One manifestation of our brokenness is that even as Christians, we can be prone to pharisaical tendencies, developing a strange zeal for the law of God that reduces worship to completing formulas. Legalism murders devotion.
Jesus picked wheat in the grain fields and healed a man with a withered hand during the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1–14), which violently incensed the religious experts. He brazenly broke bread with tax collectors and sinners, and yet Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Same law, different interpretations; different results. Jesus’ interpretation of the law fed His disciples and allowed a man the use of his hand for the very first time. The Pharisees’ interpretation of the law tithed cumin and dill, but starved the elderly (Mark 7:11–13). The religious experts competed to be fastidiously clean by their own effort, and they created prohibitions and requirements that would ensure that they would be the most holy. Their legalism was works-based. God was optional. Jesus put it this way in Mark 7:8, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
The Galatian Christians—and even the apostle Peter!—added the Jewish tradition of circumcision to the gospel message they shared with Gentile believers. The gospel doesn’t require anything but belief in Jesus, but Jewish Christians had never experienced devotion to Christ expressed by a Gentile. They had not conceived of a person being a child of God without being a Jew first. And as we’ve previously discussed, non-Jews were viewed as inferior.
Here’s the truth as written by Paul, for all of us with pharisaical tendencies: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). Faith in Jesus, plus nothing, equals the gospel message, potent in power, able to be expressed in every culture.
Paul, in this same letter, does give us a guideline for fulfilling the law like a Jesus follower: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). The law fulfilled is the law of love for others. If our adherence to God’s law tramples the people around us and excludes them from the mercies of God, what have we achieved? (There’s a difference between constructive criticism or exhortation that might initially be hard to hear, versus condemnation, malevolence, and disdain. The former is surgery; the latter is mutilation.)