The story of the life of Jesus has many interesting characters. One of them is actually a group of people. They were called Pharisees. The 1st century Jewish historian, Josephus, claimed there were around 6,000 pharisees at the time of Jesus. The Pharisees (and more prestigious Sadducees) were the real rulers of the people even while the entire region was under the thumb of Rome (Caesar Augustus and later Tiberius).
If you read the New Testament you will find that most pharisees were just horrible people. Their key belief was that their oral traditions were equally as important as the word of God. All they seemed to care about was their position and prestige. They considered themselves so righteous that they thought everyone should be awed by the level of their virtue. They were pompous to the point of wearing brightly adorned robes with especially long blue tassels so that no one could mistake their position of power. They also wore extra-large phylacteries on their foreheads. Phylacteries are small boxes that contain tiny scrolls of Jewish scripture. Jewish men strap them to their heads while worshiping based on four verses in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The Pharisees made sure to have much larger boxes on their foreheads to show how pious they were.
The Pharisees are a great example of why legalism is not God’s ultimate answer to the problem of sin. These guys followed God’s laws so meticulously that they even made up many more laws, as a buffer to God’s laws, and followed them as well. They placed their identity and hope in the law. Because of this, they missed the bigger picture of God’s compassion and grace. Ultimately, they believed their salvation depended on what they had done, not what God has done. They believed in God. They followed His commandments. They even feared Him, and yet, they did not know Him.
Having said all this, how bad were these guys, really? They were, after all, under the law. Christ had not yet died for their sins. They believed that their only means of salvation was in following God’s law. It’s true that they misinterpreted the prophets and failed to recognize Christ for who He was, but I’m sure I would’ve done the same. Surely they weren’t all evil, conniving men; drunk on power and willing to kill to keep it. I’m sure that many of them were “good” people who loved their families and thought they were doing their duty to their religion (i.e. Paul).
You may be wondering why I made a point only to counter it. The reason is that we are all a bit like the Pharisees. We want our salvation to depend on our own actions, not Christ’s. Our human (sinful) nature tells us that we control our own destiny. We do not want to be dependent on anybody else for anything; that would make us weak. We want to be able to do A, B, & C and thus be guaranteed the entrance to heaven that we think we deserve. The idea of grace scares us. Grace is something that must be granted, not earned. Would you rather take a multiple choice test or write an lengthy essay that will be graded based on interpretation? The thought that our eternities, and even our lives today, are outside our control goes against everything we have been taught by the world.
Why do people believe things like evolution and panspermia (aliens planted us here) that have absolutely no evidence? Because the alternative (God) means that they are accountable and dependent on Him. We are like the immature teenager who thinks they don’t need parenting. We want to do it on our own. Unfortunately (actually it is fortunate) we cannot. There is no way for us to handle the problem of sin on our own. We need God’s grace whether we like it or not.
As a Christian, I know all this to be true, yet I still want to control my own destiny. I want to put a phylactery on my forehead and follow the law not out of love for God, but so that I can earn salvation. I want to look down on the people I see on Sunday morning, who are obviously not going to church, as I am dressed up and on my way. I want to wear my Christian t-shirt and carry my bible so that other Christians will respect me and, hopefully, non-believers won’t ask me any questions.
God doesn’t want our obedience out of obligation; He wants it to be out of love for Him. There is nothing that we can give God, but love. He already has everything else. Love is why He created us. Love is why He lets us choose to depend on Him. If we depend on Him, dependency leads to trust and trust leads to love. Yet how can we depend on somebody who we do not know? How can we love a stranger? How do we willingly give up control of our lives? We must want to get to know Him. We have to desire to talk to Him and learn who He is. Without this attitude, we are just going through the motions out of obligation. I can read my entire bible from cover to cover, but if it’s begrudgingly done; what is gained? I can force myself to pray every night, but I am just going through the motions. I am doing something to achieve the result I want. That is not grace. That is legalism.
I know that there is an argument to be made for habit forming and discipline in these things. We are not always going to be excited to read Deuteronomy. I am not going to feel thrilled about talking to God everytime I pray just as I, sometimes, am not thrilled about talking to anyone else. My point is not to stop doing these things, but to check our attitudes when we do. Reading the Bible and praying are not chores to be done. They are learning about and even hearing from the most powerful being in the universe. If we had a president that could be respected, would you not take his call. How much more should we desire to know the one and only God?