Legalism and Scripture 2: Pharisees and Spartans

Part 1 available here.

Consider again the two definitions of legalism we have mentioned.  The first is a more general, albeit straightforward, definition.

Legalism is the conviction that law-keeping is now, after the Fall, the ground of our acceptance with God – the ground of God being for us and not against us.  (John Piper)

The second offers a more specific and detailed view of a proper use of the charge.

  • We might call someone “legalistic” if they are overly scrupulous about behaviors that are not prohibited or commanded in the New Testament.
  • We might call someone “legalistic” if they fail to see that the Mosaic system of sacrifices and priestly ceremonies and rites of purification and food laws and rituals that distinguish Israel from the nations are not binding any longer on the Christian.
  • Finally, we might call someone “legalistic” if they treat the law or any moral behavior as the ground of our full acceptance with God instead of seeing Christ’s blood and righteousness as the only ground of our acceptance, and faith in him as the only means of having what he died to obtain.  (John Piper)

In this installment, we will examine four Bible passages dealing with legalism.  First, we typically regard the Pharisees as the original legalists, so we will consider the fault of the Pharisees.  Then, we have the “Jerusalem council,” where the apostles repudiated Judaism in its original form.  Post-Antioch, Judaism demonstrated an uncanny ability to adapt, so Paul addresses soft legalism in Galatians.  And finally, Paul offers a Scriptural view of strictness and self-denial in the book of Colossians. 

Here’s hoping we can do this without exhausting the reading public.

The Spirit of the Pharisees

Many lump “legalists” together with Pharisees – and I think rightly so.  We should consider the connection between the Pharisees and what many consider “legalism” today. Despite the legendary antagonism Jesus showed the Pharisees, He never dismissed them as absolute reprobate.

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.  (Matthew 23:1-3)

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for three faults.  First, He criticized how they overturned God’s law with their traditions. 

He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.  Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.  For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.  And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.  (Mark 7:6-9)

Second, Jesus rebuked them, not for their standards (Jesus held to those same standards), but for their double standards, the blatantly hypocritical way they applied those standards.

All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.  (Matthew 23:3)

Third, Jesus rebuked them for seeking men’s approval through their diligent law-keeping.

But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.  (Matthew 23:5-7)

Photo by Marik Elikishvili on

So, a few points about the Pharisees.  First, they did not meet the definition supplied by John Piper.  Note that.  Scroll back up and review Piper’s definitions again.  Because they didn’t treat law-keeping as “the ground of (their) acceptance with God – the ground of God being for (them) and not against (them).” Sure, they treated them as grounds for gaining approval from men but not for acceptance with God.  They were Pharisees.  They believed God accepted them for their national status as God’s son (Israel).

The other problems Piper points out wouldn’t apply in Christ’s day. 

Second, consider the Pharisees’ tradition problem: not that they had traditions, but the way they used them to void the law.  Notice again.

Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.  For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.  And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.  (Mark 7:7-9)

Notice again: they rejected the commandment of God in favor of their own tradition.  Jesus elaborates:

For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free.  And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.  (Mark 7:10-13)

Is it then Pharisaical to maintain certain traditions, even to argue for and defend them and resist efforts to discard them?  Nowhere does the Bible teach us to reject tradition.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  In other places, the Bible insists that we honor traditions. 

Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.  (I Corinthians 11:2)

The Greek word rendered “ordinances” is the same word Jesus used when addressing the traditions abused by the Pharisees.  Furthermore, the marginal reading says “traditions.” 

In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul insists that believers honor the traditions passed down to them.

Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. 

And in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, Paul commanded the brethren to separate from those who “walk disorderly,” which Paul immediately defines in terms of tradition.

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.

Tradition is inescapable.  Every culture, every church, every family will have traditions.  Tradition is the vehicle for expressing what we honor, the means we have of declaring our loyalties.  Throwing off one set of traditions will only mean that other traditions will take their place.  The problem comes in the conflict between man’s traditions and God’s.  The tradition of men will always seek to displace traditions that reflect our loyalty to Christ.  The Bible doesn’t outright reject the idea of tradition or even treat tradition with suspicion.  Instead, the Bible teaches us to reject a certain kind of tradition – vain tradition, the tradition of men in rebellion against God. 

Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; (I Peter 1:18)

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.  (Colossians 2:8)

Believing traditions are necessary for faithfulness, while unbelieving traditions hinder faithfulness. 

Let’s be clear: the problem with the Pharisees was not with the standards they held.  Jesus Himself held to those standards.  In fact, Jesus urged the disciples to be stricter than the Pharisees.

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:20)

Jesus pointed, not to the standard, but to the double standard, totheir blatant hypocrisy, as the problem.  Jesus didn’t object to the standards, but to the arbitrary and capricious ways they held those standards and how they used their standards as a warrant for devouring widows’ houses.  Self-serving standards are not Biblical standards.

We will revisit the Pharisees in a future installment, as I still believe that the “legalism” problem fits with the spirit of the Pharisees.  But Jesus scolded the uneven way they applied their standards and their latent self-promotion in law-keeping.

Judaizers at Antioch and Galatia

Scripture addresses two major forms of legalism.  First in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas combatted the Judaizers who argued for the necessity of circumcision in order to be considered a “saved” person. 

And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.  (Acts 15:1)

When this form of legalism was defeated, the Judaizers seemed to have conceded that circumcision wasn’t necessary for salvation, but it was essential for sanctification. 

O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?  This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?  Are ye so foolish?  having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?  (Galatians 3:1-3)

The Judaizers claimed that holiness required submission to “the Mosaic system of sacrifices and priestly ceremonies and rites of purification and food laws and rituals that distinguish Israel from the nations.” Paul answered this claim decisively two chapters later.

Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.  Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.  For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.  (Galatians 5:1-3)

Paul’s handling of this particular demand for submission to the Mosaic system reveals a general rule for Biblical standards and how we hold them.  If you believe you are being sanctified by the standards you hold, you have fallen into the snare of legalism.  Biblically, sanctification will raise your standards – not to an arbitrary “higher standard” – as if “higher” is better.  But to a Biblical standard.  If you think high standards make you sanctified, then Paul’s words in Galatians apply to you.  If sanctification has raised your standards to follow the Bible, that is the proper order.

Galatians teaches that there are no shortcuts to sanctification.  Of course, it would be nice if there was.  But sanctification involves a total transformation of the whole man.  It involves a changed outlook, priority, mindset, and philosophy.  It means thinking God’s thoughts after Him, embracing His morality, loving what He loves, hating what He hates, and developing every Christian excellence to its fullest.  Holiness doesn’t come through law-keeping, though holiness will produce law-keeping.  

Perhaps this explains why, in Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the works of the flesh “which are manifest” with the fruit of the Spirit.  It seems to me that Paul is arguing here that reliance on law-keeping to produce holiness won’t mortify the flesh but will empower it (consider Galatians 5:13-26).  But honestly, focusing on externals is far easier than genuine holiness.

Extremes of Strictness in Colossians

The book of Colossians does not offer a scathing rebuke of strictness aimed at the overly scrupulous.  Instead, Paul greeted these saints as “faithful brethren in Christ” (Colossians 1:2).  He thanked God for them, commending their faith (v. 4) and fruitfulness (v. 6) and love (v. 8).  He urged them to “walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing” (v. 10).  And he acknowledged the remarkable transformation in their lives.

And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight: If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; (Colossians 1:21-23)

Paul’s concern for the Colossians could be understood in terms of legalism.  So let’s take a look.

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.  (Colossians 2:8)

Some have suggested that Paul addresses a poisonous form of Gnosticism that had made inroads with the believers in Colossae.  It is understandable why this form of Gnosticism would be attractive to new believers who had given up a life of debauchery to serve the Lord Christ.  Gnosticism tended towards licentiousness or asceticism, and it would appear that the Colossians were drawn to the ascetic (consider 2:20-23).

Whether or not that is the case is hard to determine from the context of the book.  Paul directly states his reason for writing the book in chapter two.

And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words. (2:4)

Paul rejoices in the order and steadfastness of the Colossian’s faith (2:5) and then exhorts them,

As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: (2:6)

In this context, Paul warns the Colossians against those philosophies and traditions that lead to extreme self-denial.

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. (2:8)

Like a master teacher, Paul re-directs the Colossians’ focus away from the extremes of self-discipline to the satisfaction we find in Christ.

For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.  And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: (2:9-10)

Our standing with Christ provides the grounds for rejecting the Spartan life.  We are complete in Christ.  Paul uses the perfect passive participle, describing our standing with Christ, accomplished by Christ and settled by Him.  No Christian should look to performance as a means of gaining status with Christ.  We are complete in Him.

In light of our fullness in Christ, Paul points the Colossian believers away from “the handwriting of ordinances” which were nailed to Christ’s cross (2:14).  

Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: (2:16)

And Paul strengthens this instruction in the 18th verse.

Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,

This brings us to the final word on extreme strictness.

Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?  Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh. (2:20-23)

Paul’s message to the Colossians is clear enough.  You are complete in Christ.  Embracing a Spartan lifestyle doesn’t make you more complete in Christ.  I notice that Paul doesn’t forbid asceticism here but only forbids these believers from adopting standards based on pressure to conform. 

Self-discipline is good, and in other places in Scripture, Paul encourages it.  But in and of itself, self-discipline doesn’t sanctify.  Instead, God makes us faithful. 

“Legalism” shouldn’t shape the discussion

Having reviewed (perhaps skimmed) some of the most relevant passages in the Bible that deal in some way with standards and rules, one thing stands out to me, per our discussion.  None of these passages deal with legalism the way it is typically discussed.  In fact, I believe that our modern obsession with legalism, and the fear many have of sounding legalistic, has poisoned the discussion of sanctification and holiness altogether. 

Since legalism is not a Scriptural category, it shouldn’t play the role that it plays in our discussion of standards.  We shouldn’t let the overly scrupulous determine our standards, nor should we allow those with the highly tuned “legalism detectors” to dictate what our standards should not be.  We are bound by Scripture, not by man’s opinions or traditions.  This is true regardless of whether a person leans towards strictness or looseness.  So much of what we consider “legalism” is itself based on man’s tradition. 

A Proposal

With that in mind, I would like to propose a set of principles that should guide us in establishing and maintaining standards and traditions.

  • The Bible should be our rule for faith and practice, and all consideration of standards or traditions should begin with what the Bible says.
  • We should strive to establish our traditions in a way that faithfully reflects our God’s glory and majesty, encouraging us to delight in Him rather than seeking applause from men.
  • We should not throw off long-held traditions of faithful believers from past generations for superficial reasons.  Instead, we should seek to understand their reasons for those traditions and consider what may be lost by discarding them.
  • When discarding long-held traditions, we should be careful that our newer traditions more faithfully reflect God’s glory and enable us to enjoy him more than the old, discarded tradition.

We should measure all standards based on how well they enable us to obey God’s commandments.  If a standard promotes obedience, we should embrace it; if it encourages disobedience, we should discard it. More to come on this topic.

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