Yesterday, I had the privilege of continuing our series in Mark’s gospel. I preached from Mark 7:1-23. The overarching point of this passage is focused on the danger of shallow legalistic religion. The Jews of Jesus’ day, especially the Pharisees, spent much time focusing on the externals of man-made religious rules as opposed to the pure undefiled Word of God. Jesus confronts this issue as the Pharisees confronted Him regarding the disciples’ lack of washing before they ate their food, which was a complete violation of the tradition of the elders.
What exactly is legalism? Legalism can be defined as man-made additives to the formula of grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone for the remission of sin. Legalism is when we seek to please God by our works rather than by faith in the work of His Son. That’s exactly what the Pharisees were guilty of doing in Jesus’ day. They added to the Word of God and elevated their own rules and regulations above the authority of Scripture.
Jesus called them hypocrites and quoted Isaiah 29:13 in response to their shallow legalistic religion. They thought they had caught Jesus in a trap. However, Jesus turned the table on these self-righteous hypocrites. The Jews exchanged the pure Word of God for man’s empty rules. They were focused on washing their hands and their utensils while neglecting their bulging heart of hidden sin.
Jesus pointed out the reality of human depravity. It’s not about what enters the body that defiles a person. A person is defiled by what is inside. The heart of man is deceitful. Jeremiah said the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). Too often people focus on the outward rules for cleansing while neglecting the internal condition of the heart. Legalism is often appealing, but it’s a deep ditch and a dangerous trap.
It’s important for us to get this right. The difference between legalism and genuine Christianity is heaven and hell. We don’t want to lead churches and children to embrace rules that will make them outwardly moral and inwardly corrupt. That’s why Jesus pointed out their commitment to their rules and condemned them for how they elevated it above God’s law. Charles Spurgeon once said:
We declare, upon Scriptural authority, that the human will is so desperately set on mischief, so depraved, and so inclined to everything that is evil, and so disinclined to everything that is good, that without the powerful, supernatural, irresistible influence of the Holy Spirit, no human will ever be constrained towards Christ.
Until Christ changes us, we will be inclined to fix our problem through man-made formulas, rules, regulations, and all of this is merely skin deep. Sinful man requires a heart transplant, a spiritual resurrection, and all of this is what Jesus termed as being “born again.”
It may seem that washing pots and scrubbing hands in the Pharisaical legalistic manner is completely disconnected from a proper application to our present culture, but we must look a bit closer. How many people do you know who are debating over the use of the King James Version verses other modern English translations? Can a person get a tattoo or not? Is it alright for women to wear pants? Can we watch television? Is wine permissible? What about Facebook and the Internet, are they redeemable? The fact is, we must be careful of elevating man’s rules over God’s Word.
As we read these verses in Mark’s gospel, we should be warned of the danger of loose living as well. Grace is not a license to enjoy the world’s pleasures. As a child of God, we are the servants of God (literally slaves). We have been bought with the blood of Christ and have an obligation to obey His commandments. He demands holiness. Before we run down the road of sinful living with our grace card in our hand, we must consider what the Word of God has to say about a life that brings glory to God.
At the end of the day – it’s not about rules and regulations. It’s about God’s Word. Moralism and external cleanliness is not the answer. What does God’s Word say? Before you embrace a dead and lifeless legalistic religion, open God’s Word and embrace a grave conquering Savior named Jesus!
Isaiah 40:8 – “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”