From blasting the Pharisees, Jesus turned to the teachers of the law. Why?
Jesus told them,
And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. (46)
In this one verse, we see the problem with legalism.
First, it loads people with guilt without any remedy in sight. The experts of the law actually made things more difficult than they had to by adding rule upon rule to the law of God. When, for example, the law said that you shouldn’t do work on the Sabbath, these experts made countless rules on what “work” actually meant.
For example, women couldn’t wear jewelry on the Sabbath if they went out, because it was possible they might take it off for some reason and carry it around with them. And of course, “carrying a burden” was prohibited on the Sabbath.
You also had to be careful how far you walked. If you walked too far (just over half a mile), you were breaking the Sabbath.
There were literally hundreds of such rules on top of the laws that God had given. And if you broke any of them, you were considered a “law-breaker.”
People today may not have the hundreds of additional rules that these teachers of the law did, but how often do we see people put restrictions on others, not because the Bible says it, but because they personally feel it’s wrong. “Don’t drink” (as opposed to, “Don’t get drunk). “Don’t watch movies.” “Don’t dance.”
All of this leads to the second problem, a judgmental attitude. The idea that “You are not a good Christian because you don’t keep these rules.” Along with that comes a prideful attitude because, “I keep the rules.” But often times, while they “keep the rules,” they forget what the Pharisees did: mercy, justice, and love. They think they’re righteous, but in God’s eyes, they are as much a stench as the Pharisees and teachers of the law were.
But perhaps the worst problem with legalism is that all it does is tell you what is right or wrong. It doesn’t have the power to help you do what is right or wrong. It only judges you when you fall. The result is people who feel the hopelessness of trying to keep all these rules.
The people in Jesus’ time were totally weighed down by these rules of the teachers of the law, and yet, if they asked the teachers of the law what to do when they failed, all they would be told is, “Do better.”
Which is, of course, no help at all.
Even if you get rid of all the additional rules, and stick only to the law Moses gave the people, it still doesn’t have the power to save you. In the end, you end up like the apostle Paul, saying,
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24)
But unlike the people of Jesus’ time, Paul had hope. He said,
Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Legalism can’t save you. The Law can’t save you. But Jesus, through his death on the cross, can. He took the punishment for our sin, and so Paul could say,
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
So let us cast aside legalism and the feelings of pride and condemnation it leads to. Rather, let us turn to Christ and his cross. And through it, not only will our sins be forgiven, but we will find the power to live the way God intended.