“Jesus was a legalist.”

No, that’s not my new blog title! (I’m still thinking through some updates and changes, but I’ve been kind of busy the last two weeks now that I’m “bi-vocational” for a month or two).  But unfortunately, this title was found on a local church sign near where I live:

Now, let me admit a couple things right now.  First, this isn’t the first sign message from this particular church that I’ve disagreed with.  Usually, most of their signs have something to do with how sinful people are (and I drive by this sign about 30 times a week), or about some special meetings at the church where they’ll expound on sinfulness (my favorite one- “This week, Gospel Meeting: The Works of the Flesh”.), or general attempts to downplay other churches (All denominations are of man and evil, etc.)  So I’m predisposed you might say to disagreeing with their signs!  Also, they may or may not have deliberately posted “Argument Signs” to counteract the sign of another church down the street (which I may happen to work at.)  🙂

But let’s talk about this particular sign. My mind went in about 30 different directions as I thought about this sign, so I’ll just throw them out bullet-style, in no particular order of importance.

1)  I have to give them points for boldness and wearing their beliefs on their sleeves.  After all, I might feel deceived or tricked had their sign said something like: “Jesus loves you” and when I went inside I found out the message was “Jesus hates you because he’s a legalist.”  I mean, authenticity is one of the chief virtues of our age, so at least they’ve got a sense of who they are as a church and what message they want to send to the world.

2) Watch that past tense!  “Jesus was a legalist”, not Jesus is a legalist.  So, is this a denial of the Resurrection?  (That might explain why they like the idea of legalism so much!) Or that Jesus was once, but isn’t now a legalist?  There does seem to be a disconnect between the Jesus they (want to) find in the Bible and the reigning Lord of all, at least enough that they aren’t comfortable saying “is” here.

3) Everybody’s doing it!  No, really.  I think that’s the core of the argument here.  They want to defend their own “legalism” by appealing to other occurrences of it.  People never get past the arguments they learned as children unfortunately.  But of course, when Christians argue, we have a secret technique for going above the “everybody is doing it” argument.  It’s called the “But Jesus did it!!!” argument (you must say in an ever-ascending whiny voice too.).  I want to wear flip flops to church one day.  My wife gives me a look.  “But Jesus wore sandals!” Boom.  Roasted.  Argument over.  I mean, seriously.  Who (besides us Southern Baptists and that awkwardness that is John 2 for us) wants to be on opposite sides of Jesus in an argument?  I mean, even people that don’t really like Jesus want him on their side in an argument.  And I think that’s really at the heart of this sign.  “Jesus was a legalist” is clearly the church’s response to someone else saying “Your church is legalistic.”  and of course, that kind but mistaken person saying that is clobbered with the I-want-to-grow-a-beard-out-but-my-wife-won’t-let-me patented response: “BUT Jesus was a legalist.”

4) Weird prooftexting here.  Matthew 7:21-23?  Really?  Do you KNOW whom Jesus is talking about in these verses?  You may have to go all the way back to 5:20 to figure it out, but it’s there.  “The scribes and the Pharisees”  He gets them there.  He goes after their rigid letter-of-the-law righteousness that ignores the sinful heart in 5:21-48, and 6:1-18, and 7:1-6, and 7:15-20.  Jesus is dissing on…wait for it…LEGALISTS!  And these legalists are the ones who keep all the rules and say “Lord, Lord” in the day of judgment and practice exorcism and prophesy and do miracles.   And it is to legalists that Jesus will say “I never knew you.  Depart from me, you lawbreakers!”  Apparently one breaks the Law by being a legalist.

5) Why not prooftext better?  I mean if you’re going to the Sermon on the Mount to justify your argument, at least go to Matthew 5:17-20 to really hammer it home!  At least use the right club to whack people over the head with!

6) Jesus was NOT a legalist.

7) If Jesus was a legalist, then he was a really, really bad one.  Have you read that story in John 8 where he didn’t stone to death the woman caught in adultery?  The Law told him to.  Not very good at legalism, apparently.  Or apparently in Matthew 23, he forgot which side he was on because he basically tells all the legalists they’re going to hell and that they are snakes.

8) Eph. 2:11-22.  “did away with…”  Read it for yourself please.

9) A minor point of agreement:  We invented in this country a kind a of Christianity where one can profess Christ, or sign a card, or pray a ritualistic “sinner’s prayer” and be set to go for heaven.  It’s called “cheap grace” (from Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship” or “easy believe-ism.” Jesus has a lot of hard sayings.  He calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, give up everything, and follow Him.  People who are swimming in that sewage lagoon need to be shocked by the harshness of some things Jesus said.  But He also said, “Come to me, you who are weary and burdened (by legalism, perhaps?), and I will give you rest.  All of you, take up My yoke (idiom for a Rabbi’s teaching and rules) and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves.  For My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

10) Romans 8:4- “so that the righteous requirement of the law might be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according the Spirit.”   I know this is a big debate right now in Christian scholarship over what this means in detail.  But generally, Christ fulfilled the Law, so us who are in Him fulfill the Law, and our living by the Spirit is involved in our fulfilling the law.  but it is clearly NOT by being legalists, though, which all would agree with.

11) If you have 1 chance to tell someone about Jesus for 5 seconds as they drive by, what would that one thing be?  I can tell you it shouldn’t be something that will be confusing, misleading or simply off-putting.   You know people hate legalism (at least in theory, we all tend to practice various forms of it, even hippies look down on those who don’t recycle).  So if you know people hate legalism, why use your 5 seconds to associate that with Jesus in their minds?  I recently read through all the sermons in Acts looking at how the apostles shared their faith.  From the 12 sharing with Jews to Paul sharing with Gentiles, I can you tell you what their strategy wasn’t.  “Here’s something you really hate and dislike.  Jesus is like that.  You want to know more?”  That isn’t to say there wasn’t elements of their messages that would certainly step on toes.  Peter: “You guys killed God a few days ago.  And now you need to repent.”  or Paul mentioning the coming judgment and Resurrection of Jesus at the end of the Mars Hill sermon.  (Greeks disdained resurrection and no one likes the threat of judgment!)  But that’s not how they started.  With Jews, they usually grounded the life of Jesus in the Old Testament scriptures, which every good Jew would affirm.  With Greeks, we see Paul focuses more on general human need to connect with God, gratitude for his life-giving provision, and the failure of idols.  There are always going to be people who hate Jesus (John 15:18), but at least make sure they hate him for the right reasons.  NOT because your sign connects him with everything people hate about religion.

12) If someone calls you a legalist and your first response is to write a church sign defending your position with a select few Bible verses…(Jeff Foxworthy) you might REALLY be a legalist.

13) Legalistic religion is a soul-killing, joy-stealing, no-good rotten thief.  (John 10:10- We love to say the “thief” in this verse is Satan (which is true in the ultimate sense), but read the earlier verses and see the more specific thieves Jesus had in mind.)  And Jesus gives abundant life.  So if legalism steals joy and life and Jesus gives joy and life, then maybe they’re not on the same team after all!

14) Bumper sticker culture is bad.  I started reading the book “Lord, Save us from your followers” the other day (it was $1 at Mardel), and that point is well made early on.  Rather than inviting people to come and discover Jesus, this sign is shouting at them in what seems like an angry tone.  Like if this was a Disney musical, this sign and its message would be sung on a stormy night in a torch-lit dungeon by someone with warts and non-proportional facial features.

15) I thought I might get shot taking this picture.   Someone I knew honked to say hi as I was getting out of the car, and I jumped thinking it was gunfire.

16) Their lawn is usually well mowed.  I guess you have to clean the outside of the bowl if you’re serving a big pot of poo-stew inside.

17) Church signs are like old-school tweeting.  You have the character limitations and everything.

18) If every clever, pithy saying I came up with was scrutinized like I’m doing with this sign, how would I fare?  There’s only so much clarity one can communicate in so small a space.  But that should make us try harder for clarity and to avoid misinterpretations.  Like I know when I’m commenting on a blog that whatever I write someone will take in the worst possible tone.  So what do I do?  I take extra time to add disclaimers and little extra words to soften what I’m saying.  I could probably use more of that when I talk as well, I think.

19) Many of us would never write “Jesus was a legalist” on a sign.  But we might be saying the same thing with our lives if we are not careful.  and that may be more damaging than any dumb sign ever could be.

20) and in case you missed it, Jesus was/is NOT a legalist.


2 Responses

  1. Loved this story. Thanks so much. Sadly, there are plenty of people who are caught in legalism who believe this for their own life and also teach it to others. May legalism die a horribly painful and public death. How many fundamentalists are going to have to fall into sin (besides the sin of legalism) before God teaches them that if they are saved, it’s ALL because of Him? Praise Christ that He showed me how utterly worthless I was when it came to my own salvation. (and I use past tense here because I speak of the initial point of conversion 😉 ) “While we were yet enemies…”

  2. As soon as i read this the first thing that came to my mind was John 8 and then i read it.

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