Friday, March 09, 2007

Hypocrisy and Legalism

I really like Jesus. The more I study the Gospels, the more I think He's the finest preacher our earth has ever seen. My current appreciation revolves around His pointed and pulverizing attack on the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of His day, and the legalistic system of religion they had carefully crafted. Can you imagine a preacher today walking off the stage, and getting into the faces of the religious elite of the day and yelling "woe, woe, woe" and then publicly insulting them for the way they were leading those around them down the path to spiritual death? That's exactly what Jesus did, and you can read all about it. If you want to, take a break from this blog and read Luke 11:37-12:3. I'll wait for you . . .

. . . welcome back! Did you enjoy that? I sure appreciate the way Jesus connects religious hypocrisy to legalism. Here's the way it works. Hypocrisy - especially the "religious" variety - stems from the assumption that living a "double" life is the best way to go. That is, have a public or external personna that people can respect, while reserving the right to host evil in your heart, and even enjoy the pleasures of sin when no one is looking. Of course, this religious hypocrisy, as Jesus states, is quite foolish, for it assumes that God thinks, acts, and sees like men do, and can be fooled by all this. Jesus says as much in 12:1-3: "Your hypocrisy is quite toxic to you and those around you, and - FYI - you're not really fooling Me!"

So, what should we think about hypocrisy? I have often reflected on how funny it would be if we had an organization called Hypocrites Anonymous. Their numbers would be small because once you admit your a hypocrite, you're no longer being hypocritical! "Hi, I'm David and I'm a hypocrite . . . o wait . . . thanks, bye." But even if some decided to come to a meeting, it would almost certainly be out of a desire to help others see their hypocrisy, rather than admit their own. That's the way hyupocrisy works! It is a strange truth, but one that is foundational to hypocrisy, that hypocrites never consider themselves to be bad people. In fact, they believe they are better than most, and superior to many. Stay with me here.

Hypocrities have to believe that they are actually good people despite harboring evil in their hearts and lives. Why? Because they want desperately to be seen and known as good people. If they didn't they wouldn't bother putting up the elaborate facade of external righteousness behind which they hide all the gunk of their lives. They obviously know the difference between good and evil, and they want people to think of them as good because they believe they actually are good! But how can someone who knows the difference between good and evil harbor evil and still sincerely believe that they are good? Here's the point I want to make clear: the answer is that they have constructed their own system of external righteousness which they insists both defines, and displays their intrinsic "goodness."

If we could crawl into the hypocrite's head I think this is what we'd hear: "I am a good person because I am living up to the standards I have decided define and display goodness. And, what is more, there are whole groups of others who have lived before me who have helped gather these standards and practices together, and they have been so kind as to sort through them and bundle them up in different packages for easy selection. I have selected a bundle of rules and standards that I find comfortable, and yet quite compelling in this world."

That's where hypocrisy connects with - in fact spawns - legalism. As a hypocrite, in order to continue believing that you're a good person - even though you are living a double life - you have to create a system that allows you to believe that external goodness more than compensates for the internal sinfulness of your heart. That system probably is made up of rules, and standards, and convictions that can be maintained apart from any true heart-felt spirituality or passion for Christ. Thus, a legalistic system creates the illusion of piety while allowing for impurity to maintain a residence in the heart.

Jesus ran into this combination of hypocrisy and legalism in the religious leaders of His day - the Pharisees and the Scribes. And, in their case, the danger went much further. They not only had constructed a system of externals that promoted and supported their own deluded sense of assurannce before God; they also became authoritative taskmasters who demanded that all around them live up to that system. In so doing, as Jesus points out, they were not only traveling the road to death, they were pushing others down the road in front of them. They were death masquerading as life.

It seems to me that Jesus used His strongest language against those whose hypocrisy had led them to embrace legalism as a way of attaining or increasing spiritual standing before God. They believed that in this way they were moving toward life. But they were deluded; they were actually moving toward death. And so Jesus' strong words here must be seen not as insulting, but as loving. He knew where hypocrisy and legalism would take them, and He cried out to them to think again! This must have been love. And here is where I finally get to my point . . .

. . . I don't think that the texts that speak of curtailing our liberty in order not to offend others are to be seen as referring to the arena of hypocrisy and legalism. Jesus didn't do that. He entered into the house of a Pharisee (Luke 11:37ff) and, knowing that ceremonial washing would be expected, AND that He was being scrutinized carefully, decided not to wash His hands. He did this, not because hand washing was wrong, but because the Pharisee's belief concerning hand washing was wrong. The cleansing rituals that the religious elite had set up were a large part of their system of external righteousness by which they measured themselves and everyone else. Jesus knew what they expected, and He certiainly knew that eating with unwashed hands would offend them. In fact, He was counting on it! Their offense opened them up to the truth that their hypocrisy and legalism were actually foolish attempts to hide their sinfulness from God. But God the Son came to save, and in order to do that, He first had to expose the reality of their hearts.

Hypocrisy is all around us, as is legalism. In fact, it probably has leaked under the doors of our lives, and slowly crept into the various rooms of our hearts. Beware the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy (Luke 12:1-3)! Those were Jesus' words. Tell you what, you look in your rooms, and I'll look in mine. Let's determine to rid our lives of all the hypocrisy and legalism we find. And the best way I've found to do that is to do what the Pharisee did: keep inviting Jesus to visit!

Here's a little quote from George MacDonald that will help us fight legalism:

"But first I said, ... 'Some people think it is not proper for a clergyman to dance. I mean to assert my freedom from any such law. If our Lord chose to represent, in His parable of the Prodigal Son, the joy in Heaven over a repentant sinner by the figure of "music and dancing', I will hearken to Him rather than to man, be they as good as they may.' For I had long thought that the way to make indifferent things bad, was for good people not to do them." George Macdonald

Hope this helps,

David W. Hegg


At 11:54 PM , Blogger Jane said...

Hi Dave,
I heard every word of your sermon Sunday because I'd brought a piece of stitchery with me to work on. Nothing complicated, just thread and a small piece of fabric. Usually I take notes, but then I concentrate so much on completing a thought that you've gone on ahead and I miss something. Alan looked askanse at me; perhaps some others did. But I sat there confidently stitching away as you spoke about legalism and hypocrisy in the church. I especially enjoyed the last quote: all that it takes to make something bad is for good people not to do it.

I grew up in a legalistically-styled Arminian-based church. When I was about 35 we left to attend a Presbyterian(PCA) church. I was amazed to find that not only were there Christians outside of the Baptist church, but that "thou shalt feel guilty" wasn't a commandment. The more I've read the Bible and come to understand God's sovereignity, the more freedom I find as a Christian. The Lord our God is good.

Jane Ellen


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