Beware of the Leaven of Legalism

It sometimes comes as a surprise to Christians when they realize that Jesus did not get along with everyone, and that everyone did not get along with Jesus. The religious leaders were often at enmity against Him. Chiefly this is because they were blinded by their own sense of self-righteousness, which resulted in them failing to see who Jesus really was, and too prideful to admit their need of Him. But when Jesus opposed them, it was not because He had a wrongly-inflated view of himself, and was personally offended. Jesus’s motivation was his love for God and others. When he saw how the doctrinal errors of the religious leaders, and the unbearable burdens they placed upon others, He spoke out against them. These errors put the spiritual well being of people at such risk. Therefore, Jesus warned His disciples to beware of the doctrinal errors of these religious leaders. Matthew 16:5-12 contains one such warning:

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

The reason Jesus uses the illustration of leaven (or yeast) in regard to doctrinal error is because, like yeast in a lump of dough, error spreads, and ends up affecting the lives of many. In Galatians, the apostle Paul does the same thing.

In keeping with Jesus’s example, the apostle warns the churches of Galatia to beware of the leaven of legalism. However, before I point out those specific dangers, let me help you properly understand two definitions. As we’ve seen before, the Christian life—when properly understood—is a balanced walk. We need to learn to walk on God’s good, straight-and-narrow road, and keep out of the ditches. The two ditches that Galatians opens our eyes to are legalism and antinomianism.

  • Antinomianism = is a compound word from anti (against) nomos (law) meaning against law, or against the righteous standards of the law. Antinomianism stems from a misunderstanding of the sanctifying power of grace. Though the person guilty of this error rightly understands that when we come to God for salvation God accepts us the way we are, he also wrongly thinks that God is then content to leave us the way we are. The Antinomian rightly believes in the sufficiency of God’s grace to save us through the gospel, but fails to understand or embrace the reality that God’s grace is also meant to sanctify us, or make us holy.

In his outstanding book, The Whole Christ: Legalism Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance, Sinclair Ferguson says it this way. Antinomianism “fails to appreciate that the law that condemns us for our sins was given to teach us how not to sin.” (141) The Antinomian Christian is one who gets so enamored by the free grace of God in Jesus Christ that he abandons the hot pursuit of practical holiness. Instead he remains in spiritual immaturity by continuing to live in the flesh. Another way to say it is this: This professing Christian lives with one foot in the world and the other foot in the church.

  • Legalism, like Antinomianism, stems from a misunderstanding and misapplication of law and grace. It fails to understand the purpose of God’s law to drive us to Christ, where we find saving grace as a gift from the one who fulfilled the law on our behalf. It, too, fails to apprehend the fullness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and results in a person’s confidence remaining in their own law-keeping ability.

Again, Sinclair Ferguson gives helpful insight: “Legalism is simply separating the law of God from the person of God.” (83) “The essence of legalism is a heart distortion of the graciousness of God and of the God of grace.” (88) He then goes on to say, “Legalism is almost as old as Eden itself. In essence it’s any teaching that diminishes or distorts the generous love of God and the full freeness of his grace. It then distorts God’s graciousness revealed in his law and fails to see law set within its proper context in redemptive history as an expression of a gracious Father. This is the nature of legalism. (95)

The answer to both errors is a more accurate, fuller understanding of the gospel and its implications for Christian living. Ferguson says it this way: “Antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace. This is why Scripture never prescribes one as the antidote for the other. Rather grace, God’s grace in Christ in our union with Christ, is the antidote to both.” (156)

So, as the apostle deals with legalism in the first part of chapter five, and Antinomianism later in the same chapter, our attention again is drawn to God’s grace, the sufficiency of the work of Christ on our behalf, and the natural (or I should say, supernatural) outworking of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

  1. Legalism erodes the hope of righteousness by minimizing the gift of grace (vv. 2-6).
  2. Legalism hinders the true obedience of faith by minimizing the sufficiency of the cross (vv. 7-12).
  3. Legalism feeds the self-centeredness of the flesh by minimizing the priority of love (vv. 13-15).

God wants you to beware of legalism, which fails to understand the purpose of God’s law to drive us to Christ, where we find saving grace. But God also wants you to beware of taking His grace for granted and, as a result, living out the desires of your sinful flesh under the banner of liberty.

Listen to this sermon.

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