I once read a wise word about the human heart from a wise pastor (I think it was the old Anglican preacher, Charles Simeon). He said that the human heart is incurably legal. That is, we all have an insistent bent toward relating to God in a legal arrangement:
If I do this, God will do that.
I must do this if God is to do that.
If God is doing that, then I must have done this.
From this outlook it’s a short and inevitable step to including others:
They must do this (just like me) if God is to do that.
This way of relating to God—legalism—has been around from the start and has taken many forms through the centuries. The Pharisees who opposed Jesus were some of the most notable legalists. One of the reasons the gospel writers wrote so vividly about the Pharisees was to prompt their readers to examine their own lives to see where Pharisaism was lurking.
Our friend and EFCA colleague, Larry Osborne (North Coast Church, California), has written a helpful book to assist us in examining our lives for new forms of legalism. Accidental Pharisees is well titled, well written, and capable of revealing subtle (and not so subtle) legalism in our hearts.
The Accidental in the title reminds us that many Pharisees, both ancient and modern, are well-intentioned to begin with. They are zealous for Christ, but they let their zeal come unhinged from faith in Christ and faith in his Word. They end up—accidentally, unintentionally—in a legalistic posture that brings harm to them and to others.
Larry points out, for example, our zeal-based readiness to judge others for their supposed lack of progress in the faith. But that progress, relative to who they are and where they are coming from, may actually be much greater than our own. Legalism blinds us to that possibility and to the humility that would otherwise see it.
Larry also cautions against creating a new legalism in the way we align ourselves with current trends and movements, such as “missional,” “gospel-centered,” and “radical.” Larry is careful in his criticisms. He rejoices with much of what is happening in these movements, but he also sees legalism derailing their usefulness and he cautions us against that misstep.
With many other examples and insights Larry calls us back to the Scriptures, sticking with them and not going beyond them. He calls us back to trusting not in our own standards but in Jesus and his work in our lives and in the lives of others.
Accidental Pharisees is a timely, convicting, worthwhile read.