How to Combat Legalistic Christians
“You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from
Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
See Galatians 5:4
The short answer to the title of this devotional is: with love. As Christians, we combat all things and all people in this world with love—including those who are religiously overbearing and confused about God’s grace.
Compared to the early church, we Christians in the 21st century have it pretty good. The first century Christians faced legalistic people on levels unlike we’ve never seen before. But still, Peter, even in the midst of such persecution advises the distressed original believers, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (see 1 Peter 3:15).
Remember, the legalistic Christians have simply been taught wrong. So we must show them the authentic love of Jesus so that they’ll want it too. Do not attack them when they attack you. Please, learn from my mistakes, fighting fire with fire won’t work. Don’t take the bait, don’t retaliate. Instead, simply allow the Holy Spirit to guide you in your battles with them. You’ll know that you are letting Him lead you because you will display the fruit of the Spirit even in the midst of your most strenuous verbal circumstances (see Galatians 5:22-23).
I’m not saying we must overlook someone’s hate and disrespect to the point of suffering severe turmoil. But what I am saying is to think of them with love. By having the Holy Spirit indwell us, we have the same mind as Christ (see 1 Corinthians 2:16). So even when we encounter those who twist the gospel into something it’s not, we must allow God’s Spirit in us to apply grace to them. This is not easy, especially when we’ve experienced traumatic furry in our lives from someone who claims to be representing Jesus. However, through Jesus, we can do this! (See Philippians 4:13).
When the Holy Spirit began to teach me this, that I can actually tap into His strength to think of legalists with love, it was as if the release valve on a boiling pressure-cooker in my soul had just been pressed. It was such a relief to finally understand that I don’t have to be frustrated, bitter, or resentful toward those who think that Jesus’ legalistic teachings are for Christians. For example, the Sermon on the Mount was not a “do your best” lesson for believers.
This particular sermon given by Jesus is a teaching that the conditional-grace Christians assume is meant for all believers in Christ. It’s not–most of it anyway–when it’s read in full context. The idea of, “Give it your best shot and God will grade you on a curve!” is not at all what Jesus was saying. This is why we must keep in mind that Jesus wasn’t always preaching to believers. He also had a lot of hypocritical, self-righteous, religious people following Him around too. So His audiences needed to also hear the impossibility of trying to live by the old Jewish laws and commandments.
For the Jews who thought their wonderful behavior was creating them righteousness with God, Christ began to hammer nails into their self-made coffins of legalism. He wanted to be perfectly clear. Paul penned His message: the Law kills and only Christ’s Spirit can give life (see 2 Corinthians 3:6).
So in Matthew, chapter five, what starts out as a sweet teaching for Christians, takes a hard left in verse 17. Jesus shifts His attention to the Law and the Prophets by pointing out how much of a failure the Jews are who think they are doing a swell job of following them. He lays them down in their pine boxes, puts the lid on, and begins to hammer away, one nail after the other. He then starts to throw dirt on top of their coffins by letting them know the real standards of the Law:
“If you set aside one little command, you will be the least in God’s Kingdom.”
“You’ve been taught not to murder, but I say, even if you are angry with someone, it’s the same as killing them.”
“If you do so much as call someone ‘a fool,’ you are going to hell.”
“If you are mad at your brother or sister, God doesn’t even want your animal sacrifice.”
“The Law says, ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ but I say, even if you lust after someone, your thinking of sex with them is exactly the same.”
“If your eye causes you to sin–pluck it out! If your hand makes you stumble–cut it off!”
“You’re not allowed to divorce anyone unless they cheat on you, and if you do, then you will be branded as an adulterer for the rest of your life!”
“If someone punches you in the face, turn your cheek and let them punch you again!”
“If anyone wants anything from you, give it to them!”
“Do everything that everyone tells you to do without complaining!”
“Loan all of your money to everyone who asks! And you better not expect it to be paid back!”
Nail after nail after nail! As they heard this, the religious people had no other option except to do one of three things.
- Continue their lives as hypocrites, ignoring the impossibility of living by the Law.
- Try harder to do all of the new stuff Jesus just told them to do.
- Realize that the days of living by the Law are over, and that faith in the Messiah is all that is left.
For the Jews who chose number one, they plotted against Jesus and eventually had Him killed. For number two, like today’s Christians who think they are actually doing this stuff, they started to get mad at those who weren’t “good like them.” They began to cover up and hide their failures as they compared how obedient they were, to how obedient others were. And for number three, they found freedom in Christ.
For the people who chose wisely, they realized Jesus really did “come to give them rest for their souls” (see Matthew 11:28). They began to understand His yoke really is easy and His burden, light (see Matthew 11:29-30). These are the believers who stepped onto the narrow path of grace, walked through the gate of faith, and began to enjoy the lush pastures which is a loving relationship with Jesus (see Matthew 7:13-14, John 10:9).
But for me to understand these truths, the Holy Spirit began to teach me something which revolutionized my weak faith: If any part of Jesus’ teachings looked like legalism, it was, so that part does not apply to Christians.
Another paramount fact which must be pointed out to the grace-confused person is this: Are you Jewish? If not, then you are already out of the loop in regard to following Jewish laws or commandments. You don’t even have the right to be able to follow any of that stuff. You’re a Gentile, an outsider, you are disqualified. Only faith in Christ brings us in to God’s Family–not old Jewish law observance (see Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 1:11).
This should narrow the field greatly. But let’s just move forward and say they are Jewish. All we need to do is go to a book in the Bible which was exclusively written to Jews, Hebrews. So what was the Jews’ main sin? What is nearly the entire book of Hebrews written about? What was the very thing the Jews had to change in order to be acceptable to God?…UNBELIEF IN CHRIST AS THE MESSIAH!
This is what they had to repent of–not repentance of incorrect attitudes and actions, but repentance of the only unforgivable sin: rejecting God’s Spirit through faith in Jesus! THEY HAD TO REPENT OF UNBELIEF! Only this can save!
The author of Hebrews, who is more than likely Paul, was a self-proclaimed “best Law-abiding Jew ever” (see Philippians 3). However, he builds his case from the beginning by telling the Jews how the Old Covenant is now obsolete because the New Covenant is so much better! This proves that even God’s original chosen people to carry His Oracles they too must drop all laws and place their faith in Jesus! There is no other way!
But for a moment, let me digress even further into living the life of Law. Let’s say you’re actually allowed to follow the moral, ceremonial, dietary, and wardrobe laws–all 613 of them, not just 10–have at it. BUT–if you choose to live by the Law given to the people group of Israel by Moses, and you fail at just one, you are guilty of failing at all of them. Observing Mosaic Law is an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s not a buffet line, picking what we like and leaving the rest. Paul tells the Christians in Galatia this very thing as they foolishly began to add Law in with the gospel:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (Galatians 3:10)
James, the half-brother of Jesus, a person who didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah until after He rose from the dead, he said the same thing:
“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10)
Further, if someone is bold enough to try to follow all 613 commands, and they fail at one of them, blood must be shed. God only forgives sin through blood–not through asking, and not through repenting until your repenter falls off. The writer of Hebrews makes this clear:
“In fact, the Law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews: 9:22).
So the next time a Law-focused Christian goes to Red Lobster to have a nice meal, afterwards, they better hurry off to the closest livestock market and pick up a goat to kill. Jewish law says they’re not allowed to eat shellfish, this is one of the 613 (see Leviticus 11). Now, they can either do that, or they can tap into the finished work of Jesus’ blood which was shed at the Cross for them.
For the Christian who finds their identity in their behavior, they will fire back at me, “Oh Matt, you think you’re such a smart guy, but you’re not! That’s just the ceremonial law, every real Christian already knows we don’t have to slaughter animals any longer. So yeah, we are dead to ceremonial law. But we are not dead to the moral law! We need morals to be enforced by laws!”
Friend, the apostle Paul would disagree, as he struggled greatly with jealousy–a moral law (see Romans 7). So are we now cherry-picking moral laws too? NO WAY! Paul, in his battle with the sin of jealousy (one of the Ten Commandments) said that the only way to truly enjoy the life Jesus died to give us, is to realize we are not under any code which legislates behaviors and attitudes:
“For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!” (Romans 4:15)
So today, my friends, know this: God doesn’t need written laws or commandments to teach us anything any longer! He now teaches us everything by His Spirit! (See Romans 7:6). Jesus has given us new commandments to live by–commandments which are not burdensome! Commandments we don’t need to read to know, or be told to know, but we know because God lives in our hearts! These new commandments are: believe and love! (See John 13:34-35, 14:1, 1 John 5:3, Galatians 5:6). When we live by these commandments, we finally become free, and we stay free!
“So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the Law” (Galatians 5:1).
A prayer for you: Good morning, Lord. Thank you for revealing the truth to me about your laws and commandments. Thank you for giving us new commandments which are much better! We have it so good on this side of the Cross! Right now, I lift up all who are reading this, directly to you. For those who have been lied to about what Christ has really done for them, begin to open up their minds to the truth. I rebuke any legalistic, religious spirit who pesters them regularly–and renew old mindsets today! Show them the proper way, which is Jesus—JUST JESUS! In His name I pray. Amen.
This devotional is from 60 Days for Jesus, Volume 1. Get your copy here!