GOSPEL DENIES THE FLESH
Legalistic theology often develops a dichotomous behavior. In other words, a supposedly religious person will do those things that are contrary to the word of God, and yet, he will justify his behavior by his self-sanctifying obedience to the religious rites of his particular religion. He will often justify his behavior because he has convinced himself that such behavior does not conflict with God’s will, for he has successfully self-justified himself by his performance of legal rites of worship.
The religious legalist can feel justified before God by performing the act of contribution, or supposed leadership action of taking up the contribution in the assembly, but then taking the contribution for his own use because he feels that his personal need outweighs the purpose for which the contribution was taken. The means justifies the end. The legalist often believes that the merit of his leadership and the performance of a legal act of contribution has atoned for what sin may have committed in taking the contributed money. If the legalist feels he has checked off all necessary requirements for his self-justified worship, then he often believes he is permitted to partake of some sin after the “closing prayer.”
But the problem with the legal religionist is that he fails to deal with the sin beneath the sin. His legalistic approach to religion has diverted him from concentrating on holiness in his heart while he feels self-justified by his legal worship. His concentration on the outward appearance of legal religious rites has hindered his focus to correct inward attitudes that give rise to outward sin.
One does not have to wonder much in order to understand the legalistic mentality of Judas in taking money from that which was contributed to Jesus and the disciples (Jn 12:6). He was born into a Jewish religious system of legalism that justified actions that were wrong, but were right if the end justified the wrong. In this way, the legalist sees the importance of the outward performance to be more important than inner holiness. It was for this reason that Paul had to write concerning the works of the flesh in the Galatian context of Jewish legalism (Gl 5:19-21). This explains why the supposedly faithful member can worship God according to legal acts of accepted worship, and then, commit adultery with the church secretary. This explains why the preacher can preach on kindness, and yet be unkind to his family. This explains why the legalistic church can teach longsuffering, and yet hastily draw up disfellowship papers.
This explains how a self-sanctifying experientialist can enjoy an emotional euphoria that is poured out on a Sunday morning, but in his self-righteous religiosity live a life of sin from Monday to Saturday.
When outward performance becomes more important than inward holiness, then all sorts of contradictions are witnessed in legalistic religion. This is why Paul immediately saw the hypocrisy in the situation where Peter withdrew from the Gentiles when Jerusalem teachers came to Antioch. “And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy” (Gl 2:13).
Peter and Barnabas behaved hypocritically because they “were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gl 2:14). They were not living according to the gospel. Their behavior on that occasion was contrary to the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Though their sin was not of the flesh, they were not living in tune with the straightforwardness of the gospel.
Because legalism appeals to the flesh, the flesh is trapped in a system that does not offer complete control over the flesh. Since the flesh cannot remain controlled by law, it eventually rebels against all the rules, and thus breaks out of control. When the frustration with meritorious law-keeping reaches a certain point, the legalist spiritually crashes. He often discards religion and blames God in his frustration, and then falls away to the world. When the crash comes in the religious life of a legalistic church, the members will fight and devour one another (Gl 5:15; Js 4:1,2).