“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17
The Pharisees were Jesus’ chief opponents. And is it any wonder? Wherever the gospel appears, the legalists will rage. His very demeanor boils their blood. See how nonchalantly he disregards their make-believe rules! A non-stop feast with his disciples, or a Sabbath stroll through the fields, were declarations of war upon their pretend world.
Ah, but lest we point the finger too quickly (the gesture a Pharisee would choose, by the way!), let’s remember that in these very hearts of ours the Pharisee yet lives. Legalism is the cold skeleton of our old man, and it must be put off. May these bones that you have broken, O Lord, never rejoice again!
How did we get here? Simple—we are born this way. Legalism was woven into our souls in the Garden. In fact, we may lay the fall of the human race at the feet of this iron-fisted lie. Satan tempted Eve, not first by lawlessness, but by legalism. Yes, it was legalism which readied her to commit lawlessness.
She must first be made to believe that God is strict, harsh, and (perhaps with a little help from Adam), that it was even good to create buffer laws of our own making to protect us from breaking the command. Properly bewitched, she was now ready to lash out against God as she imagined him to be. It has been the same with us ever since.
We are quite content to take God on these terms. In fact, we love legalism. It shows up in the way we think about things like sermons. “Just give me something to do,” we say. Our flesh loves all manner of activity, anything but quietly beholding Jesus Christ and him crucified. The answer is see the Creator as he really is: full of goodness and rich in mercy.
Not only must we not make up our own pretend spiritual rules, but we must not imagine for even a moment that it is our performance of holiness that maintains his favor to us. That belongs to Christ and Christ alone, the spell breaker. So by real gospel power let’s keep the enchantment of our first mother broken. As Sinclair Ferguson wrote in his breath-of-fresh-air-from-heaven book The Whole Christ:
“The root of legalism is almost as old as Eden, which explains why it is a primary, if not the ultimate, pastoral problem. In seeking to bring freedom from legalism, we are engaged in undoing the ancient work of Satan.”