Legalism is misunderstood by most Christians. Even most ministers don't know what it is.
I used to believe legalism had to do with man-made rules and regulations designed by sincere, God-loving people who were trying to lead holy lives. I thought it was all about observing dress-code restrictions and other do's and don't's.
No - legalism is much more subtle than rules and regulations. It goes far beyond that!
When I was a boy, I heard evangelists thunder against the sins of the day. They preached against bobbed hair, women's "open-toe" shoes, makeup and fancy dresses. This was called "Holiness" preaching - but the standards kept changing with the new fads.
I thought that was legalism!
When I first came to New York City more than thirty years ago, I was shocked by all the rigid rules in Hispanic Pentecostal churches. Our workers would go to the streets, pray with drug addicts and try to get them into local churches. But if a newly saved girl was wearing jeans or makeup, the pastor would rush out and say, "You can't come in here dressed like that!"
One minister told a young girl, "Go home and dress like a woman - then come back. We don't allow worldliness in this church!"
I thought that was legalism!
A young couple in England who received our newsletters began listening to tapes of our services at Times Square Church. They grew to love the messages of holiness. So they came to visit - but when I met them after a service, they looked hurt, crushed, their eyes filled with tears. They told me they were upset because the women in our church did not wear head coverings! They said, "How can the Holy Spirit be at work here, when you don't obey the command to cover a woman's head?"
I thought that was legalism!
I hear from prayer groups all across the country who are tossed, turned and left confused by all kinds of new rules brought in by passing teachers. One tells them, "You must kneel to pray. God hears only those who kneel." Another teacher comes along and says, "You must sit in His presence. You need not kneel - that is Catholic!" Someone else says, "You must stand when the Bible is read. You dishonor God when you sit during the reading of the Word!" Yet another tells them, "That is bondage! Jesus made the people sit when He preached the Word!"
I thought all this was legalism!
It is indeed all rules and regulations. But all of this is only a part of legalism - it is not the heart of the matter.
Legalism is far worse than all these things. In fact, all of us have a bit of its leaven in our hearts - because legalism is based on pride!
Legalism Is an Outward Show, a Facade - a Pretense of Holiness to Impress People, Not God!
At its heart, legalism is a desire to appear holy. It is trying to be justified before men and not God!
Legalism is wanting to be known as a prophet, a man of prayer, a woman of intercession - and feeding and fostering such an image!
The legalist is not out to earn justification. He is more interested in appearances, in impressing other Christians that he is devoted, pious, serious, all-out for God. He says, "I am deeply religious - and everybody ought to see it!"
We see this in the Jewish Talmudic writers' list of seven classes of Pharisees. Among these classes were:
* The Shechemites. These Pharisees said long prayers in public to be considered holy - but on the side they robbed widows of their estates!
* The Stumblers. These were so mock-humble they wouldn't dare lift their feet before a holy God. Instead, they shuffled along with a "poor, humble, insignificant me" attitude.
* The Bleeders. This group would not lift their eyes from the ground, lest they look at something evil. They got their name from constantly walking into walls; the more they bled, the holier they were!
Beloved, these types are in every church! They have a sad, serious, "holy" look. Some of them dare not raise their hands to praise God - nor clap and be happy or joyful! They think of themselves as "shut in with God," holy, above everybody else. They sit in "deep meditation," their lips moving, lost in the Spirit. Yet "all their works they do for to be seen of men" (Matthew 23:5).
God Has Lovingly Reminded Me of Some of My Legalistic Games!
Last year, Gwen and I spent a vacation at a Florida hotel with some dear friends, a couple from Texas, Dr. and Mrs. Rice. We all had spent the week seeing Disney World, and now we just wanted to relax. As we stood in the lobby of the hotel, Gwen suggested we go to the Rices' room to play dominoes.
Now, I know the Rices have always considered me to be a righteous man - and I figured I didn't want to blow it! I realized that during the week our friends hadn't once seen me retreat to pray. I thought, "How am I supposed to be holy in front of these people if I don't go pray?"
So I told them, "I'm sorry, I can't play dominoes. I need to go in my room and touch God. You all go ahead and play."
But do you know what I was really saying? "I don't have time to waste, like you poor earthlings! You worldly minded ones go and tinkle around with dominoes. This prophet is going to shut himself in with God!"
(I ask you: How can you relax at playing dominoes when you know that someone like that is nearby, "pleading with God"?)
When I got to our room it was about eight o'clock. I thought, "I'll watch just a half hour of CNN News - then I'll pray." One hour of news later, CNN announced an upcoming documentary on the rise and fall of Hitler. I quickly reasoned, "That has to do with prophecy - I have to see it!"
At a quarter to ten, I'd already seen Hitler rise and fall - when I heard Gwen coming down the hall!
I jumped up, ran to the TV, shut it off, turned out the light - and fell on my face in the dark at the foot of the bed!
When Gwen walked in she saw her devoted prophet husband getting up slowly from his holy position - piously acting as if he had been in prayer for two hours. I looked up meekly, rubbing my eyes, and said to Gwen, "Oh, honey, isn't the Lord good?"
I hope you can laugh at this as loudly as our congregation did when I shared it in my sermon! But, more importantly, I hope you laugh at it hard enough to drive the truth down into your soul: We all play games. trying to maintain a facade of holiness before people! I had to maintain my image of a holy man - and that is legalism at its worst!
The fact is, people who truly have the righteousness of the Lord don't have to put on airs. They are common, ordinary folks who know how to weep and laugh and enjoy Jesus and the fellowship of the saints. They are involved in other people's burdens and needs - and they're not always "shut away," trying to maintain an image!
We all look at appearances - but God sees the heart! We each need to come down from our high horse of pretentious holiness - to be honest and ourselves, the way we know God sees us. That is the only way to enjoy true fellowship with Him and with each other!
-Taken from The Gospel of Grace (TSCPulpit Series) David Wilkerson
Grace, peace and joy to you all!!!