in the same manner many have decided to use it nowadays.



Since rule-following became more and more emphasized in the society Jesus visited, He always made a point to “break tradition” and encourage people towards being merciful and compassionate.  The Book of Mathew was written for a society that was spiritually out of touch with God and His holiness.  Jesus came to present the reality of relating with God through Himself (Jesus).  He reinstates His mission of fulfillment in Matthew 5:17 and again in Luke 24:44-46.  The Holy Spirit teaches us through Paul how Jesus was always the center and focus of the Old Testament and how the New Testament brings us closer to the reality to come in Christ, namely Heaven (Colossians 2:16, 17; Hebrews 8:5-13; 10:1).  Jesus cast the shadow of the Law of Moses due to His holiness and He is the reality of the covenant of grace and mercy in His name (John 1:17).  Jesus is at the center of redemption in the Old Testament and is Newness and Peace in the New Testament (Hebrews 9:15).  He is the fulfillment, embodiment and purpose of God’s Law and He is the only way we can be reconciled back to God.  He is the answer to the promise God gave Adam and Eve since the foundation of the world (Genesis 3:14-15; Galatians 4:4-7; Hebrews 2:14-15; Romans 16:20).



It is God’s holiness that demands perfection or punishment of sin.  Read Galatians 3:10-13.  Why are we under a curse if we follow the Law?  Why can’t the Law justify us before God?  How did Jesus redeem us?  Since God is light, without any darkness at all, any impurity shuts us away from His presence (Isaiah 59:1,2).  In living a perfect, sinless life, Jesus was able to fulfill the requirements of the Law and become the source of salvation and justification for all who live in Him.  The merits granted by the Law can only be found in His life and death (Romans 6:3-5).  Our forgiveness is obtained by God’s grace because He allowed His Son to be sacrificed so that we can have a relationship with Him.  He shows compassion in letting us approach Him for forgiveness of sins.  Holiness is a requirement of being able to have a relationship with God (Hebrews 12:10-14; 2 Corinthians 7:1).  Fortunately, we cannot obtain holiness by legalistic righteousness (by our own merit)—only through faith in the one who became righteousness for our sake and extended that righteousness ([God’s approval] holiness) to us who bear His name (1 Corinthians 1:27-31; 2 Corinthians 5:21)!



How can our righteousness surpass that if the Pharisees?  Good question!  The righteousness that exceeds has to do with attitude more than it has to do with works.  You can’t “do more” to become “better”.  That was the mentality of the Pharisees.  In Christ we already are better, so, we exceed any merit-based righteousness by virtue of the Christ-like righteousness we possess in Jesus.  This righteousness is exemplified by the attitudes (Beatitudes) that preface Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Working examples are given in the rest of the Sermon.   Read through the rest of the Sermon (Matthew 5, 6 and 7) from the perspectives gained from this week’s quiet times.



Your desires as a Christian should be more than just living within the parameters God has given you.  You now ought to think of growing in intimacy in your relationship with God (2 Peter 3:18; Philippians 1:9-11), as you hopefully desire to do in a relationship with a loved one—a relationship that is based on loyalty, trust, and purity (wholeheartedness).  Whereas the Law has brought us to Christ because it pointed out our shortcomings, now faith in Christ, shown by our loyalty to Him as our Groom (Matthew 25:1ff; Revelation 19:7, 8; 21:1ff), is what justifies our relationship with God (Romans 8:12-17).  No one with common sense would decide to make a lifelong commitment with another soul in marriage unless that person has shown a desire to be loyal, committed and dedicated to the relationship.  In the same manner, our faith, trust and loyalty to Jesus, our Groom, is what has been credited to us as righteousness and is shown by our obedience to God (James 2:21-26).


For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 5:20



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