Is Legalism Real?

“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done without leaving the others undone.” (Matthew 23:23)

When religious people talk about legalism they usually are referring to the idea of a rigid and strict observance of a code or a law. Many times the scribes and the Pharisees will be used as an example of this because Jesus talks about them tithing their herbs, and one can almost see them carrying their scales down to the temple. 

Yet, in the very same passage Jesus revealed some pretty fatal flaws in their so-called strict observance. How can one neglect the weightier matters of the law and still be considered strict? At this point, we may tell ourselves that legalism is not anything that we need to worry about. 

There is an important point about the attitude of the scribes and the Pharisees that we could be overlooking. Do we remember what the older son said to his father in the parable of the prodigal son? “…I have never transgressed your commandment at any time…” (Lk 15:29). Apparently, some Jews truly thought that they were keeping the law perfectly. 

The scribes and Pharisees sustained the illusion of their righteousness apart from forgiveness by comparing themselves with others who had flaws that were easy to see: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers…” (Lk 18:11). Human beings can only pretend to reach the standard of righteousness by sinless perfection, but isn’t pretending pretty much the same thing as being a hypocrite? Could it be that the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees was actually a by-product of their legalism?

The inconsistencies of the scribes and Pharisees, their looking down on others, and the fact that Jesus describes their teaching as a heavy burden should concern us. They weren’t trying to convince men to practice immorality. They were trying to require men to live up to a standard that they had only achieved by pretending to be sinless. There was no justice or mercy or faith to relieve the heavy weight of guilt and the feeling of inadequacy that honest human beings feel when they meditate on the glory of God because the Pharisees had blinded themselves to their own need for these things.  

So, is legalism real? Yes, and no. The idea of carefully obeying God is not proven faulty by the example of the Pharisees. Jesus said that they neglected the weightier matters of the law. However, the Pharisees did deceive themselves into thinking that they were strictly obeying God, and it led to terrible inconsistencies in their lives and in their treatment of others. Those who desire to please God should want to avoid this kind of behavior, no matter what we decide to call it.