Jesus described quintessential phariseeism as He spoke out against self-righteousness in the most direct of ways, as recorded in Matthew 23. An exhaustive exegesis of the chapter would render a more comprehensive version, but His seven pithy “woe to you” statements give us the essentials in synopsis.
- Legalism is an exercise in unbelief, excluding people from a salvation that is by grace alone through faith alone.
- Legalism is zealous for its brand, and demands conformity to itself rather than true discipleship.
- Legalism consumes itself with technicalities at the expense of truth.
- Legalism majors on minors and neglects matters of first importance.
- Legalism deals in externals and ignores the matters of the heart.
- Legalism nurtures hypocrisy as it concerns itself more with appearances than realities.
- Legalism results in delusional denial of its own dismal inadequacy.
Do the exercise yourself and you might phrase things a little differently, but you’ll inevitably reach the same conclusions. Call it what you will – self-righteousness; phariseeism; legalism; dead religion; fundamentalism; self-effort – our best attempts are in such contradiction to the heart of God as to be futile exercises in unrighteousness all. Little wonder that Isaiah described them as filthy rags (literally used menstrual cloths) and Paul as dung (literally excrement).
The caution to all of us is that self-righteous people don’t recognise themselves as self-righteous. They measure themselves by themselves, and make good grades. It requires an intervention of the Lord to break the delusion. Hence my prayer is that any pride we take in our own particular version of Christianity may so come to appall us that we can never boast in it ever again. Without Jesus we are nothing, even if we’re able to so craft a veneer that we fool even ourselves, and perhaps only ourselves at that. It is by grace that we have been saved, through faith, and not of ourselves. We have nothing to boast about or place confidence in, other than Him. Our church, our obedience, our gifts and callings – these all count for nought! His church, His obedience, His perfect and finished work – these are everything!
Nothing is more freeing than discovering that Jesus counts for everything, and that everything else counts for nothing. This big idea is what ushers us into an authenticity of faith which is secure, peaceful, joyful and loving. It has nothing to prove and nothing to strive for. It is content, not contentious, and gifts salvation to everyone, irrespective of circumstance.