Legalism in Seven Movements: Knocking on Heaven’s Door

At the end of my previous post, I mentioned the word “legalism.” I hear this word thrown around a lot within Christian circles. It comes up especially when someone says that, to be a Christian, you have to act in a certain way. It is almost as if the Christian community is so scared of falling into a works-based mentality that any talk of works is treated with contempt. But this is not biblically true. According to the Bible, if you have no actions to accompany your faith, then that faith is a waste of time. The Bible is clear that just believing is not enough because even demons believe the right things, but, obviously, they are not Christians.

So what is legalism? This is the question that I want to seek to answer in the next seven posts. We will base our entire discussion out of the words and teachings of Jesus Christ. Specifically, we will spend our time studying His comments toward the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23.

The dictionary definition

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online dictionary, “legalism” is defined as “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.” As we will see in coming days, this is a very accurate definition for the term. I think, though, that the Bible’s focus when condemning legalism is on the last part. Jesus condemns an overly literal conformity to the letter of the Law to the neglect of the Spirit behind it.

We see this very clearly with those Old Testament Christians that I mentioned in an earlier post.

The words of Jesus

The first thing that Jesus condemns in His condemnation of the legalistic tendencies of the Scribes and Pharisees is their overwhelming exclusivity in regards to who is “in” and who is “out.”

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13 TNIV)

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees were totally certain that they had it right. They knew the Law inside and out. They believed all the right doctrines regarding what the Messiah would look like. They were literally obedient to every letter of the Law. And they knew who was and wasn’t accepted by God. In fact, they made the decision regarding a person’s eternal destiny by their actions and words.

These were the people who called Jesus a law-breaker for healing a man on the Sabbath. These were the people who passed condemnation on Jesus and His followers for taking the shells off of pieces of grain so they could have a snack on the Sabbath. These were the people who would later put Jesus on a cross for nothing more than, basically, being a nice guy and saying that He was doing what Father God told Him to.

If you think this mentality is long-since gone, you are sorely mistaken. Take a gander at some Christian sites, and you will find the same mentality dressed in New Testament jargon. If someone has some piercings and wears dark clothing, they are considered unfit for our inclusion in God’s love. If someone happens to struggle with being attracted to members of the same sex, they are automatically out, even if they are repentant of it. If a woman has short hair or doesn’t speak in tongues, well, she’s out too. Some say if you’re not a part of the Roman Catholic Church, then you are not a part of the true church. Some say if you are a Catholic, you’re automatically out. If someone reads the wrong books or magazines or is a part of the wrong group, well, God’s love can’t extend to them either.

Blasphemer. Heretic. Apostate. Fag. Sinner. Vulgar.

There is no room in God’s family for the likes of them.

These Christians have done the same thing as the Pharisees and law teachers: they have “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.” They won’t even “let those enter who are trying to.”

And Jesus goes further. He goes on to say that these people aren’t even entering the kingdom themselves. They say they are, they look like they are, but Jesus sees right through. In an attempt to be followers of the Law as literally as possible, these people have actually excluded themselves from God’s love. Remember what God through Isaiah said to the people of Israel?

I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? (Isaiah 1: 11b-12 TNIV)

Flash forward to the present day. The same words ring just as true today as they did those many thousands of years ago. Many Christians are guilty of shutting the door to God’s kingdom in the faces even of those who are truly wishing to enter for no other reason than that they are sinners. Compassion, empathy, even sympathy are foreign to the lives of these individuals.

When we bar people from the kingdom, we inadvertently bar ourselves from it as well. No matter how true it may be that the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers or swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God, we have not been given the power to deny them admittance if they are wishing to enter. And if we do try to keep them out, we risk excluding ourselves in the process.

So, before we go any further, let it be understood that legalism has true spiritual consequences; especially for its adherents.

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