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Legalism and Hypocrisy

Jesus is the only person to use the word hypocrite in the New Testament and he uses it nearly twenty times–as a word of great disdain. In the New Testament it means someone who "plays the game" of religion but who is not, in his heart, submitted to God. The most telling mark of a hypocrite is that they like to show off their religion. Jesus said they like to have sad faces and make a show of fasting (Mat. 6:16) and they trumpet their religion in the streets (Mat. 6:2 & 5). They want people to see that they "give to the kingdom" and they like to make pompous prayers or public statements about their faith. In the long run, Jesus says, they actually get in the way of God’s work by hindering people in search of God. (Mat. 23:13) Hypocrites eventually even turn their disciples into "children of hell" (Mat. 23:15).

In the Old Testament, the word "hypocrite" describes a person who is corrupt or polluted. A Jew who has slipped from godliness into the corruption of the world, for example.

The engine that drives hypocrisy is Legalism. Legalism is the attempt to live certain laws or do certain things in order to make oneself acceptable to God. That sounds like a noble concept, but the Bible teaches that righteous actions cannot make a person righteous. That is because mankind is "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1 & Col. 2:13). Salvation–spiritual healing–occurs when a person places his life fully into the hands of Christ, surrendering his life to the authority of God. When that happens, the Holy Spirit instantly enters that person and he becomes a new creature–he is born again.

A born again person begins to produce good fruit–godly actions–naturally, just as a grapevine grows grapes naturally. Jesus said:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every [branch] that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye [are] the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:1-5)

People who are not born again but who want to be godly sometimes decide they can become godly by doing good things. Again, that sounds good, but the Bible says it doesn’t work. The Apostle Paul dealt with this issue in discussing the actions of Jews of his day. They wanted to be godly, but they went about it wrong:

Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. (Rom. 10:1-4)

Many people want to "establish their own righteousness." But it is much better to find out how God establishes righteousness and then to follow His directions for becoming righteous.

Good Works Don’t Make Us Good

The problem is, good works do not make men or women godly. Since people are spiritually "dead." They cannot resurrect themselves no matter how hard they try. Attempting to do good works to satisfy God’s demand upon the human heart for total and absolute surrender is like giving an aspirin to a dying patient. Or it is like attempting to make a dead tree alive by taping plastic leaves on it. The tree itself must be miraculously resurrected if it is dead. For humans, that process is the new birth. "Marvel not," Jesus said, "you must be born again."

When a person embarks upon a course of action to make himself righteous by doing good deeds–no matter how well intentioned he or she may be–that person winds up locked in a death grip with religion. Instead of producing good fruit naturally out of a changed heart, such a person is really drawing water from a still-polluted well. This is where hypocrisy comes in.

Hypocrisy in Action

Hypocrisy actually is the process of "acting" in a certain way. The word hypocrisy comes from Greek Theater. In ancient Greek plays, the actors held masks in front of their faces to play a part. Of course in the theater everyone knows the actor is–well–acting! But the religious person tries to do good without having been made good through the miraculous energizing of the Holy Spirit. Such a person begins to become an actor. He is a different person on the inside than he is on the outside. He tries to hide his dark inner being not only from others, but also from himself. Of course, he cannot do this. He knows down deep that he does not measure up. This is tragic. He is ignorant (as were the Jews of Paul’s day) and he misses the "righteousness of God." And, of course, he really doesn’t fool anyone else for long. His impatience shows through his smile. His fear betrays his attempt at confidence. His heart is seen beneath the mask.

Institutionalizing Hypocrisy

When the Church, or religious leaders, or religious people sanction these self-deceiving actions, the scene is set for serious problems. These people come under severe condemnation from God because they present a false method for becoming righteous. These are the religious people Jesus called "a generation of vipers," and "whitewashed graves." (Mat. 12:34; Mat. 23:27) They tithe on the spices in their cupboards, He said, but neglect the really important matters such as mercy and faith. (Mat. 23:23). They wash their dinnerware, but inside they fare full of extortion and excess. (Mat. 23"25)

Hypocrisy can overtake any one of us. It happened to the Apostle Peter in Antioch where he was visiting the Apostle Paul. God had told Peter in a vision that gentile believers were "clean" (Acts, chapter 10). Peter was visiting Paul and a number of believers in Antioch. Every day the Jewish believers had full fellowship with gentile believers, even so far as eating their meals together (which no orthodox Jew would do at that time).

So when some Jewish believers from Jerusalem showed up in Antioch–self-righteous and elite "leaders," Peter quickly abandoned the gentiles out of fear of these "Judaizers." Paul was shocked. He told Peter "to his face" that he was being false. Peter was dissembling, Paul said. He was acting. And the consequence of his false "religion" was extremely damaging.

Why is Acting So Damaging?

The reason God sets men free. . .is so they can be free! In the context of describing the sin of Peter at Antioch, Paul writes (in Gal. 5:1): "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." People who have been made free by God are "free indeed." (John 8:36).

Let me be quick to add–as Paul continually did–that we are not free to sin. We are not free to commit adultery or to fornicate or to lie or cheat or steal or murder. But we are free to be who we are without trying to be someone we are not. That is the source of acting, and acting is the source of hypocrisy, and hypocrisy creates a deadly legalism which binds us.

Not only are we susceptible to falling back into legalistic bondage, but other, often well-meaning people, try to drag us back into legalism. Paul, in this same book of Galatians tells us the reason people try to put us in bondage to legalism. It is a defense mechanism on their part. Remember, down deep, they know they are not becoming righteous through legalism. So they try to bring us down to their level to make themselves feel better. Paul said, they do it so we will be as bound-up as they are! In Galatians chapter two, verse four he writes that "false brothers" came in to spy out our liberty "so they could bring us into bondage." But, Paul says, he made no room for that foolishness, "no, not for an hour!"

Two forces draw people back into legalistic bondage. First is simple ignorance. They think they are being obedient to God. Nevertheless their actions still make them "false brothers." They may be duped themselves, but they are presenting a false picture of Christianity. Another reason they revert to legalism is because they are afraid. They are afraid that others will see who they really are. This is a truly pitiful condition for a Christian to find himself in. We have been set free from the bondage of sin and tyranny of Satan and we are now in bondage and tyranny to our Church or our "brethren."

Avoiding the Temptation to Legalism and Hypocrisy

How can we avoid the temptation to succumb to legalism, hypocrisy, and acting? First, we must be absolutely certain that the things we believe are based in good, solid Bible understanding. Every organization, every group, every individual teacher or preacher, must submit their rules and regulations to the scrutiny of Holy Scripture. Every "day, diet, and doctrine" must be biblical, not just denominational.

Don’t bet me wrong, I am in favor of denominations, local churches, pastors, elders, leaders, preachers, and teachers. These are themselves biblical in origin and gifts to the child of God. No one must think that he can take his Bible up on a mountaintop, meditate, and come down a mature Christian. It is, I am convinced, impossible to become a healthy Christian without interaction with the larger body of Christ.

But every man or woman must be true to his own conscience, his own mind. He cannot turn the conduct of his life over to someone else. To do so is to entrust yourself to human nature and human nature will always fail. We may only humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. (I Pet. 5:6)

A born again person must carefully allow the Holy Spirit to shape his life. He must certainly seek the counsel of other, mature Christians, especially those deemed worthy to be considered leaders by other mature Christians.

Most important, as he takes advice and counsel from others, he must ask himself if the person or group he is following is itself in fellowship with the larger body of Christ. Any leader who is a law unto himself and who cannot stand in fellowship with a large and broad segment of Christendom is definitely a candidate for deception. Any group that views itself as "the Only True Church" doubtless is currently in deception.

Standing Fast in Christian Liberty

Staying Free in Christ is hard work. The devil works overtime to bring us into condemnation. False brothers attempt to bring us into condemnation and temp us to go back to the old, pitiful way of trying to deal with sin through good works. The most important thing we can do is to "remain in Christ," to abide in Him. Remember John 15:1-4 says we are already clean and now we must quietly abide in the vine so that we can bear fruit. Don’t try to manufacture fruit. Don’t try to tape plastic fruit on yourself. Simply stay close to the Person of God in Christ. Abide in Him.

Second, do not allow any self-righteous person to look down on you. Do not allow Judaizers to take you into bondage for their own purposes. Stand fast in the blessed liberty wherewith Christ has made you free.

How well the Apostle Paul stated this case in the wonderful book of Colossians:

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.
Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
(Col. 2:16-23)
Responses
I agree with you that we need to guide our sanctification by moving closer to the Savior. However, is there any place for "rules" when a Christian is trying to become more Christlike and more useful to the Savior? I have seen much of the opposite where a person just "freezes" in their spiritual progress because "He'll forgive me anyway." Is there a place for "drawing the line", renewing our fear of God, and guarding against the cheap grace attitude?
Thanks,
J.W.

Dear J.W.
We both certainly agree that a person should expect to become more Christlike as he moves along the timeline of his existence. What is up for discussion is _how_ one progresses in sanctification. I do not believe that "rules" enable us to become more Christlike. In fact, in my opinion, they do the opposite. In my opinion the Bible emphasizes that "contemplating and considering Jesus" is what transforms us by the renewing of our minds. If we look at the rules we become oriented to the flesh and discouraged (or deceived), but if we look at God we become encouraged, inspired, and changed.

Teaching which emphasizes the rules always seem to produce legalistic intolerance and arrogance, rather than brokenness and humility.

Whenever Paul taught on this he constantly said, "Of course, I am _not_ saying we should "sin more so God's grace will be more evident." "Of course I don't mean that," he said. But nevertheless he taught that there are only two children of Abraham--the free children and the children of the bondswoman. One is filled with the smoke of Sinai:

For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he [who was] of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman [was] by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.
For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
For it is written, Rejoice, [thou] barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband.
Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise."
(Gal 4:22-28)

As usual, the middle way is best: License to the left, legalism to the right; Christian liberty in the middle.

Jim