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Sunday 13th June 2021​

Link to video sermon address:

“So, you’re a religious legalist…” 

(5 sure Biblical signs)



Last week I started a two-part series on legalism-


One that doesn’t assume it’s somebody else’s problem,

… But instead asks the question:

   Am I a legalist?


This is the definition that we use last week to define what we mean by question legalism:

‘Legalism is any attempt to gain acceptance or forgiveness from God through your own works or merits.’


We also made the point last week,

… That legalism tends to disguise itself as righteousness


= but it’s actually anti-Grace in nature.


GRACE is god's unconditional free gift of love

LEGALISM in contrast,

… the little voice in the back of the head that says ‘Grace isn’t enough’


(It needs a few extra good works tact on the end to make it sufficient)


THE TERRIBLE IRONY is that the legalist

...WANTS  to please God


= But that legalistic efforts have the opposite affect.


Some of the greatest and godliest people in our own Baptist heritage,

… Have discovered for themselves the irony of legalism,


Charles Spurgeon for instance

… In his handbook for ministers wrote:

“ I have found in my own spiritual life that the more rules I lay down for myself, the more sins I commit.“


One example he gave regarded prayer –

… He said he needed to pray regularly,

…… That’s not legalism, its relationship.


But he went wrong in that he -

•set strict times to pray, 

•set minimum periods of time, 

•And had long and comprehensive lists of what and who to pray for in case he left anything out by mistake. 


= after a time he concluded these rules Strangled rather than assisted his prayer times. 


Last week I looked at two stories of Jesus that touched on the subject of legalism –

… The vineyard workers and the Prodigal son


These helped to formulate the first two points,

... I wanted to make in this series,


= Today we look at 3 final points AND SOME OTHER ASSOCIATED TEXTS  to conclude our reflection.



A legalistic person constantly compares themselves to others


Jesus told a rather provocative story,

 about an upstanding and respected Pharisee ….and a corrupt and wicked tax collector,

……... = Who both came into the temple to pray.


The Pharisee stood up and proudly prayed:

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterous or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week: I give tithes of all I get”.

(LUKE 18: 11-12)


I’m not sure it’s even really a prayer –

= It sounds more like a proclamation for everyone around him to hear and admire. 


You can imagine this religious VIP,

... peering disdainfully at the godless despicable tax collector,

…...dirtying the sanctuary with his very presence. 


The tax collector meanwhile –

Unlike the Pharisee,


= couldn’t even lift his head towards the heavens.


He was like a whipped dog,

= appearing to be crushed by the weight of his own sins,

….and afraid to look up towards his master.


We get this incredibly emotive image of a man beating his breast in distress,

 ...and pleading with God for a mercy he Clearly knows he doesn’t deserve


It’s well worth pointing out at this stage,

… That tax collectors weren’t the bureaucratic pen pushing, generally honest civil servants we might envisage in our society today


They were corrupt, semi gangsters who caused severe misery to ordinary Jews as they became rich (and they were very rich) on their backs


They often use violence and intimidation to exhort taxes for the enemies of Israel the  Romans –

Taxes that they inflated in order to skim off the top for their own cut


They would be considered as morally upstanding and socially acceptable,

... as drug dealers standing around the school gates are today in our society


And so the people listening to Jesus‘s story,

… Would have been more than a little amazed when Jesus concluded;

“I tell you, this man (a tax collector) went to his house justified rather than the other.  for everyone who exults himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exulted ”


We can’t understate how jaw dropping the conclusion to his story was!


The point Jesus was making,

… Was that the Pharisee relied on his fasting and tithing and praying to please God




None of those things are wrong in themselves –

… Indeed they are all potentially really helpful spiritually



The big clue that he was a legalist,

... was that he compared himself to another. 


He looked down on the tax collector;

“God, thank you but I’m not like this man.”


Now –

We’re not like that Pharisee are we,

… None of us would pray such a loud, showy and arrogant prayer!!


But does that mean that we never compare ourselves to others?


  • I don’t parent like that person

  • I don’t share their politics, thank god

  • I’m not lazy like a bad person, I have a better work ethic

  • My timekeeping is better than so-and-so

  • I’m better with money than them

  • I never use language like that

  • I never behave like that

  •  I volunteer for jobs more than they do

  • I’m not a hypocrite like them

  • I have better taste

  • Morals

  • Musical taste

  • Et cetera et cetera et cetera


Whenever I compare myself to someone,

… And get satisfaction from the difference..


= I’m basically saying:

“God, thank you I'm not like that person”



A legalistic person has a joy deficiency


I’m convinced it’s impossible to be a legalist,

… and genuinely joyful at the same time.


Christian joy comes from knowing that

 Jesus has forgiven us

…... even though we don’t deserve it


But trying to earn forgiveness,

… Is misery incarnate


It’s like a spiritual hamster wheel:

...Lots and lots of effort for no progress


So - like oil and water

= Joy and legalism don’t mix!


In Psalm 32:1 David wrote:

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”


None of us like looking at the shameful truths,

….in our lives and attitudes


It’s even worse when other people point them out to us!


So when we accept with our heart as well as with the mind,

… That ALL our shame is covered by God


= then the result is profound and utter joy.


But the legalist doesn’t spend much time contemplating their forgiveness


They’re too preoccupied on the hopeless task ...of covering up their own shame,

……. through sheer effort


There is no joy in what God HAS done,

... instead joy is lost as they focus obsessively on what THEY must do


Before this address we listened to hymn



This summed up the joy of undeserved forgiveness in the line:

“My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought my sin, not in part but in whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.”


This is a song for flawed kings like the adulterous David,

… Or corrupt tax collectors


= but not religious legalists.



Legalists are always afraid that God isn’t pleased with them.


I suspect that there are two types of legalists – 


one) The type that feel they deserve something from God because of their wonderful righteousness

Two) (And perhaps this is the most common I have encountered in myself and others) – 

….,there is a nagging feeling but God isn’t really happy with them.


We have touched enough on the first type,

… I’m going to finish on this second type.


Maybe you feel that God has technically accepted you –

… He has to because of what Jesus did on the cross.


But you fear that just because he accepts you,

…it Doesn’t mean but he’s particularly happy with you


I wonder if it’s some deep part of our mind,

… Some of us feel that we have got into god's kingdom through a technicality or loophole,


Now he’s sort of ‘tolerates’ you –

… A bit like some kind of heavenly long-suffering schoolmaster


And there’s this nagging guilt –

… I’m just not good enough for God


  • I don’t talk enough about my faith

  • I don’t pray enough

  • Don’t read my bible enough


= He’d like me more if I did!


I feel like a really good Baptist minister today,

Because I’m going to Charles Spurgeon for a second time in one talk!


“The poor sinner trying to be saved by law is like a blind horse going around and around a mill, and never getting a step further, but only being whipped continually. The faster he goes, the more work he does, the more he is tired.”



the solution to legalism


 SO - 

If you feel there is a bit of legalism in your life,

… Either a seed of self righteousness,

Or a sliver of ‘not good enough’ wretchedness


Then how do you cast off this miserable state?



This is risking over simplification –


But I would suggest of both myself and others

= that we set our eyes upon Jesus 


OK -

Sounds a bit obvious and cliched BUT -

...Think about it,

… I’m not sure that the legalist can have their eyes upon Jesus


  • The legalist has their eyes fixed on their watch (How many more minutes before my prayer time is over?)

  • The legalist has their eyes fixed on themselves (Woe is me, I’m not good enough, I need to try much harder)

  • The legalist has their eyes fixed on the rulebook (I must do this, do that, do the other – more, more, more.)

  • The legalist has their eyes fixed on other people (thank God I don’t behave like them! Or - they’re much better than me)


I think the legalist too distracted and busy to look at Jesus


And if they did look at Jesus –


… Look into his pained, love filled face,

… As he literally gives his life so we can be free of sin

… As his love covers all shame


SURELY the sight of such GRACE,

...would burn away all LEGALISM,

…...and fill the beholder with unparalleled joy




I would like us to finish by listening to this closing piece of music -


As you do so,

...perhaps you would like to close your eyes in an attitude of prayer as you listen to it


Ask God to help you set your eyes upon Jesus


  • Ask him to reveal his grace

  • And fill you with joy




**The music can be found in this link:

(‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus’ - Josh Garrels)