The danger of legalism lurks wherever we would relax God’s law from its high-as-heaven standard, dragging it down to a standard low enough for us to keep. Beware the leaven of the Pharisees! The painful truth is that none of us can reach God’s perfect standard. Rather, before his standard, we must tremble, crying out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).
In every age, the church must be vigilant to avoid legalism. We must never be like the Pharisees, who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matt. 23:24). God tells us that his commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3), but to add to God’s commandments would indeed be burdensome.
The danger of legalism is one that all true ministers of the gospel of Christ must take with the utmost seriousness. Nevertheless, do we really understand what Christ was condemning when he warned us to “Watch and beware the leaven of the Pharisees” (Matt. 16:6)?
In this article, I want to raise the question of whether we understand the spirit and nature of legalism correctly, and to explore whether this misunderstanding may seriously skew our gospel ministry.
The Legalism of the Pharisees: Not too Strict, but too Lax
What exactly was the legalism that the Pharisees were teaching? A common thought is that the Pharisees were legalistic by being overly strict about the law, while the Sadducees were overly lax about the law. That is, the Pharisees are commonly characterized as legalists, and the Sadducees as libertines. While this view is both common and convenient as a way of categorizing the two groups, it does not match either the historical records or the biblical records, especially regarding the Pharisees.
Both Jewish and Christian historians have recognized that the Pharisees were trying to simplify the law, rather than complicating it. So, the Jewish scholar Alexander Guttmann writes:
Emerging from the ranks of the people, the rabbis spoke in terms intelligible to the populace and were therefore able to lead the people in accordance with their teachings, a feat the Prophets had been unable to accomplish. Uncompromising idealists, the Prophets demanded perfection and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth in their own time; therefore, they were doomed to failure. Prophetic Judaism never became a reality but remained only an ideal, a goal, like Plato’s Republic. The rabbis were idealists, too, but they were at the same time pedagogues. In guiding their people, they took the realities of life (among them the weakness of human beings) into consideration. They upheld the Torah as the divine code, but at the same time they recognized the need for harmonizing the Torah with the ever-changing realities of life.1
The mission of the Pharisees was not to create a set of extra rules to prop themselves up—even if this may have been the eventual result. Rather, the mission of the Pharisees was to boil down the law to principles, practices, and techniques that normal people could understand and keep.
To be sure, the Pharisees were legalists. Their legalism, however, was the result of trying to reduce the law down to something manageable in the lives of the people. This did not leave them to become too strict, but, far too lax in comparison to the fullness of what God required.
The Bare Text of the Law vs. The Full Ethics of the Moral Law
Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham helps to see this point by observing that the text of the law does not give us a complete accounting for the fullness of what the moral law actually requires. Or, as Wenham puts it, there is a “gap” between the bare text of the law in the Bible and the fullness of the ethics (moral law) required by the Bible.2 So, the bare text of the law “sets a minimum standard of behaviour, which if transgressed attracts sanction,” but the “ethical ceiling is as high as heaven itself, for a key principle of biblical ethics is the imitation of God. Man made in God’s image must act in a godlike way: ‘Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy’ (Lev. 19:2).”3
From this, we can see that the legalism of the Pharisees manifested itself in two ways: (1) they sought to keep the bare text of the law, rather than the fullness of the biblical ethic (moral law) of what it means to imitate God; and (2) they boiled down the full biblical ethic of the law into manageable principles that seemed to make the law possible to keep.
New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen makes this point powerfully:
The legalism of the Pharisees, with its regulation of the minute details of life, was not really making the Law too hard to keep; it was really making it too easy. Jesus said to His disciples, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.” The truth is, it is easier to cleanse the outside of the cup than it is to cleanse the heart. If the Pharisees had recognized that the Law demands not only the observance of external rules but also and primarily mercy and justice and love for God and men, they would not have been so readily satisfied with the measure of their obedience, and the Law would then have fulfilled its great function of being a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ. A low view of law leads to legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace.4
1 Alexander Guttmann, Rabbinic Judaism in the Making: A Chapter in the History of the Halakhah from Ezra to Judah I (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970), xii. Cited in Moisés Silva, “The Place of Historical Reconstruction in New Testament Criticism,” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 120. I am indebted to Silva’s article for much of what I have written about the nature of legalism here.
2 Gordon J. Wenham, “The Gap between Law and Ethics in the Bible,” Journal of Jewish Studies 48, no. 1 (1997): 17–29.
3 Wenham, “The Gap Between Law and Ethics in the Bible,” 18, 26.
4 J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1921), 179.