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Lawless Legalists

Though Scripture frequently reminds us that we are “under law to Christ” (1 Cor. 9.21), which is, indeed, a “perfect law” (Jms. 1.25), and that we are obliged to “fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6.2) by “keeping his commandments” (cf. 1 Jn. 5.3; 2.3), many insist that we are not bound by sacred law. In their view, a heart-felt religion is incompatible with one based upon an inflexible code of restraints and obligations.

To express their antipathy for those who “in faith and love” sincerely attempt to “hold fast the pattern of sound words” with exactitude (2 Tim. 1.13), advocates of the not-under-law view often compare their religious antagonists to the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, pejoratively describing them as “legalists.”

The term is a misnomer, of course, for one wonders who would ever desire to become an illegalist.

Still, a legalist, allegedly, is one who relies too strictly on the details of the law, owing to an overzealousness to uphold the legal code. Ostensibly, this disposition is wrong.

But were the Pharisees actually legalists — i.e., too strict in their observance of God’s law? According to Christ, they were not.

The Lord described them as “full of…lawlessness (Mt. 23.28). The Greek term literally denotes: without law. The clash between our Lord and the Pharisees did not stem from the notion that the Pharisees too rigidly upheld God’s law; on the contrary, they had an utter disregard for God’s legal code.

If that is so, in what sense could they be legalists? Had they become, somehow, “lawless” legalists?

Furthermore, if the Pharisees were too strict in their observance of the law, why was Christ the one who insisted on keeping every “jot” and “tittle” of the law, while the shameful “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” permitted others to “break” (unbind) God’s commandments (Mt. 5.17-20) — a practice which would inhibit admittance into the “kingdom of heaven” (v. 20)?

In truth, the Pharisees cared nothing for God’s law — theirs was a dependency on their own authority (Rm. 10.3). Thus, they had no qualms with “laying aside the commandment of God” for the sake of their own “tradition” (cf. Mk. 7.1-8; Mt. 15.1-9).

Jesus said to them:

“All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mk. 7.9).

Their custom trumped God’s law — and if God’s law ever interfered with their custom, they simply threw his law out. Hence, Jesus said:

“Did not Moses give you the law, yet none of you keeps the law?” (Jn. 7.19; cf. Acts 7.53).

Accordingly, far from being legalists, the self-righteous Pharisees had become illegalists (i.e., lawless). Not only did they reject divine authority, they failed to discern the priorities of God’s law itself.

So that we may avoid the Pharisaic disposition, consider what the law of Christ desires from us, in order of importance:

The Heart

Many of the Pharisees possessed a “heart” that was “far from” God (Mk. 7.6). This manifested itself in a variety of ways.

First, though they often taught what was right, they frequently failed to do it themselves (cf. Mt. 23.1-3). This made them “hypocrites” (Mt. 23.13). God wants more than mere lip-service (Mt. 15.8).

Second, when the Pharisees actually did what God’s law required of them, their deeds were performed in mere pretense (cf. Mt. 23.25-28). Heartless worship is “vain” worship (Mt. 15.9; cf. Jn. 4.24).

Third, the Pharisees failed to discern the importance of moral imperatives over ceremonial imperatives. By so doing, they stripped the heart out of the law.

To illustrate: Jesus, on several occasions, healed others on the Sabbath day (cf. John 5.1-15; Mt. 12.1-13). Like the Pharisees of old, many today suppose that Jesus was setting aside the law in these instances — that he was a Sabbath-breaker.

The opposite is true. By failing to exercise compassion — even on the Sabbath day — it was the Pharisees who were breaking God’s law; Jesus, through compassion, was fulfilling it. Hence, Paul wrote that “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rm. 13.10).

Ironically, the Pharisees understood this in select circumstances — they circumcised on the Sabbath without breaking it (Jn. 7.21-24); they fed and watered their own animals on the Sabbath (Lk. 13.15-17); and if their animal happened to fall into a ditch on that day, they immediately pulled it out (Lk. 14.1-6). It was “lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mt. 12.12).

The law did not need to be ignored in order to satisfy some human need — the satisfaction of human need was the law. The ceremonial Sabbath requirement never annulled the moral imperative to do good.

What’s more, while the Pharisees willingly paid tithe for “mint and anise and cumin,” they “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Mt. 23.23).

Again, it should be observed that mercy is not in conflict with the law, as so many today suggest, but that mercy itself is a “matter of the law.” The law requires mercy. These “weightier” moral precepts (justice, mercy, faith, etc.) are more important than ritual (cf. Prov. 21.3; Hos. 6.6).

The principle is this: love is “more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mk. 12.33). God’s people, who were quick to ritual but slow to compassion for the downtrodden, too often missed this point (cf. Isa. 1.10-17).

Hence, while both mercy and ritual must be maintained, when, on rare occasions, mercy and ritual are at odds, mercy must always come first. What Christian, imbued with the heart of Christ, could ever witness a catastrophic car-wreck on his way to church-services, and refuse to stop to render some sort of aid, simply because he refuses to be late for worship? Such heartlessness stems from lawless Pharisaism, not from the law of Christ (cf. Jms. 4.17; Lk. 10.25-37).

The Heart That Obeys God

While some emphasize ritualistic exactitude to the neglect of compassion, justice, or even faith, others, on the other hand, suppose that mercy negates obedience — that is, that grace means we don’t have to be sticklers for keeping God’s commands. Neither extreme will due.

Some suppose that the heart is all that matters. However, the heart is not a sufficient substitute for obedience. In other words, just because you feel sincere in what you do, doesn’t make what you do right (cf. Acts 23.1; 26.9; Prov. 14.12).

By way of example: King Saul was instructed to slaughter the Amalekites in retribution for their callous crimes against God’s people. This included animals as well as people (1 Sam. 15.1-3). Yet, Saul spared the best of the animals. His excuse? They were spared so as “to sacrifice to the Lord” (1 Sam. 15.15).

Surely, if the people desired to worship God in their own way, God would accept it, right? Samuel called his actions “evil in the sight of the Lord” (1 Sam. 15.18-19). The king needed to learn this principle: “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15.22). Obedience takes precedence over ceremony. Worship given to the Lord, however sincere, is meaningless unless it is worship devised by the Lord.

God wants us to “obey” him “from the heart” (Rom. 6.17). Law and love must go together (cf. Rm. 13.8; Gal. 5.14; Jn. 13.34; Mt. 22.34-40). And obedience is but an expression of that love (cf. Jn. 14.15; 1 Jn. 5.3; 2 Jn. 1.6; 2 Tim. 1.13).

Conversely, “self-imposed religion,” devised from man’s own heart, has never been permissible, no matter how sincere or well-intentioned (Col. 2.23; cf. Jer. 10.23; Prov. 28.26). Those who make up religious practices from their own hearts, substituting the “tradition of men” in place of the “commandment of God,” are, like the lawless Pharisees, displaying a “heart” that is “far from” God (Mk. 7.6).

The Heart That Obeys God In Every Detail

While sincerity and compassion are most important, and obedience is likewise essential, ritualistic exactitude must also be pursued, though we certainly come short in this pursuit (1 Jn. 1.8).

Nonetheless, the child of faith will love every precept flowing from the mouth of God (Ps. 119.1-8), no matter how minute (Mt. 4.4). He will not pick-and-choose. Rather, the law of Christ must be preserved in its entirety, without amendment (Gal. 1.6-9).

As indicated earlier, the Pharisees were cherry-pickers of God’s word — they selected commands to obey, and commands to set aside. This disposition is wrong. While they accepted the ceremonial tithe of “mint and anise and cumin,” they neglected “justice and mercy and faith.”

In response, Jesus said:

“these you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Mt. 23.23).

Both the ritualistic and the moral matters were required by law. Those today who uphold compassion and arbitrarily abandon ritual are as much in error as their Pharisaic counterparts.


Let us ever strive for balance, “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10.5), while keeping in view the priorities of God's law.

Ritual is essential; but ritual without obedience is useless. Likewise, obedience is essential; but obedience devoid of the heart lacks all power.

When these three elements combine, however, God and his law are honored. And if that makes one a “legalist,” then I’d rather be a “legalist” than an illegalist any day!


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