A Tale of Two Responses (2): Legalism
October 18, 2015
Read Lu 13:10-17 – Just prior to the text we have read, Jesus has been talking about the importance of bearing fruit in keeping with repentance. Luke follows with a dramatic illustration from another occasion showing two responses to Jesus’ message – one fruitful, one fruitless. One is a response of grace thru faith. The other is a response of legalism. Luke wants us to choose grace as seen in the disabled woman. Hopelessly deformed, she responds to Jesus’ call and is healed, illustrating physically what Jesus can do spiritually.
But the woman is not the only actor in this drama. After the healing, the ruler of the synagogue weighs in. And he is not happy. Amazing, isn’t it? This guy is in charge of a place dedicated to the worship of God and benefit of people. He should have been overjoyed to see the power of God demonstrated in this extraordinary way in his synagogue, and to the benefit of this poor, helpless woman. Instead, he is indignant that Jesus would violate his Sabbath rules.
What caused this irrational reaction? I can answer in one word – legalism. This man was a legalist. And his reaction shows us the dramatic contrast between grace and legalism. One is in submission to Christ and loves Him wholeheartedly. The other sits in judgment of Christ and hates his call for repentance. And the question this poses for us is -- which are we?
Now, I mentioned last week that many people think law and grace are at odds with each other. Competitors! But that is wrong. Law and grace work hand-in-glove to bring us to Christ. Some think the law was meant to save. It was not! It has 2 great purposes – neither of which was to save anyone. FIRST, it shows us our need –that we are so morally bent that we could never save ourselves. We need a Savior. SECOND, it shows how to live a fruitful life of love for God after we are saved. The law condemns us, yes, but it is good in its purposes to show 1) our need and 2) to light our path after salvation.
The problem isn’t law. The problem is legalism which is the misuse of the law. Legalism is the act of using the law to earn God’s favor instead of accepting the gift of God’s favor. Legalism is me trying to earn what I can only have as a gift. Legalism is me playing God instead of submitting to God.
Anyone know what a wine brick is? You were probably drinking during prohibition if you do! When wine was outlawed, bootleggers began to press grape concentrate into the form of bricks, which was not against the law. The label warned, "Do not let this brick sit in a gallon of water for 21 days. It will ferment and become illegal wine." Wine bricks were a way of circumventing the law, and that’s what legalists do. No one could actually keep the law as written by God. So the scribes and Pharisees over time added interpretations they could keep and declared themselves clean. They circumvented the law by their legalistic tag-ons. BUT God, of course, was not fooled. He saw their hearts. He knew. They only fooled themselves. They were tragically bound up in a system of regulations that kept them from true repentance. And the result is evident in this man. This is where legalism leads. Here’s what it looks like.
I. It’s Compassionless
A woman who has been 18 years bent and broken is now standing straight and tall – completely and gloriously healed. And this guy hardly notices. Why? Because legalism is heartless. It cares nothing for people, only for rules. It is loveless, joyless and crushing. Legalists gladly condemn anyone who fails to keep the rules as they understand them. Just like this man would willingly have consigned this woman to her former brokenness -- for the sake of the rules as he understood them. He was indignant. Look what he says in v. 14, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” If he could have, he’d have bent her over again and said, “We’re closed for healing. Come back tomorrow.”
It was exactly this kind of legalistic cruelty that led to the Reformation. Martin Luther was a legalist – thinking, because that’s what he’d been taught – that he must keep the law. He agonized as few people ever over his sin, sometimes spending 6 hours a day in confession. He wore his confessors out. One told him, “Martin, go out and steal something or kill someone. Do something worth confessing!” Yet Luther despaired of his salvation. He hated the God who put such demands on him. But when he began to study the Bible and found among others Rom 1:17, “The just shall live by faith” it changed his life. He realized it was not what he did, but what Christ had already done that mattered. Salvation was a gift to accept, not a position to earn!
But though Martin Luther got it, he was still living in a society and church that definitely did not. By the Middle Ages legalism had replaced grace in the message of the church. It now offered salvation by grace through faith PLUS works – first baptism and then ongoing confession and penance to restore salvation anytime sin intervened. There was no assurance – only fear. Last rites were imposed at death on penalty of losing one’s salvation. Purgatory hung over everyone’s head. Heartless legalism. The last straw for Luther was when Friar Johann Tetzel rolled into town selling indulgences – “get out of jail free” passes for release from purgatory based on excess merit earned by saints. He had a catchy advertising jingle. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” The church was fleecing people. Just as the Pharisees had corrupted the OT by their traditions, the Roman church had corrupted the gospel message with their heartless, legalistic traditions. Tradition meant more than Scripture; ritual more than relationship.
Luther saw through it all as he examined Scripture and found nothing about grace plus works for salvation, no excess merit, no penance, no last rites, no purgatory or indulgences. He said, “Enough,” posted his 95 theses and refused to back down when threatened with death if he would not recant. But that’s legalism, Beloved. Rules replace relationship, but you can never be sure when enough is enough. It is a power play with no assurance of anything. And we do the same when we impose rules not found in Scripture.
II. It’s Truthless
Look at the synagogue ruler in v. 14, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” I’ve got a question. If that woman had come on Wednesday, would that guy have been able to heal her? No way. She’d been around for 18 years with no healing. Legalism promises what only the power of God can deliver. She would never have found healing from this man, no matter the day. Legalism was powerless to heal. And legalism is powerless to save.
But there is a whole world of people out there who believe legalism’s lie that if they are good enough, it can save them. Just keep the rules – at least most of the time. Legalism will do it. They do not believe Jesus when He says, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except thru me.” They believe legalism when it says, “You can come to the Father on your own. You don’t need Jesus. You’re good enough.” So who do you believe?
Suppose an edict went out that everyone was going to jail unless they bought their way out. You start counting your dollars, but pretty soon, you want to know, “How much will it take?” You turn on the TV hoping to find out. That’s when you hear: “Breaking news. This just in. Among those picked up just this morning for inability to buy their way out of jail were Donald Trump, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.” What do you do? Well – it’s for sure you’d quit counting, right? If those guys can’t make it, we sure don’t have a chance. That’s legalism. It’ll put you into a hole that you can’t get out of. In Jesus’ parable in Luke 16, it wasn’t the rich man who was in paradise with Abraham? It was Lazarus the beggar. The rich man lifted up his eyes in hell. Couldn’t buy his way out; couldn’t earn his way out; couldn’t moralize his way out. Hell won’t be mainly populated with really bad people, Beloved. It will be filled with nice people who thought they were good enough, but weren’t! That rich, young ruler, who thought he’d kept the whole law wasn’t good enough as Jesus pointed out with one demand. Legalism lies through its teeth. It says you can earn your way to God or buy your way to God or moralize your way to God – all lies. It is truthless and it is powerless.
III. It’s Characterless
15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?” “You hypocrites!” Jesus says. “Let’s take off the masks. You’re just a bunch of hypocrites.” Why? They care more about their livestock than they do the healing of this poor woman.
There are two plays on words that help our understanding here. Look at v. 12, ““Woman, you are freed from your disability.” The word freed is literally “loosed.” [apoluo]. Jesus loosed this woman from her 18-year captivity to Satan. Now look at v. 15 where Jesus notes “each of you on the Sabbath untie (same word – looses -- luo) his ox” to give it water. Now v. 16: “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed [luo] from this bond on the Sabbath day?” “You guys give yourselves a waiver to loose your animals to get water on the Sabbath, but you’ve no compassion for my loosing this woman from the bondage to Satan that has left her a wretched, crippled mess. You’re just a bunch of hypocrites.
And He goes further. The synagogue ruler says in v. 14: “There are six days in which work ought (it is necessary) to be done.” Jesus responds in v. 16, “And ought not (is it not necessary) this woman . . . be loosed?” So the ruler says, “It is “necessary” not to heal on the Sabbath”; Jesus says, “You got that all wrong. What’s necessary is that this woman be loosed (given rest) from Satan’s power on the day of rest. This is what Sabbath is all about. You know rules, but you know nothing of the spirit behind the rules; you know ritual, but you know nothing of the heart of God. You are hypocrites, pretending to know what you know nothing about.” Legalism is always hypocritical. It always has one set of rules for self and another set for others. It is always about compromise and loopholes and rationalization; it knows nothing of relationship.
A cartoon shows a forlorn looking man standing at the Marriage License bureau. The clerk says to him, “Will you please stop coming in here, sir. Your license hasn’t expired -- and it’s not going to expire!” That guy was looking for a loophole, not a relationship. That’s what legalists do. How much can I get away with and still get in? What can I do and God still has to take me? If that is you, legalism is killing you just like it was this man.
IV. It’s Christless
That’s because it doesn’t care about a relationship with Jesus. It only cares about rules. It just wants to know what’s the minimum requirement. Relationships are demanding. Law-keeping is easy by comparison. This woman walked away knowing Christ as Savior and Lord. This man walked away judging Christ. He was Christless.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t know about Jesus. He did. It doesn’t mean he might not have thought he was a pretty good guy. He probably did. The problem was, he believed in himself instead of Jesus. He judged Jesus rather than believing Him. That’s a disease that’s epidemic in our own world. People are happy to acknowledge that Jesus was a pretty good guy – a great prophet, perhaps. Someone to be admired. But God in the flesh. Now way!
May I say that if that is you, you are Christless this morning. To think of Jesus as anything less than God is to deny His very Person. So you may know a lot about Him, but you don’t know Him. Your refusing to believe He is Lord does not make it any less true. Paul says in Col 1:19, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” This was no ordinary but great man, Beloved. Not just a fine prophet or wise guru of some kind. This was God in human form, and until you acknowledge that, you are Christless.
One of the great proofs that Jesus is God is the fact that credible Jewish people believed in Him. Had He been in an Eastern country where they believe God is all and all is God, it would have easy to accept another deity. But the Jews believed in the God of the Bible -- a single God who resided outside of creation – a being of infinite greatness, without beginning or end, uncreated and with infinite power and glory. But the core of Jewish faith is the shema – Deut 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Now here comes a very normal, average looking guy, one who “had no form or majesty that we should look at him” (Isa 53:2), saying, “I am God.” And many believed. Why? Because when they looked at Him they saw perfection. They saw grace and truth personified. Never a misstep; never a slip up. He was tenderness and love and power all rolled into one. And then to top it off, He died and rose again. Listen, Beloved, if you don’t know Christ as God, you don’t know Christ. If you are judging Him rather than believing Him, you are in line with this synagogue ruler, and you are Christless.
V. It’s Salvationless
Jesus makes this point in a dramatic way here. Look at v. 16 again: “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham” – stop there. In calling her a daughter of Abraham, Jesus was drawing an intentional contrast. Everyone there thought they were sons and daughters of Abraham, but Jesus is pointing to this woman and saying, “There – there is a true daughter of Abraham.” She was not just Abraham’s physical descendent; she was his spiritual descendant as well, and that makes all the difference. It is not enough to be a child of Abraham by birth; one must also be a child of Abraham by re-birth.
Throughout the OT, God emphasized this truth. In passages like Deut 10:16, God challenges, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” You don’t rid of sin by some limited degree of outward connection or obedience. You get rid of sin by turning from sin in your heart. Paul absolutely nails this truth: Rom 2:28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” The Pharisees and this synagogue ruler were more interested in the praise of man than the praise of God. But God warned thru David, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa 51:17). That’s what the woman had that the ruler did not. And with that she had salvation and he did not. Legalism is always salvationless.
Conc – Let me close with this. The flight attendant came over the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome you to Honolulu.” Then as the plane touched ground she added, “I’d like to welcome you to Honolulu. Unfortunately, we’re in Fresno.” Now that’s funny, sort of. But it will not be funny when the voice of legalism says one day, “I’ like to welcome you to heaven. Unfortunately we didn’t make it.” Don’t let that be you, Beloved. Choose grace. Let’s pray.