Don’t be a legalist! Be a Christian. No arguments there, right? Everybody hates a legalist. But what’s a legalist? It’s a person who lives in such fear of breaking the law that that he doesn’t actually know what is right and wrong anymore. Because he is so afraid that he might break the law in some small way, he might sometimes do some really foolish things.
Student drivers are often legalists –either that or reckless lawbreakers. They are constantly afraid that they might break some traffic law in some way, they get nervous every time they see a police officer, they let everyone else at the intersection go first, they stop 30 feet behind the line, they drive 5 under all the time. They drive in fear of breaking the law, and its unnatural, unwise, and unsafe. That’s legalism.
Christians can also be legalists. Christians sometimes live in such fear of sinning that they have to dissect and examine every action they take. They will find themselves in a horrible conundrum when God hasn’t said anything in the Bible about it, and they don’t know which way is right and which way is wrong. Many of the things they decide are wrong are not wrong at all—in fact God hasn’t said anything about it. They agonize over questions like, “Is it a sin to speed or not? Or how fast can you go before it becomes sin? Is it a sin to say words that sound like God? Which words can you say and which words can’t you say? Is it a sin to drink, or how much can you drink before it’s a sin? Is it a sin to smoke, or how much can you smoke before it becomes sin? How much stuff can you have before it becomes greed? Can you watch this movie or that movie? Can you kiss while you’re dating? Can you dance while you’re dating? Or dance with someone you aren’t even dating? Can you use an updated version of the Lord’s Prayer? Can you use a Bible translation that was written in natural English style rather than a word for word literalistic translation? As Christians we make it our goal to live holy lives, but sometimes fall into the trap of living a life characterized by the law. We are, by nature, legalists.
But being a Christian and being a legalist are really two opposite things. A legalist lives in fear of messing up. A legalist is always unsure of what he should do, because God has not given direct instructions for everything. A legalist is always suspicious and judgmental of other sincere Christians whom he thinks aren’t working so hard to be holy. On the other hand, the characteristics of Christian life are peace, love, and patience. In peace the Christian lives confident that God is pleased with him, and that God has given him everything he needs to make God-pleasing decisions in the pages of Scripture and in his heart. A Christian lives in love, joyful love, because he is confident that God loves him. A Christian has patience with other Christians, understanding that God is patiently working to instruct all of us in his ways. So, are you a Christian, or are you a legalist? The answer, of course, is yes. I am a Christian, and, sad to say, I can also be a legalist.
Legalism is the innocent-looking enemy of your faith in Christ, always present inside of you. It always works against your faith in Christ. Look how the legalists attacked Christ in the Gospel today: they saw the disciples picking some grain, they interpreted that as “working on the Sabbath,” and so they accused the Son of God of sinning by allowing his disciples to work on the Sabbath. They were legalists. Today, from Christ and his disciples, we learn to recognize legalism as an enemy within us and defeat it. At that moment, at least, the disciples were free from any legalistic ideas as they followed Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, and they used the Law to their benefit as God intended it—
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he was hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Don’t Be a Legalist; Be a Christian!
1. Follow the Lord of the Sabbath
As I read about the disciples walking with Jesus, I don’t notice them living in fear of God. Fear of God’s wrath did not seize their minds and drive them to such absurd lengths as those Pharisees. Actually they were walking and talking with God, completely carefree. We might think that they would have been constantly nervous about committing some sin accidentally right under Jesus’ nose! But actually, that is the very reason why they were so carefree.
The disciples picked those heads of grain on the Sabbath without worrying that it might be sin because Jesus was with them. It’s very simple—If God is with you, then he must not be angry with you. There was Jesus, the Son of God, walking and talking with them. How could God not be pleased with them, if he sent them his Son! As long as Jesus was there, the disciples were assured of God’s love.
On the other hand, consider the Pharisees. They did not walk with Jesus and listen to him, and so they could not know that God was pleased with them. They had to find their own reasons why God should be pleased, and so they were very concerned about keeping the Law perfectly in every little thing they did. They were critical of those pious believers who put their faith in God but didn’t follow such a strict set of man-made rules. In fact, their criticism even extended to accusing the Son of God himself of sin. They were so afraid of sinning that they no longer truly knew what sin was. Their fear had made them into foolish, judgmental legalists.
Don’t be a Legalist. Be a Christian. Be with Jesus, like the disciples. The teachings of Jesus are here for you in the Bible. It says he lived perfectly according to God’s law, and then exchanged that life for the sins of the world. Paul wrote that Jesus has become our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption. And you also have been clothed with Christ in baptism—you wear his holiness like clothes; and not a tank top, but a robe that covers everything! You have been given his body and blood in his holy Supper, so that just as much as that bread and wine have been digested and become a part of you, Jesus is in you and part of you. What else do you need to be assured of God’s favor? You have Jesus with you.
Do not live in fear as a legalist, constantly worrying that your actions might turn God against you. Live in confidence that God is pleased with you because Jesus is with you—you are a Christian.
2. Use the Law to your benefit
As I read Jesus’ words, I see that God never intended his Law to be a constant burden that would weigh us down with fear. It is actually supposed to be a blessing, and a tool that is supposed to help us. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Because God has decided that you must be with him, he has given you this law. Consider why God commanded that the Old Testament Israelites do no work on the Sabbath. They had already done more than enough to make God want to reject them and destroy them. They worshiped a Golden Calf! But God decided to stick with them, because he is faithful and he is forgiving. He would not go back on his promise to bring a Savior from Abraham’s children, and he would not fail to finish what he had started in bringing Israel out of Egypt and into the land where the Savior would be born. God had made up his mind to forgive and to save. The only danger was that his people might forget and reject him. God commanded them to set aside the 7th day of the week, when they would do none of their regular work and spend the day remembering his great acts and promises to them.
The Sabbath was never meant to stop hungry people from getting food! David and his men ate the consecrated bread on the Sabbath, and Jesus’ disciples picked grain, and in both cases there was no sin. The Sabbath was meant to keep out all of the normal daily work that would stop God’s people from remembering him. It was a tool for their benefit.
Now, since we have Jesus with us, and you know that God must be pleased with you, wouldn’t you like to do everything you can to make sure you don’t forget that? The Law is a tool to help you. Take your cue from what God told the Old Testament Israelites to do. Set aside regular time every week, and don’t let work get in the way. Use that time to remember the great things that God has done for you. He is your Creator. He is your Savior. He died for you so that you could live with him. In his Word and in the Sacraments he is with you, and he is pleased with you.
There is no need to obsess over every little thing that you do, trying to make sure that there is no sin involved. You’re already going to heaven! You are free to worry about the big things that would attack your faith—the things that the 10 Commandments talk about. Beyond that, if the Bible doesn’t speak directly to it, do what the Law has taught you to do. Avoid things that hurt your faith.
If you honestly look at every action in your life and try to eliminate everything sinful, you will find that every choice presents a sin or an opportunity for sin. In everything, you must choose between this opportunity for sin and that opportunity for sin. You would have to be dead to avoid sinning. You could watch the R rated movie and sin by your violent or lustful thoughts about the movie. Or, you could not watch the movie and sin in your pride thinking that you are better than those people who did watch the movie. Our sinful nature puts its mark on everything we do. If God has not given you a clear direction, the best thing, once again, is to understand that God is already pleased with you. Then avoid things that will harm your faith, and make the best decisions you can, knowing that Jesus’ blood covers what is sinful and God graciously remembers what you do well.
Don’t be a legalist living in fear of God. Use the Law as a tool for your benefit, not a burden. It shows you why Jesus needed to die to save you, and teaches you to avoid the things that hurt your faith. Follow the Lord of the Sabbath, in confidence that Jesus is with you and so God is pleased with you. Don’t be a Legalist; be a Christian! Amen.