In college I measured my progress in faith by what I didn’t do. In ministry, I measured my progress by what I did do (my performance). In both cases, I was trying to establish a righteousness of my own, before God and others. That kind of Christianity is not only exhausting; it’s actually not Christianity at all. It’s legalism – an approach to God that treats Him as a system to be worked rather than a person to be known and loved and served.
We are all inclined to this kind of behavior:
- We elevate the particular things we are good at to a place of prominence, as if Christianity was all about that thing (“This church doesn’t do enough [blank].”)
- We make our preferences and experiences prescriptive for everyone (“You HAVE to read this book! It is life-changing.”)
- We notice who seems to be really liked and valued and make them our measuring stick, in which case we either idolize or resent them.
In John Ortberg’s words, the problem with legalism is “pseudo-transformation.” It doesn’t produce genuine growth. He points us to Matthew 23, where Jesus dresses down the religious leaders of his day for their hypocrisy. This chapter gives us a good little list of warning signs in our own lives. I’ll just mention a few:
- HYPOCRISY (23:3): They are full of good advice that they do not live by.
- APPROVAL ADDICTION (23:5): They are more concerned with being seen as righteous by men than by God. In contrast, Jesus’ good deeds made Him unclean in the sight of men and righteous in the sight of God’s.
- JUDGMENTALISM (23:6-7): They want to be admired, but not approached. Their “holiness” pushed people away. In contrast, Jesus’ holiness attracted and drew people in.
- SINGLE-ISSUE CHRISTIANITY (23:23): They miss the forest for the trees. They take pride in exacting out their tight, but neglect justice, mercy, & faithfulness
- SHALLOW CHRISTIANITY (23:25-28): They settle for the appearance of righteousness, but inside they are unchanged – selfish and indulgent.
Whenever you establish a means of righteousness that is based on your life, self-denial, and power instead of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, you are substituting works for faith. It is false religion. That is why Jesus says in verse 33: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
I am not saying that if you are legalistic, you are the devil. I am saying that the system of legalism – the idea that we can earn God’s favor – is from the devil. Satan wants us to settle for a shallow Christianity that is devoid of the life and power of the Holy Spirit. He would love for us to settle for pseudo-transformation.
So you have to be honest with yourself: Are you measuring yourself in superficial ways? By what you know, by peripheral doctrines, by things you can do in your own strength? If so, we must repent of worshipping these false gods and turn to Jesus, who is our only source and hope of righteousness.