Religious legalism values discipline and strict adherence to the Law, with little to no value for the lives and well-being of those who fail to comply. Whereas, Jesus valued the lives of those who failed to keep the Law, even to the point of laying down his own life on their behalf and for their benefit.
At first glance this statement seems fair enough; I think we can definitely agree that Jesus valued the lives of sinners. We must value the lives of others in the same way Christ did. But the idea that religious legalism values the Law and true, strict adherence and discipline I believe is false. The hyper-grace, cheap-grace mentality that plagues our modern, western theology is one that often seems to buck at discipline or strict standards. The danger in this is that it moves anything to do with the Law towards legalism. This dangerous idea contradicts Jesus in suggesting he was loose where the Law was concerned. At the very least, this dangerous idea suggests that only religious legalists value discipline and the strict adherence or application of the Law. The statement is not wrong if we understand that Jesus valued lives above the Law-breaker, even to the point of laying down his own life; but I think we should remember that it wasn’t the Pharisee’s keeping of the Law that rubbed Jesus the wrong way. It was that they actually believed they were keeping the Law that Jesus had a problem with, and in so doing they fancied their own self-righteousness (which was not a true keeping of the Law) and despised those they considered to be sinners.
I hear a number of people today suggesting we need not preach against sin. I have heard it even suggested that by standing for moral excellence or preaching against sin that we, as Christians, somehow resemble the religious leaders in the story of the woman caught in adultery rather than Christ. Is this really true? Is our preaching against sin representative of the doctrine of the Pharisees?
Someone suggested the other day: Jesus is not anti-discipline, but Jesus places His value for discipline and the Law below the value He places on people. They would say something to the effect, “Like Momma always said, ‘People are more important than things.’”
This is a warm, cozy suggestion, and one again we could easily accept at face value. Is this true, though? People, and here we’re referring to sinners and saints alike, people are more important than God’s Holy Law? Is the Law just a thing to be cast aside at the supreme value of Human Life? Hmm, that’s a statement we need to weigh and measure. It might be that when we forget the Law altogether, we run dangerously close to devaluing Jesus and the purpose in Him laying down His life, and consequently the value we possess in Him.
Now, in fairness, I think all would agree Jesus values discipline. No one really could argue He didn’t. It requires discipline to fast like He did in the wilderness. In addition, He often rebukes and corrects those around Him. He appears to be a bit upset with the disciple’s lack of discipline to stay awake and pray with Him the night of his arrest. Obviously, with an even quick reflection we can agree Jesus did not hate discipline. However, these examples don’t really speak to Jesus’ value for the Law. The story about the woman caught in adultery serves a pretty good example for the sake of this discussion.
Again, to many it may appear at first glance that Jesus had a problem with the Pharisees strict adherence to the Mosaic Law, but here is a good question to consider: What did Jesus mean when he made this statement?
Matthew 23:1-3 (ESV) Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”
The Pharisees taught the Law. Obviously, Jesus didn’t have a problem with the Pharisees’ preaching the Law. It can be seen throughout Jesus’ ministry that He had a serious problem with their shady practices and formulas devised with the clever intention of “keeping the Law.” In fact, if you read further in Matthew 23 you will find Jesus explaining exactly what He had a problem with. They thought their sanctimonious religious rules added to the Law preserved their sanctity, as such they thought themselves whole, and in terms of what Jesus had to offer, in need of nothing. Elsewhere Jesus also condemns the Pharisees for believing that in their knowledge of the scriptures alone that they had eternal life.
Jesus is constantly reframing things for the Pharisees to break up the fallow ground of their wicked hearts. He showed them with the adulterous woman that their sin left them no less guilty than a common street prostitute. At another time He used a forgiven street prostitute as she washed Jesus’ feet with her kisses and hair as an example to a religious leader of true gratitude. He compared a religious leader to a forgiven prostitute, who had been forgiven much – the audacity! However, I don’t think Jesus had a problem with anyone’s strict adherence to the Law or to discipline. He had a problem with religious legalists misapplying the Law so as not to accomplish the purpose for which the Law had been given. He had a problem with the Law being used as a tool for legalism, license or a formula for attaining righteousness.
Concerning the woman caught in adultery, a friend of mine put it well this way: Jesus valued sinners, but not so much that he glossed over or ignored their sin. The fact of her guilt was never in question. The simple fact with the woman caught in adultery is the men who brought her to Jesus had no moral authority to stone her. Jesus helped them see their own hypocrisy. We so, so often misinterpret that story to conclude that Jesus is soft on sin. I disagree. His final words to the woman were “Go and sin no more.”
This sums it up nicely. But let’s break down the discussion even further.
I think most agree with my friend, the woman’s guilt was never in question and was addressed in Jesus’ final statement “Go and sin no more,” but they still come away believing Jesus was soft on the Law. That is likely due to the bad light shed on the practice of stoning. (That statement was intended to be a little ironic and hard to take. But stay with me.) It is viewed that under the Mosaic Law stoning this woman caught in adultery was not only justified, it was required. Remember, Jesus said in Matthew 23 “Do what they tell you, but not the works they do.” According to the Mosaic Law, it was a requirement to also stone the man caught in adultery. In bringing only the woman the Pharisees were not observing strict adherence of the Law. They were showing partiality. I would argue they weren’t abiding by a strict enough adherence to the Law. If they were truly just they would have brought both the man and the woman. Instead, the scripture tells us they sought to test the Lord, and in their cynical, scheming hearts they overlooked a very important point. The Law applies to us all. Their sexist, prejudiced minds only brought the object of their particular scorn.
It should also be pointed out that in Jesus’ day Israel was under Roman rule. As such, the law of Rome made it so the Jews could not enforce their own capital punishment. This is why later the religious council of the Jews, the Sanhedrin, were required to bring Jesus to Pilot. They had to barter with Pilot in order to crucify Him. Anyway, the point is that the Pharisees themselves had no intention of stoning anyone. The whole setup was a trap for Jesus. Would HE enforce the Law when they had no intention of enforcing it themselves? Yet again, they were missing the whole point of the Messiah’s coming. Jesus’ response wasn’t, “She’s fine the way she is, leave her alone.” It was, “Aren’t you all sinners, too?”
God’s Law is holy and good. It means death to the sinner apart from Christ, but praise God in Christ there is Life. You see, the Law itself is good. Teaching strict adherence, sans the formula and added traditions, points the lost to their sin. Discipline, then, is what happens as we submit to the Love of God and are compelled by the Spirit to take up our cross and follow His example of loving one another. Jesus seemed to be reframing things to show us all that religious legalists and “those who fail” are all equal in the eyes of God, worthless. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” He said.
In a sense, Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees was the same problem he had with Laodicea… they didn’t recognize the Healer able to make them whole, too. It wasn’t that He had a problem with them stoning the prostitute, it was that they failed to recognize the One in front of them able to save even their worthless souls.
A simple conclusion is often made along these lines: Okay, Jesus wasn’t “soft on sin.” Still, if Jesus truly was God in the flesh and without sin like most Christians claim, then he actually did have the moral authority to execute the requirement of the Law and stone the adulterous woman. Yet he essentially let her off with a warning. Some might refer to that as “soft on sin” and consequently “loose on the Law.” [Is this true, though?]
Remember: As the great I AM, this Jesus now God in the flesh, had actually once given the Law to Moses and Israel. How could He possibly have a problem with its strict adherence? A Law that is not strictly adhered to is a suggestion. I’m telling you: the problem wasn’t in them wanting to carry out the Law. The problem He had with the religious leaders, found in His question “Who of you is without sin?” was their hypocrisy. He was saying in other words, “Why aren’t you as happy to see me as teachers of the Law, who should know who I am, as she soon will be?” This wasn’t any other day in the life of a Jew where justice was to be applied. This was the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven, where all their sinful hearts could be forgiven.
The Pharisees weren’t seeking to honor the Law or the God it represented. In testing Jesus’ loyalty to the Law they were seeking to entrap him, but in no way were they happy to see Jesus, the Messiah, come to take away the sins of the world. To Jesus, these religious hypocrites were like a child with chocolate smudges on their mouth tattling on their brother who stole the cookie. Maybe their sin wasn’t as great, but they were just as eternally doomed as the prostitute. In truth, they should have been running to Jesus hand-in-hand with the prostitute, dragging every prostitute and wretched sinner in town along the way, screaming, “Lamb of God, Lamb of God, heal us all!”
But again, this doesn’t imply softness where the Law was concerned.
This is not to suggest Jesus wanted to stone this woman. Jesus valued her life, yes. Jesus had come to proclaim mercy to the contrite heart and to set the captive free. In like manner, if the teachers of the Law had understood who Jesus truly was and had hearts of compassion, valuing this woman’s life they would have handled the situation differently. For instance, in strict adherence to the Law they could have come to Jesus saying, “Lord, every day another prostitute! We’re so tired of the bloodshed and guilt we feel carrying out your Holy Law with righteous zeal! We understand the need to cleanse the land of guilt and sin, but Lord, let’s face it… We know we’ve all fallen short of your Glory! Even Isaiah saw his worthless state compared to Your Holiness, Lord. As the promised Messiah, can’t you help us?”
“Ah, what joy!” Jesus might have thought. He could’ve then celebrated, “Guess what, guys! I’m here to carry your burdens, and I will even forgive your sins. To show you just how far I’m willing to go instead of cleansing the land of these adulterers I’m going to forgive them, too. Today Salvation Is Here!”
But again, this doesn’t mean Jesus had a problem with strict adherence to the Law. If they had strictly applied the Law to their sinful hearts He could have delivered them the Good News – that mercy had dawned like the new day! The problem was that these teachers of the Law didn’t recognize that One greater than the Law had shown up. Jesus would not have enforced the requirements of the Law. As Messiah, He had come to fulfill the Law Himself in His sacrifice once for all, thus offering to every sinner the gift of redemption. The day He showed up began the Day of Salvation. But this still doesn’t imply “softness” where the Law was concerned. If He were soft on the Law, why would He have given His own life?
You see, the Law is good, if used legitimately.
As a friend of mine put it (trying desperately to avoid sounding like a Dispensationalist): We do have to recognize the paradigm shift accomplished in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Prior to the Event we didn’t have the full ability to look past the flesh, even though Jesus strongly alluded to it in his ministry. After the Event we can now, as those by faith made righteous in His grace and as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5, no longer know each other in Christ according to the flesh. So when we read Jesus’ words about doing what the Pharisees say, but not as they do, we have to keep in mind the proximity of the change the universe was about to undergo. [This is true!]
But the paradigm shift didn’t abolish the Law, ever. And concerning the story of the adulterous woman, to the knowledge of the teachers of the Law, how the Law was to be carried out had not changed. Again, Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees was that they didn’t recognize their own Messiah, the One able to forgive all their sin.
Regarding the Law, many post-the-paradigm-shift will often say something like, “Well, the Law was for the Jews, not Gentiles. It no longer applies.” They might add, Galatians and Romans make it clear justification is by faith and not the keeping of the Law.
To this point I would remind anyone reading that Paul says often that the Law is good, in NT terms! One example comes in a letter written to a Gentile:
1 Timothy 1 (ESV) “But we know that the law is good, provided one uses it legitimately. We know that the law is not meant for a righteous person, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and irreverent, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral and homosexuals, for kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and for whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching based on the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was entrusted to me.”
The purpose of the Law was, and still is, to convict men of sin. A paradigm by definition is a typical example or pattern of something. The paradigm of the Pharisees was not based on Truth, definitely not the truth of the Law. They had established traditions outside of the Law as a formula for keeping it. Jesus’ arrival as the Messiah definitely sought to shift the pattern of thinking concerning the need for blood sacrifice and retribution of sin. What He wasn’t shifting was the example the Law set for a holy, righteous life. He didn’t loosen the standard of moral excellence, and this standard of moral excellence still stands against the sinner today. They cannot get away from it, for it is written even on their own hearts.
Concerning the Law only applying to the Jews, Jesus was certainly talking to the Jews in Matthew 23:1-3, but earlier Matthew makes it clear in his recapturing of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount how Jesus taught that the Law applies to the heart. His words speak to both Jew and Gentile alike which is why Paul tells Timothy (a Gentile) the Law is good. Thus, even in Matthew 23 I think we can infer that Jesus’ words speak to the unbeliever’s heart, whether Jew or Gentile.
Another friend of mine concerning strict adherence of the Law observes: Paul argued with Peter and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem about the necessity of Gentile Christians observing the Law. Paul and Peter evidently had a serious falling out because Peter acted one way around Paul and the Gentiles, but when the Jewish Christians showed up, who still sought to keep the Law (and may have believed the Gentiles also needed to subject themselves to the Law), Peter changed his tune. Paul went so far as to call Peter out publicly as a hypocrite for his actions against the Gentiles. Many times Paul makes the argument that Gentiles were never under the Law, and he clearly indicates they should not be put under the Law when they’ve been given something so much better through Christ. Never more so than in his letter to the Galatians. [This is so true!]
Here we must pause so as not to draw some false conclusions, though. Both Jew and Gentile believers by faith, post the paradigm shift of Jesus’ Event, have been given the free gift of Grace. Therefore, as those made righteous in Christ none are under the old Law as a standard to keep. As Sons of God, we are not ruled by an external Law. We have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, and as Paul spoke in Romans 8, “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus sets me free from the law of sin and death.” Still, you notice the word Paul uses there again? Law. We are set free from the old Law to come to the new Law of Christ (a spiritual law,) yet as I said earlier this doesn’t mean that it is any less of a law. How much more strict is it when it applies to our internal man? Paul then, in confronting Peter’s hypocrisy, wasn’t lessening the standard that the first Law served to raise. Paul knew the dietary laws no longer applied, and what Paul was more concerned with was Peter’s snubbing of the Gentiles over a portion of the old Law the Law-giver Himself made clear no longer applied to anyone. This truth was revealed through Peter, in Acts.
Jesus raised the standard for righteousness if anything! He didn’t get soft on God’s standard. Through the Law of Christ we’re not under the strict adherence and discipline of the Law of Moses because the Law of Christ applies to the heart.
Would you be so kind as to allow me to ask another question? If Jesus was soft on the first standard, the Law of Moses, then can we loosely interpret His new Law to our lives? Can we loosely apply or be undisciplined where it comes to loving one another?
Another friend of mine reminded me: In Romans 7:1-4 Paul says that we are dead to the old Law through Christ, and that we are no longer married to or in bondage to that Law any longer. We can now be in relationship to Christ. This implies that you cannot be in relationship with both, Christ and the old Law, at the same time. Paul refers to that here as adultery. In Galatians 5:18 Paul plainly states, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” So the Law is irrelevant to those who are dead in Christ and those led by the Spirit. [This is true!]
Sin, clearly revealed in our hearts by the strict application of the old Law prior to faith, is dead and gone, no longer applying to those in Christ by faith. So then, if the Law still applies at all, it would only apply to those not walking by faith (Romans 6:3) and not led by the Spirit. However, when a repentant sinner turns to the Lord the old Law is no longer enforced, either, rather they find grace and life in Christ. A problem arises when we get either of these, Law or Grace, backwards. When we seek to apply grace and life to the unrepentant, arrogant sinner; as well as when we place a strict expectation to observe the old Law upon the saint. Paul said in Romans 5:20-21 that the Law increases trespasses which brings death, Romans 4:15 that the Law brings wrath and in 2 Corinthians 3:6 that the letter of the Law brings death. It is true that we should never place ourselves, as believers in Christ, under the focus of observing the Law. Instead, we focus on the grace of Christ and leading others to this same grace in Christ where they can die to the old Law, be in relationship with Christ and be led by the Spirit. That’s where you find life and life more abundantly, rather than death.
However true this last paragraph is, the strict application of the old Law still leads us to see the dead state of our existence apart from the Life in Christ Jesus as unrepentant sinners. The old Law is not for the righteous but for the sinner. As such, it must remain unyielding, strictly enforced as a standard for moral excellence to produce the proper mirror reflection of our guilt (pre-saving Grace) before Him. And in Him, don’t think the new Law lesser to the old Law. The new Law is greater still, and only bears fruit as we lay down our lives!
Perhaps it’s a matter of focus. Like my friend said earlier, Jesus changed the paradigm. Our focus now is on Christ, not a law at all, new or old. When we fall short of the new standard of Christ’s Law, which is the command to love one another, we seek forgiveness from one another. As we’re short-changed in relationships with brothers in Christ, we forgive as many times as they repent. Love is freely given, just as He freely gave. We don’t harbor grudges or bitterness against anyone. Our focus becomes Christ’s example of love, and not an old covenant, an old way of doing things which Christ and Paul exposed as weak, insufficient and fruitless.
One might say: Jesus’ focus wasn’t on the old Law, His focus was on the Kingdom of Heaven and the Good News of the Gospel.
Again, here we must remember Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5.
Matthew 5:19-20 “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What does Jesus’ message concerning the Kingdom of Heaven mean in terms or in connection with the old commandments? Let us not think for a minute He relaxed the standard. The fact is He made a way as the only true Door and pathway for entering the Kingdom. He is the way, truth and life. To relax the least command is to truly make a mockery of His loving sacrifice.
Many can recognize problems surrounding the church today. Some have concluded: Our churches are failing to truly follow Christ’s example and the example of His Apostles. Some are adding to this conclusion: The failure has come from teaching discipline and adherence to the Old Testament Law of Moses instead of teaching about the kingdom of heaven and preaching the good news of the gospel.
They believe this improper focus is one of the reasons we don’t see more, true life-transformation in the church of America today. We are more focused on teaching obedience to the Law out of a sense of moralism than we are focused on believing in the power of Christ to change lives. Perhaps this is true, but I would challenge you to recall a recent message in church that truly convicted of sin, and if it did, that any were compelled to respond to.
I believe we’re not seeing more transformation of lives in the church of America because we’re using a very dull sword. Jesus’s words were quick, sharper than any two-edged sword of human thinking. Jesus used a sharp two-edged sword of Law and Grace, justice and mercy. I’m not suggesting we focus on the Law. But Jesus reframed the status-quo understanding of the Law and our sinful heart reflected by it. He reframed our way of seeing God and our relationship to Him, but He never ever brought righteousness to a lower standard. We’re not following Christ’s example or the example of the Apostles because we’re not teaching holiness, righteousness or repentance. By proxy there is no need for sinners to see their need for justification by faith, death to self or a new life. Live the life you were first born into; who needs to be born again. God loves you just the way you are, they say. Don’t feel inadequate. Don’t change a damn thing.
To this end, the Law is exactly what Paul said it is, good when used lawfully. In determining what lawfully means we find solid ground. The Law, as Paul said, was a schoolmaster to lead us to the point of Christ. This is what I mean by discipline and strict adherence to the Law. Paul told us in Galatians the Law was like a guardian (or schoolmaster) that leads us to Christ. Do you think guardians/schoolmasters are strict and disciplined? You bet! But if the strict application and discipline of the Law leads us to an awareness of our inadequacy before Him it is a good thing! If we preach the strict adherence of the Law to those in darkness together with the message of Christ crucified then the Light will break through like the dawn.
Then, we can proceed to make disciples, which very root is the same for discipline, as we live a life full of surrender to His teachings and life within. Discipline, which has broad application, is a very good thing, whether positive or negative. Paul rebukes at times. At other times he praises. His letters are filled with urgent requests to put away certain things so as to be free to live in the Spirit. (Galatians 5 for one example.)
There is a balance in Christ between what I might call liberty and austerity. To me, this is the balance of the pendulum-swing. The Pharisees didn’t have a pendulum. They were off the clock entirely. Legalism completely writes off those they label as sinners, because they place more value on condemning people in juxtaposition to their own pious heart. In this way of comparison, legalists then often begin monkeying with the original standards, like happened with the Pharisees and the Law of Moses, so they can somehow justify themselves. Jesus despises and rejects this form of religiosity. He will not tolerate this hypocrisy. To those seeking to condemn, He brings condemnation. To those seeking mercy for themselves and for others around them, He offers mercy.
I like to imagine the pendulum of justice and mercy having to do with the flow of bodily motion. We swing left, we swing right, and kept in perfect harmony we get somewhere. If we decide to hold out too long one way or another we topple. Principles of forgiveness are: rebuke, repent, forgive. The grace in movement is left, right, left, right, and how funny that applies even to our spiritual movement. And in this we’re led by the Spirit.
Some say the story of the paralytic challenges what I’m saying here, as he was brought to Christ (Mark 2). In the story Jesus never rebuked him for his sin. Jesus never mentioned the word repent; there were no acts or words of repentance. Jesus simply said, “Your sins are forgiven.” In addition, it says that Jesus did this because he saw the faith of his friends, not because of the faith of the paralytic.
This story isn’t problematic for what I’m saying. I am readily aware Jesus at times didn’t mention a person’s sin before speaking to them. But this only further serves my point when you examine the stories. I believe you can clearly see a level of brokenness in those Jesus is forgiving. He sees the heart, obviously, and so is able to serve a much better spokesman for forgiveness than you or I.
The woman at the well knew the Law condemned her as a Samaritan.
The centurion guard speaks of his unworthiness (as a Gentile) to have Jesus enter His home.
The paralytic was desperate to be made whole and his friends were radical in their convictions that Jesus was able.
Jesus met all their faith and humility with grace and forgiveness.
In stark contrast, the Pharisees weren’t strictly adhering to the Law. They weren’t the least bit humbled in the presence of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
For those worried that the church is preaching too much on sin, I’d suggest we simply examine what is being taught. Are we adding to the Law? Are we focusing men only on the Law? Are we leaving them comfortable in their sinful state, and catering to their humanity only? Let’s be kind in lifting up Christ before the world as the propitiation for their sins, but let us not be cowardice in also lifting up the Law and its reflection of their sinful hearts before a righteous and holy God. The world rejects Jesus for a number of reasons, not least of which has to do with the suggestion that Jesus will not accept their sin. He died to free them from it, but if they don’t see their guilt and shame His sacrifice is meaningless.
Jesus called a woman a dog once. How does this measure up to how much He sought to value her? Jesus was a fool with this statement if His only purpose was to draw sinners. Jesus is a fool, and with this statement He reframes our understanding of who He is. The stone that MAKES men stumble and the rock that MAKES them fall. She passed the test, but I don’t think many unsaved Americans would pass that one. “Did you just call me a dog? Who the $&#% do you think you are?”