Legalism: The First Part of Self-righteousness is Still SELF

What does Legalism Offer?

For many people, religion is mainly a form of legalism that embraces holiness and righteousness, but that is the opposite of Christianity. Rather than spiritual transformation, many religions emphasize following a set of laws or rules to achieve perfection. Unfortunately, such religions are usually reduced to bunch of do’s and don’ts, the kind of oversight that kills rather than quickens the spirit. Religion based on self-righteousness always devolves into supercilious superiority and an endless spiral of comparison to others who are not as devout.

The Apostle Paul understood all about that when he said “…[I am] found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; ” (Philippians 3:9 NKJV)

As someone who was raised in the strict tenets of Jewish orthodoxy, Paul knew all about legalism. He had kept the law from his youth. He was educated in the Scriptures, and he had spent his life pursuing righteousness. At any party or social gathering, he was probably always the most righteous person in the room.

A Hebrew of the Hebrews

Paul summarized his qualifications to be self-righteous in the verses just preceding this one. “If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews. Concerning the law, a Pharisee; regarding zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (verses 3:4-6).

Saul of Tarsus was so zealous in his legalism that he persecuted and killed those who opposed what he believed. (Funny how legalistic people do that in the name of religion, whether Jewish or Christian or Muslim. It’s given us the taking of the Holy Land, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and now Isis, all done in the name of following God…)

The Perfect Example of Self-Righteousness

In terms of being pure, Saul of Tarsus dotted all the “i’s” and crossed all the t’s. People who create their own righteousness will always have a subtle (or obvious) superiority complex, because they have “earned” the right to be better than everyone else. They are the speck-plank people Jesus spoke about in Luke 6:41: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” There are lots of folks can pontificate about the sins that others have while harboring their own. A self-made man often becomes his own self-made god.

One of the deeply ingrained facets of human nature is the desire to be acceptable. This is not so bad in itself. But, when it is extended out to its logical conclusion, it becomes a dangerous and deadly vice that moves from a natural desire to be loved and accepted to a selfish desire to attain that favor by being better than others.

How many times have you seen people try to elevate themselves by stepping on the backs of others? It’s where bullying, bigotry, and racism come from. We all experienced that in middle school, but even when we’re adults it never goes away, does it? Arrogant jerks try to lift themselves up by putting someone else down; insecure people deflect from their own personal flaws by pointing out the flaws that others have. And it happens in RELIGION more than anywhere else.

An Amazing Change

Let me be clear: NO FOLLOWER OF JESUS DOES THOSE THINGS! Paul was a great example of that. As a young man, Saul had not only felt superior in terms of righteousness, he felt he had the right to persecute and kill Christians. Now, however, writing this letter, the former zealous Pharisee wept as he prayed for the Philippians, the very kind of people he once persecuted. What changed for Paul? He traded his legalism for love, his egotistical feelings of superiority for humility. He found a gift of righteousness he could not earn, and he says he found himself “in Christ”.

What did he mean by that? He meant that he quit being a Pharisee in order to follow Jesus. He traded his religious fervor for a relationship forever. Paul lost his material things to become rich, stopped following the law in order to live by faith, and found himself out of control and in love. The false security of legalism paled in comparison to the fellowship he found in the sufferings and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Once Paul found Christ, he traded haughtiness for humility, cruelty for compassion, and legalism for love. He exchanged the smug superiority of the bigot for the heartfelt compassion of the converted. The self-righteous will never know the humility of the cross; those who earn their own small version of righteousness will miss the magnitude of Grace. The next time you are mad about someone else’s sin, stop for a moment to be grateful for the Grace that covered yours.

A Time to Judge

If you are trying to be righteous, don’t achieve it: Accept it. Stop being religious and start being in RELATIONSHIP. The path to righteousness is not in religion but in a relationship with God based on GRACE. It’s not what you earn but what you learn; it’s not what you achieve but what you receive; and it’s not rising above, but falling in love. Be found in Him.

The truest hope for the human race
Is not in righteousness, but grace.
Legalism just imparts self-righteousness to human hearts,
Where narcissistic judgment sits with bold self-righteous hypocrites!
Instead of judging sins all day,
Embrace the grace that came your way!
On that point Jesus never budged:
Judge not, my friend, lest ye be judged.
So, if you follow Jesus, know that I can’t be much clearer:
The only time to judge is when you’re looking in the mirror.

To buy my latest book, Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here:
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here:
To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: