Jesus Obliterates Legalism

I belonged to a legalistic church in the 1970’s. Males had to wear their hair very short; females couldn’t cut their hair at all, or use makeup, or wear pants of any kind. And males and females couldn’t swim together.

We couldn’t dance, attend movies, or listen to ‘worldly’ music. We couldn’t wear jewelry—not even wedding bands.

The pastor preached against all kinds of sins, including sports. This was a big issue because there was a baseball field across the road from the church.

He was always harping on short skirts (knee-length or higher). So when long dresses (maxis) suddenly became popular around 1972 I thought: finally the girls can wear something stylish and still be modest. But the pastor said he had better never see one of his members in those worldly dresses!

The list of things we couldn’t do seemed endless, but I noticed two things weren’t on the list: gluttony and gossip. There were few things members could do, so many of them spent a lot of time in these pursuits.

Jesus Obliterates Legalism

You Have Heard, But I Say…

Over the last several posts we looked at Jesus’ responses, in Matthew chapter 5, to legalistic observation of Old Testament commandments. Jesus contrasts statements in the Old Testament with proper attitudes and demonstrates that the commandments are inadequate.

It is not that the laws are wrong but that observing them legalistically is not enough.

  • Saying ‘I never murdered anyone’ doesn’t mean you didn’t hurt them.
  • Saying ‘I never committed adultery ‘ doesn’t mean you didn’t want to.
  • Saying ‘I swear to God’ doesn’t mean you are a truthful person.
  • Saying ‘All I want is to get even’ doesn’t mean you reflect God’s attitude.
  • Saying ‘I love my friends’ doesn’t mean you are a virtuous person.

Jesus doesn’t share his ‘opinion’ about the matter; he speaks with authority: ‘But I say!’ Jesus raises the standard but does not establish a new legalism.

Jesus Does Not Establish a New and Better Legalism

Legalism always fails as a guide to behavior because it concerns rules instead of people. Jesus shows time and again that treating people properly is what following Jesus is about. Rules can never achieve the proper results. No matter how long one’s list of rules become they never approach genuine concern for people.

Multiplying rules of behavior closes loopholes but takes away critical judgment and flexibility; the words and example of Jesus provide us with tools to make ethical decisions in any situation.

Of course the ultimate goal is to please God, but what pleases God is for us to treat each other well, and legalism can’t achieve that. The Father wants peace and reconciliation; I have never seen legalism produce peace and reconciliation because it doesn’t focus on supporting and loving people. Instead, legalism tends to devolve into judgment of others and to produce guilt feelings.

How Can We Ever Treat People Properly?

When we consider the expectation of treating people right, we wonder how we can possibly achieve the standard consistently. The answer is—we can’t. It is a process of growth that begins when we begin to attempt to see other people as the Father sees them. We grow better at it with time but we always fall short.

Theoretically, one can achieve a perfect score on a checklist of rules; but it is a hollow score. An imperfect score in treating other people right is superior to a perfect score in legalistic rules.

In describing my attempts to follow the principle of peace and reconciliation during the past few posts, I’m sure it seemed that I have adopted my own set of legalistic rules; this is not the case. I do use guidelines to help me relate well to others, but they change as I learn and the focus is on people and not on the guidelines.

The tough work in living by the principle of peace and reconciliation is growing in understanding what that means in daily life. And as a person grows, their grasp of practical applications also grows. I cannot do the growing for someone else. I cannot even use my own growth as a template for them.

However, I can share some guiding concepts that have helped me:

  • Try to see people as the Father sees them
  • Treat others as you want to be treated (assuming a healthy self-love)
  • Genuinely consider the good and well-being of others on a personal basis
  • Consider whether your actions involve hurting someone
  • Approach others supportively rather than with judgment
  • Continue to read the stories of Jesus’ words and actions for guidance

Continuous Course Correction

Marc is one of my regular readers, and I like his phrase: ‘Continuous course correction in loving others’. When we begin living by Jesus’ principle of loving others, we are not perfect. We grow by making continuous course corrections based on respect and supportive concern for other people, but we never become ‘perfect’.

The result is more peace, happiness, and understanding; and less hurt and alienation. As broken people we fall short of the ideal of the principle of love, but we make a huge difference nonetheless if we attempt to follow it.

What did you learn from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:17-48?

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Have a great day! ~Tim
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26 Responses to Jesus Obliterates Legalism

  1. Pingback: Hating Our Enemies | Jesus Without Baggage

  2. michaeleeast says:

    I think that the key to Matthew 5:17-38 is Matthew 5:20 “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
    Jesus goes on the elaborate on the law (until the end of chapter 7)..
    Later on (Matthew 7:12) he establishes the golden rule, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets.”
    I agree that this section of the Bible is not to be taken legalistically.
    Don’ even think it, Jesus is saying.
    This is a little bit like the Buddha – our thoughts count.
    I like your 6 guidelines for treating others.
    The principle of Love will guide us in the end.


    • Michael, I agree that “The key to Matthew 5:17-38 is ‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ ”

      And what is the righteousness of the Pharisees? It is legalism.

      I intend to return later to Jesus’ teaching on legalism in chapters 6 and 7, but I thought regular readers might like a break and something fresh for awhile.



      A favorite defense for those who do not want to obey God’s terms for pardon, is to label strict obedience to God as Phariseeism. Is Phariseeism keeping God’s law to the letter?

      LEGALISM DEFINED: Strict and literal adherence to law.

      Were the Pharisees guilty of legalism? No they were not. The Pharisees practiced illegalism. They were not legal.

      Matthew 26:59 Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, so they might put Him to death.

      Is obtaining false testimony an example of strict adherence to God’s law?

      Matthew 28:11-13…the chief priests…12 And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers. 13 and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and sole Him away while we were asleep.’

      Is conspiring to bribe men to lie, strict adherence to God’s law?

      Matthew 23:14[ Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.]

      Was devouring widow’s houses an example of legalism or illegalism? Were the Pharisees literally following God’s law by devouring widows’ houses?

      Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law; justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.

      Jesus did not reprimand the Pharisees for their strict compliance to God’s law? No, it was the exact opposite. The Pharisees were neglecting strict obedience to the law.

      THE LEGALISM OF THE PHARISEES? by steve finnell

      The legalism of the Pharisees was because they followed man-made traditions, not because they followed God’s law to the letter.

      Mark 7:1-7 …..5 The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the traditions of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” 6 And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips. But their heart is far from Me, 7 ‘But in vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrine the precepts of men.’

      Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for teaching the traditions of Men. Jesus did not scold them for literal obedience to God’s laws.

      Mark 7:8 Neglecting the commandments of God, you hold to the traditions of men.”

      The Pharisees were not practicing legalism by strict obedience to God’s law. They were illegal for neglecting God’s commandments and keeping man-made traditions.

      Is teaching what Jesus said in, Mark 16:16, being Pharisaical.
      (Mark 16: He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved….)

      Would it be a tradition of men to say that “has been baptized shall be saved?” No it would not; it would the words of Jesus Christ.

      To claim that Christians are practicing the legalism of the Pharisees because they say you have to be obedient to God’s terms for pardon in order to be saved, is factually incorrect.




      A. FAITH: John 3:16
      B. REPENTANCE: Acts 2:38
      C. CONFESSION: Romans 10:9-10
      D. WATER BAPTISM: 1 Peter 3:20-21



      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Thanks Steve for your comments. I agree that the Pharisees were not following God’s direction, and it was because they were observing rules in a legalistic, technical way that ran contrary to God’s intent. Jesus explains that the purpose of OT laws were not to be followed as rules but as indicators of how to treat people; people were the important issue–not the laws.

        However, the Pharisees held to their picky interpretation of the laws at the expense and exclusion of the people; this is the opposite of what the Father desires. Today’s legalists do the same thing. Religious rules can never replace treating others fairly, and if we understand Jesus’ principle of loving others then we don’t need the religious rules at all.


        • sheila0405 says:

          Well stated. The Law of Love is the only “law” we need to follow. Treat others the way you want to be treated. So simple, yet it would solve so many huge problems in the world.


  3. Bill Kraski says:

    As long as you’re using Matthew 5, you can’t ignore Matthew 5:17 (KJV), “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”. Nor can you read Matthew 22:37-39 (KJV), “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” without realizing that He gave it context in the next verse. Matthew 22:40 (KJV) “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”. It’s not the commandments/law that are at fault, but human interpretation.

    The fault in what your pastor was shoving down people’s throats wasn’t in the commandments, but rather in the interpretation. Legalism is man made, not God made.


    • Hi Bill! It is good to hear from you.

      Good point! However, I did not ignore Matthew 5:17; I began this series on legalism with that passage in As I stated there: “Jesus did not come to repudiate the purpose of the Law but to explain what the Law was really all about at a time when its observance had decayed into legalism.”

      I also talked about what it means that Jesus came to fulfill the law. Then I followed through with five posts on the passages that followed.

      However Jesus shows us consistently, in his words and actions, that we are not bound to rules at all. Instead we should base our behavior on a genuine concern for the good of all individuals. This makes legalistic rules irrelevant.


  4. sheila0405 says:

    Excellent post! What Jesus said reminds me of my experience raising my two children. When children are little, sometimes discipline is necessary to put boundaries around them to keep them safe. They need to be taught about not touching a hot stove, for example. I had to externally correct them. Once they understood the “why” of forbidden activity, they then avoided what might hurt them. I think the 10 commandments are the same. In learning about God and what he wants, the 10 commandments start out as external controls on our behavior. Gradually we internalize the meaning of them. God wants us to live in harmony, peace, and reconciliation. The first 3 commandments show us our need to put God first, with the remaining 7 on how we treat others. Legalism is being stuck with external controls; what Jesus taught was the joy that happens when we internalize a real love for God and see that life is good when we treat people the way we want to be treated. What a wonderful world this would be if people sought reconciliation rather than conflict.


    • Sheila I like you analogy about rules.

      Like children, if we don’t know how or why to behave correctly, then we must be guided by rules. But when we comprehend the significance of behavior, not only do we understand the rules but the rules are no longer necessary.

      If we continue to depend on rules as adults, we have not matured and our behavior remains hollow and inadequate.


    • Chas says:

      Yes Sheila, The commandments are there as a guide against causing suffering. They are basically saying, ‘Do this, or don’t do that, otherwise someone will suffer as a result.’ You are right to point out that the most effective way to avoid somebody (including ourselves) suffering is to put God first. To respond to Bill’s point, it has always seemed to me that it ought to read: ‘You shall love your neighbor as you LOVE yourself.’ If you are not able to love yourself, it would be difficult to love someone else properly, as you would always be thinking about yourself first.


      • Bill Kraski says:

        OK, Chas, it’s older English, but, using the Amplified version, it’s Matthew 22:39 (AMP)
        “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as [you do] yourself.”. What you’re looking for is already in the verse.


  5. Marc says:

    Tim – I know we have a lot in common, and this posts confirms it. I had very similar experiences of legalism in a church I attended at about the same time as you. It seems to me that legalism and judgmentalism are two sides of the same coin.

    When our Lord Jesus told us the whole law was about loving God and neighbor, he wanted us to learn to see God and ourselves in our neighbor. This makes sense in that we humans are creatures made in God’s image, with the capacity to be like God.

    Regarding Church laws (canons) the early Church leaders developed a concept of “economia,” that allowed for specific circumstances. I think we have to follow the law of love always striving to allow for specific circumstances.


    • We do have a lot in common Marc.

      I like your contribution of economia; I think the early Jerusalem church leaders applied economia when they considered the requirements for gentile converts to the church.


      • Marc says:

        The council of Jerusalem in c. AD. 50 was a watershed Tim because it set into motion the concept of conciliar Church government where the collective wisdom of the Church leadership guided by the Holy Spirit could apply economia.


  6. Hey Tim, I like your synopsis of this, and the moral of the post. I personally think Matthew does a bit too much monkeying around with this “anthesis” section of your suggested reading for anyone to get too hung up on the literalness of any given point… (as I believe any sayings of Jesus in this section are buried deep within an overarching narrative that was invented by Matthew here). So I agree that we should just look at the larger picture and try to learn a good lesson from it.


    • You are right CE.

      We cannot expect Matthew’s handling of the oral tradition to be a word for word rendition, and his arrangement of Jesus’ sayings are thematic rather than representing a single sermon.

      We can’t press the text for literal application, but I think Jesus’ message, as it impacted the Matthean community, is pretty clear: proper behavior comes from the heart and not laws.


  7. Lana says:

    ooooh, yes, thank you so much for saying this


  8. lotharson says:

    Hello Tim.

    I think that this sad state of affairs largely stems from a belief in inerrancy which makes it meaningless to search for the central message of Jesus (or of the Bible for that matter).

    That said I find it healthy when short skirts are kept for evening and social events for they can be pretty distracting for men, lesbian and bisexual women during the worship 🙂

    I just wrote a post about the differences between men and women I warmly welcome you and your readers to participate in:

    Lovely greetings.


    • I think that this sad state of affairs largely stems from a belief in inerrancy which makes it meaningless to search for the central message of Jesus (or of the Bible for that matter).

      Agreed Lothar, belief in inerrancy causes all sorts of problems including a tendency toward legalism.


      • Chas says:

        Tim, many of the disagreements and divisions within churches, leading to the formation of a continuing series of new sects and churches, have also come from this belief in Biblical inerrancy. Once one is able to see the contradictions, they are there aplenty.


      • lotharson says:

        And picking and choosing which of the contradictory commands to follow.

        Fundies are unfortunately not aware that they have to resort to strong distortion of the original meanings of many texts to uphold their belief in inerrancy.

        I find it pretty depressing for it hinders them from going spiritually.


      • lotharson says:

        and morally ans rationally, of course.


  9. Michael Snow says:

    An easy way for parents to help their children to learn and remember the Ten Commandments.


  10. Pingback: Jesus Obliterates Legalism – Biblical Truths and Economics

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