RTG 5 : Rediscovering Grace: The yeast of Legalism

Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees.” Matt 16:6

Having explained why I believe we need to revisit what the Gospel is, let me jump right in and state that I think the first and most important yeast we need to free ourselves from is that of the Pharisees, the yeast of legalism. This is not the only pollutant that has robbed us of our joy but, because of its unique ability to masquerade as true spirituality, it may well be the major one. When Paul tells those in the church at Ephesus, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast,” (Eph 2:8-9) what he is saying here is something, I fear, that all of us have heard but relatively few of us have ever rightly understood.

For years now we have allowed any number of variants to this text to float about in our culture unchallenged and our lack of challenge reveals something. Here’s but a few of what’s on regular offer:

We are saved by grace alone through faith and by being a Calvinist;     …. We are saved by grace alone through faith and by speaking in tongues;

We are saved by grace alone through faith and by opposing abortion;    ….  by believing in a literal six day creation;      …. by not being a Catholic.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all of these additional statements, taken separately, are entirely wrong for Christians to hold. Some of us may well want to say that being a Calvinist,  speaking in tongues, opposing abortion, believing in a literal six day creation and being a Presbyterian is a good thing. For me the old quip still stands, “What would you be if you weren’t a Presbyterian?” “Well, I’d be ashamed of myself!” The problem comes when we attach any of these additional things to our understanding of what it is for us, or anyone else, to be made right with God through Christ. Each and every time any such addition is made, no matter how well intentioned, it is a denial of Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus and, indeed, his teaching to all the churches (see, for example, Rom 3.28).  Each and every time any such addition is made it reveals our slide into the error of the Pharisees.

Legalism corrupts us in two primary ways:

1. In how we receive Grace

In the Gospel, people are made right with God, we are made right with God, apart from the observing of any laws – even our very best intended and most seemingly God-honouring ones. On the cross Jesus has born the full intensity of our rebellion and alienation and has taken the consequences of it entirely upon himself. Having done that, and for reasons of love almost impossible to fathom, he now simply extends to us the offer of reconciliation – freely, without price, deserving or effort. All we must do is acknowledge our need, turn to him in repentance and faith and receive from him his amazing gift of new birth. As the Apostle Paul goes to great lengths to show us in the book of Romans, even our sanctification as followers of Jesus is by grace. Anything we try to add onto this message only detracts from it, diminishes it, demeans it. As Bishop Ryle said,”We contribute nothing to our salvation save the sin that made it necessary.” God knows exactly what he is doing in this. By his grace alone, we are now Sons and Daughters. By his grace alone, we are those now embraced, forgiven, accepted as children of the living God. By his grace alone God has reconciled us to himself, has invited us to walk with him  and to have him walk with us. And by his grace alone God has now called us to lives of grace.

Surely this is the greatest news anyone will ever hear. And yet, if we will only think about it for a moment, how many of us continue to live like those who can only be made right with God by keeping certain laws? We believe the gospel but we go on living with gnawing insecurity about our relationship with God; We believe in grace yet we live with a constant sense of shame and sense of unworthiness. We proclaim God’s free gift yet live and serve as those whose eternal security is solely determined by how hard we work and how much we obey. We read God’s declaration of reconciliation yet in the quite recesses of our hearts continue to yield to the voice that tells us we are not good enough, not really forgiven, not ever anything more than hired servants, barely tolerated house guests in God’s majestic household.

What causes us to live this way, to continue with such insecurity and fear when we are offered such complete acceptance and are invited to such wonderful intimacy in relationship with God through Jesus? Above all the other issues we will discuss, surely it is the yeast of legalism and its distorting, stifling and corrupting impact on the wonder of what God has done for us in Christ.

2. In how we offer Grace

But our legalism is not only revealed in how we receive grace. It is also, and often even more clearly, revealed in how we offer it. Every time we judge and condemn; every time we gossip and slander; every time we harbor resentment and unforgiveness; every time we slight with words or attack with weapons; each and every time we fail to love either God, our neighbor or our enemy, we reveal our sure slide from the gospel of Jesus. To offer grace is incredibly difficult but the logic of its refusal is simple and undeniable. When we refuse grace to another it is because we have deemed them unworthy of it. When we deem another to be unworthy of grace we reveal our belief  that unlike them we are worthy of it. To condemn another we must regard ourselves as superior to them and the only way this can ever be is if we have yielded to the heresy of believing that our good deeds, our good theology, our good character, our law-keeping, have somehow raised our status with God to that of ‘more deserving than they’. Yet, as Jesus makes uncomfortably clear in his parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-25, this will never be the case. We will never meet anyone who is less deserving of God’s grace than we are. Thus, when we refuse it to others it always, undeniably, irrefutably, reveals that we have failed to grasp what it means to receive it from God.

The Subtlety of Legalism

In thinking about this yeast of the Pharisees it is always vital to remember the subtlety of what we are talking about.  What Jesus warns us of in the Gospels and what, for example, Paul is dealing with in his letters (most famously in Galatians) is no crude ‘I am made right with God purely because of my good deeds’ kind of teaching. Such crass individualism and dependance on self-performance was seldom, if ever, articulated in first century Judaism. Confessionally, all Pharisees, like all Jews, would have freely stated that they were God’s children first and foremost because of God’s sovereign choice of Israel as his people (see Deut 7:6-10). This emerges even in their conversations with Jesus (for example, in John 8:33 & 39). As part of the covenant people of God, the Pharisees’ confessed confidence before God would very much have been based on that covenant. No, the corruption of the Pharisees was, and is, was much more subtle in its nature. Their problem was indeed theological, but it was not in their doctrines but in their hearts, attitudes and actions that their tragic drift from God was revealed.

God had called his people to love him with all their hearts and minds and strength. Yet, the Pharisees had used his name to garner honour, privilege and power for themselves. God had called his people to love their neighbours as themselves. Yet, the Pharisees had come to view with condescension any who were not as dedicated and faithful to God as they. God had commissioned Israel to be a light for all the nations but the Pharisees cared little about any race but their own and, indeed, viewed other races with hatred. In keeping the Law of Moses, they had come to see their obedience as a mark of superiority, of exclusive favour, as a justification to turn in judgement on any who would stand in their way – including, as it turned out, the Son of God himself. Thus John’s poignant words in John 1:11: Jesus ‘came to the world that was his own but his own people did not receive him.
Despite their confessed belief in grace, therefore, the functioning religion of the Pharisees was self-centred and self-righteous. Whilst in their theology, they declared God’s favour to have made them the children of Abraham, in their lives, they revealed that it was their own obedience to the law, their own accomplishments, their own righteousness that gave them their confidence and this ‘confidence’ led to them arrogance, cold heartedness and, ultimately, to condemnation. It is this subtle pollution that we must look out for in our own lives. In us, too, the corruption of the Pharisees, this yeast that takes root and spreads and ruins, does not reveal itself most clearly in our theology or in our confessions of faith. It reveals itself in our hearts, in our attitudes to others, in what we think and say when no-one else is there to hear us, in our actions and reactions as we live and work and play. As in the first century, it is always in our relationships with others that this yeast Jesus warns us of most readily announces its presence.


Why do we let such corruption ruin our walk with God and with one another? Perhaps it is because ‘the only world we know is the world we’ve seen’ and we’ve never seen grace before. Perhaps its because we’ve never known what it is to be in a relationship where we are accepted without deserving and offered love without condition. We are thus confused and uncertain as to what these things actually mean in practice with God. Whatever the reasons, it is into just such a praxis vacuum that the yeast of legalism so easily spreads and so efficiently blooms. Since it doesn’t make sense that God would love us freely, we begin to act in such a way as to assure Him that he has made the right choice. Slowly, but surely, we then begin acting in particular ways to ensure that he continues to show us his favour – if we are truly messed up, even to begin to repay God for the kindness shown to us in Christ. Before we know it, we are wittingly or unwittingly earning our salvation. In fact, we are pretty sure we actually deserve it (unlike “those people”) and the counter for the Pharisees advances once again.

Whatever the cause, it is great to remember that others have been similarly confused and nonetheless rediscovered what the gospel was all about. Martin Luther himself knew what it was to wane under such a religion of law and then find afresh the gospel of grace. After his journey, he could joyfully write, “faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures.”

May that same rediscovery be ours!

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