Jesus’ personal diagnosis of legalism is shown in Mark 7: 6-13. His piercing, penetrating omniscience sees into each of our hearts. He knows whether we’re trying to present ourselves as something we’re not.
The most common route to legalism is when tradition gradually becomes equal to the requirements of Scripture.
What can we do do to avoid turning tradition into legalism?
1) Adopt the commitment of the early church. In 1 Corinthians 4:6, Paul quotes a famous saying of the early church: “Not beyond what has been written.” That was their shared commitment. We must ask ourselves, “What does the Word of God say?” And we must resolve not to go beyond that.
2) Examine our personal convictions and traditions to determine if they are undermining God’s own commands. Are any of our personal fences, rules, of convictions, in fact, undermining God’s law? When we add our own rules to the “bare Word of God”, as Martin Luther called it, we risk undermining the original intention of God Himself, just as the Pharisees.
3) Examine ourselves for hypocrisy. Are we wearing a mask? Are we serving God with our lips, but not with our hearts? We must remind ourselves that Jesus still sees as clearly today as He did in the first century. He saw through the facade – all the things that were impressive about the Pharisees – and He knew their hearts. We need to examine our own hearts, and more importantly, ask God to examine them. We need to follow the Psalmist’s example in Psalm 139 and pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart…see if there be any way in me that causes you pain.”
4) Be grateful that God has revealed Himself in a Book, that is complete, and sufficient. It has everything we need. The Bible is enough, and we don’t need to add anything to it. And when we do, like the Pharisees, we may end up creating a system that actually undermines the will and purpose of God.
Man-made, false religion always substitutes human ideas for divine revelation. May God help us to see the false, and to stay committed to the true Word of God.