This sermon is number 22 in a series of 27
The Sermon On The Mount - Part 22
"Sanctified Selfishness: The Paralysis of Legalism"
by David Legge | Copyright © 2002 | All Rights Reserved | www.preachtheword.com
Now we've been going through the Sermon on the Mount for several weeks now, we've reached our twenty-second study this morning, and we're looking at what is commonly called: 'The Golden Rule', which is found in verse 12 of chapter 7. Now it's only one verse, a few words perhaps within the verse, it's certainly not the longest verse in the Bible, but it perhaps is one of the most famous verses in the Bible and it holds within it a great deal of spiritual truth. For that reason I found myself, as I studied it this week, realising that there's far too much in this one verse just to squeeze in in one particular week. So, God willing, I hope to split our study of this one verse into two weeks, and I've entitled it 'Sanctified Selfishness', sanctified selfishness.
The first study that we're looking at today is: 'The Paralysis of Legalism' - the paralysis of legalism. Verse 12 of chapter 7, the Lord Jesus again says: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets".
This verse has been described, by one scholar at least, as the Everest of ethics, the highest point of moral teaching of the Lord Jesus, and indeed perhaps right throughout the whole of holy Scripture. He goes on to say that it is the Everest of ethics because with this commandment the Sermon on the Mount reaches its summit and its peak. I've said already that it's probably the most famous statement that the Lord Jesus Christ ever made, and it certainly is the statement that at least the world around us that are not Christian would recognise as being from His sacred lips. It's probably the one that all Christians and believers in our Lord Jesus and disciples of His are judged by by the world around us. It's the greatest statement, many would say, that has ever been made - and both the world and the church would commend it as the Everest of ethics.
Of course it's ironic that even people in our world today would say that it's the greatest statement ever made, but they don't practise it. The governments of our world don't practise it. In everyday life of our neighbours and our friends in the workplace, it is not practiced - and sadly to say, even though we disciples of the Lord Jesus commend these golden words, we ourselves do not keep them. It's worthy of saying at this stage in our study of the Sermon on the Mount, as we have looked exegetically from verse to verse and statement to statement, and as we have weighed them up theologically and practically, this Sermon is not for our comment, it's not for us to take a part and dislocate and analyse, but there's something further that we've got to do with it: we've got to carry it out! Not just commend these great words that the Lord is speaking, but we've to take them into our lives and practically fulfil them.
Now let's remind ourselves of what the Lord has said already in this Sermon. At the end of our text He says this, that to do unto others as you would want them to do unto you is to fulfil the law and the prophets. Now let's look back for a moment at chapter 5 and verse 17 to remember what the Lord Jesus said. Remember that the Pharisees, and the Scribes, and the lawyers were accusing Him of destroying the law of God, the law of Moses. But the Lord lays down right at the very beginning of His Sermon that that is not what He has come into the world to do, He has a reverence and a respect for the law of Moses. We've seen already going through this Sermon how He takes each specific part of the law of Moses and He, not reinterprets it, but He brings us a fulfilment and a completion of it. 'Think not', 5 verse 17, 'that I am come to destroy', or abolish, 'the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil'. 'I'm not come to abolish but to fill up, to bring to completion and perfection the law of God'.
Now He says that to do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself is a complete summary and fulfilment of the law and the prophets. Now I want you to see what He is actually saying at the very outset of our sermon. He is saying: 'Look, you Pharisees and Scribes that are listening in the surrounding circumference of this gathering; you, My disciples, that are the very crux of this ministry, I'm pointing it towards you specifically: if you want to fulfil every jot and tittle of the law of God in the Old Testament, you've got to do this: do unto others as you would have them do unto you'. If you want to fulfil the law, this is how you do it, this is a practical and a personal fulfilment of everything that God has given to us through Moses. This is the way to do it, not making traditions of men, not making 600 plus laws added to the Pentateuch - the first five books of the Bible - that burden men and women down every day of life, that's not the way to do it. This is the way to do it, not the way the Pharisees have been telling you to do it, do not follow the Pharisees' example.
Of course, we have alluded to this right throughout this Sermon, what was the Pharisees' example? What was the essence of Pharisaism and what we're looking at today, legalism? It was only an outward conformity to the law of God, it was an outward conformity to the added laws and rules and regulations that were man-made, but Jesus is saying: 'That is not true righteousness. If you want your righteousness to exceed the standard of the righteousness of the Pharisees, you must do unto your neighbour, to strangers, as you would have them do unto you, for this is a fulfilment of the law and the prophets'.
We have noted time after time after time again how the Lord Jesus in this Sermon just comes in, and He turns everything that the world knows to be truth on its head. His teaching of righteousness and of godliness seems always to be the absolute opposite of what the world sees, the absolute opposite of the philosophy of the world system and even the religious systems of the world, it's the antithesis of it! Now if you were to define for us, today, selfishness as wanting everybody around you and everybody that you know to provide only for yourself, regardless of their needs or the needs of others, we find that the Lord's teaching here is turning selfishness on its head - it's the exact opposite! It's a reverse selfishness. Rather than wanting everybody to provide and look after you at their expense, the Lord is saying: 'True righteousness is to look after everybody else as you would want them to look after you'.
I've called it a 'sanctified selfishness' - that which you would selfishly want people to indulge upon yourself, you do that for others. Think about selfishness for a moment, and what selfishness is in your life, as I know it is to be in mine. Our selfishness usually breaks out into injury of our neighbours. Selfishness is usually giving to the seed of theft, slander, lying, murder, adultery, fornication, cursing, quarrels, wars - we could go on and on and on, and we find that the root of all these problems is pride and often selfish pride. But the Lord is saying: 'Now, I'm calling you to take that selfishness and put benevolence through it, that all the things that you would want people to do for you, that so often makes you sin toward others, take that selfishness and sanctify it'. Now, do it just for a moment and you'll see that this is exactly what the Lord is saying.
Conjure up in your mind for a moment what you would love someone to do for you. Now I'm not talking about fantasizing, or ridiculous dreams or aspirations, but I'm thinking of everyday practical realities that you would like people to show towards you - whether it be courtesy, or politeness, or kindness - you can think of them, realistically and practically how you would like people to behave towards you. Can you think of it? Sure you can! I'm sure you've even gone through life complaining about the way that people have treated you, and they ought not to have treated you that way - but isn't it ironic, as we look at the Pharisees, we look at the disciples, we look at the Lord Jesus' teaching, and then we look at ourselves, that perhaps those who continually the most find fault in the actions and ways of others and how they behave towards us are the ones who don't have the first notion how to behave toward others! Isn't that often the way it is?
The ones who complain the most, the ones who gripe the most, who groan the most, that irritate the most, are the ones who do not know how to behave toward others the most. Sadly to say, I think that the philosophy of the world has infiltrated into the church. Their philosophy today is 'dog eat dog', do it to others before they do it to you. It is 'give as good as you get', but the Lord's teaching is that you should behave toward others as you would like them to behave toward you. The way people behave towards you is not a gauge as to how you should treat them - if they're nasty to you, well then they deserve to have a nasty comment made toward them. Whatever they do to you is a measurement of how you should do it to them - the Lord says that is not the measurement of how you should behave, but rather you should treat them as you think they should have treated you.
Now let's pause for a moment and ask ourselves honestly the question: is this the way we really behave? Do we practice this verse? And if this is the verse that the world, perhaps, stamps on us as what should be the caricature of a Christian - do they see it in us, and how do we live up to their expectations? The Lord is saying: 'The best life, the life that I want you to live, and a life that would be an absolute complete fulfilment of the holy scriptures, is not a life of Pharisaism'. Godliness is not a strict adherence to religious dogma and rules, but it is a life of devotion to God and a life of devotion toward others. In other words, the best life is a life of love. We don't have time to look at 1 Corinthians 13, but when you do get time I would urge you to go and look at it and see how, if you can do all sorts of great spiritual things but do not have love, it is nothing.
Many scholars have argued that this 'golden rule' is not original. You will know that right throughout this Sermon the Lord has been lifting statements from the law of God, and scholars say: 'Well, He's just lifted a statement that was made hundreds of years before Christ ever lived, and He has put His own stamp of authority upon it'. If you look not too closely you'll find that that, perhaps, is correct - because hundreds of years before the Lord Jesus, Confucius, a Chinese sage, said these words: 'Do not to others what you would not like them to do to you'. If you want to look at the Jewishness of the Sermon on the Mount you find that Rabbi Hillel, that we looked to as we looked at the subject of divorce, he also said something similar a hundred years before the Lord Jesus was born, he said: 'What is hateful to you do not to your fellow creatures, that is the whole law, all else is explanation'. You can go to the Greeks, you can go to the Romans, you can go to some of the major religions of our world even that we have today, and there are similar statements like these - but what I want you to see today is that the Lord Jesus Christ's statement has a world of difference in it!
Confucius, Rabbi Hillel, all of the other statements within all the other religions and cults of the world, have this statement in the negative form. Listen: 'Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you', but what is the Lord's statement? 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'. If anything, the Lord may well lift these statements that have been made by men before Him, but you can see what He does again - He turns it on its head, and He turns it into the true living righteousness of a holy God. There's a vast difference, for all of these other statements are negative, but our Master's statement is positive. All the other statements are only human advice, where our Master's statement is a very manifestation of divine love in His life and in the life of His disciples. Only the Lord Jesus Christ, in all the history of humanity, has put this statement in its positive form.
Incidentally, we should pause and see how Pharisaical religion has the canny knack of presenting what appears to be truth, but when we probe and analyse deeper and deeper we find that something fundamental is omitted. Do you see it? If you read the statement of the Pharisees, and the rabbis, and Confucius, and put the Lord's statement beside it you would think there's nothing different - but there is a world of difference! One is negative and one is positive, and let me say to you today that that is the fundamental difference between true godly faith and Pharisaism! One is negative, but the other is positive. Let me explain what I mean, and in explaining remind you that almost certainly legalism is the dragon that the Lord Jesus Christ is seeking to slay in His Sermon on the Mount. Let me read you a statement by S. Lewis Johnson that some of you may be familiar with, some of his tapes are available even in our tape ministry here in the hall. He said in an article entitled 'The Paralysis of Legalism', listen: 'Legalism is one of the most serious problems facing orthodox Christianity today. It wrenches the joy of the Lord from the believer, and with the joy of the Lord goes His power for vital worship and vibrant service. Nothing is left but cramped, sombre, dull and listless profession. The truth is betrayed and the glorious name of the Lord becomes a synonym for a gloomy killjoy. The Christian under law is a miserable parody of the real thing'.
What is legalism? As we have been going through this Sermon I have been alluding to it and the characteristics of it, but I haven't really stopped and paused and taken a clear and definite look at it, and I want to do this this morning in the time that is left simply because it is the opposite of the positivity that we have in this text, chapter 7 and verse 12. There are three things quickly that I could say about legalism. First of all legalism could be defined as putting adherence to the letter of the law, what is written in the word of God, but ignoring or looking over the spirit, the devotional spirit and point that is behind the word of God - the reason why these words have been written. Adhering to each little jot and title, each little word and verse, but forgetting the sentiment and the meaning behind what is written. Secondly, legalism could be defined as not just doing what I've said there, but doing it with a view to getting credit with God - thinking that God will smile on you, that you will be more accepted with God because of your legalistic adherence to the word of God. But there's a third thing, and this is really what defines legalism: not only is it looking at the word of God and taking the letter of the law over the spirit; not only is it thinking that you're, in the eyes of God, better than other Christians because of it; but it goes a step further to want to enforce upon everybody else the rules and the regulations that you see as correct. That, perhaps above them all, is the defining mark of legalism.
Let me show you, illustrating from the word of God, three ways that we see legalism. The first is found in 1 Corinthians 8, you don't need to turn to it, but you will remember that Paul there is writing to the church at Corinth and there is a bit of a dispute going on because some people were eating meat that was sacrificed to an idol, a foreign god. There were some people who, Paul says, had a weak conscience, who thought that this was wrong, but they went a step further and they said that it was sin - 'They ought not to eat of that meat because it was offered to an idol' - and Paul says: 'Look, the kingdom of God has got nothing to do with eating and drinking, the kingdom of God is spiritual and to do with love and joy and peace'. And we see there the mark of legalism, one of the marks of legalism, is a weak conscience that makes matters that are morally indifferent sin - the traditions and the rules of men. Paul was saying that this meat offered to idols, it was not a sin to eat it - but because of the weak conscience of the people that thought it was a sin, he told the Christians to abstain from it. But don't miss the point: they were abstaining from it because of the weaker conscience of their brethren and sisters.
So legalism can be marked, first all, by a weak conscience. Secondly it's marked in the Scriptures by an excessive emphasis on what is forbidden in the law, rather than what is enjoined in the law. In other words, it emphasises the negative rather than the positive. We don't have time to look into that, but you can look into that in your own private study. But the third thing that we see in the very person of our Lord Jesus and in His teaching is that legalism has a lack of balance within it. It never emphasises what is important, but at the expense of what is important it emphasises the less important. Let me illustrate that for you, turn to Matthew chapter 23 for a moment and verse 23, and it's a good exercise to go down this passage and circle all the woes that the Lord Jesus speaks. He's castigating the Pharisees: 'Woe unto you ye blind guides, woe unto Scribes and Pharisees, woe unto you ye hypocrites'. And then in verse 23: 'Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone'.
Characteristic of legalism is that it hones in and emphasises less important things at the expense of the most important things, the weightier spiritual matters are neglected. I couldn't give you a better definition of this aspect of legalism than our brother Gordon Cardwell did when he was with us on the Friday evening of our Easter Convention. This is what he said, I remind you: 'Legalism is: what God puts at the top we put at the bottom, and what He puts to the bottom we put to the top'. It is my personal conviction that for too long evangelical Christianity has been expressed in the negative, rather than in the positive - don't drink, don't smoke, don't go to the dances, don't do the pools, don't do the lottery - and all these things may well be sinful, but is that the way that the Lord encourages us to define our faith? We may not do these things, but if you were to come to the Lord Jesus Christ and ask Him for a true definition of Christianity you will find, and we have found, that that definition is in the positive: do unto others. He didn't take up Rabbi Hillel's statement, or Confucius' statement, or any of the other statements of the world religions - 'Do not do unto others as you would not have them do to you', but 'Do', positive!
Why is it that so often we define our Christianity and portray it as negative? Have you ever wondered why we do that? I wonder is it because it's easier to be negative than to be positive? It costs less of us, because when we lay our life down for others then we fulfil Matthew 7 and verse 12, and it's hard to do that - it means a death to self. You're going out of your way to help others. It's perfectly - if you think about it - feasible for anybody in the world to adhere to a negative version of this verse, and people in the world do do it. They're neighbourly, they're humanist, they're moralist and they don't do to others as they wouldn't like somebody to do to them - but to go a step further is divine! To go a step further you need to have the life of the living Almighty God in your very life. Of course, we don't want and we ought not to try to make Christianity attractive at the expense of truth - I hope you would agree with me there, that we ought not to try to go out of our way to make Christianity attractive and set aside the truths of the word of God, but I hope that you'll go with me a little bit further and say: 'Neither should we try to make Christianity unattractive at the expense of truth'!
I wonder at times do we do that? If there's anything that our verse tells us today it's this: true Christianity ought to be primarily defined positively. Do you agree? I'll be honest with you, I meet some so-called Christians, and if I wasn't a Christian I certainly wouldn't want to be a Christian after meeting them! As one man rightly said: 'To dwell above with saints we love, that will be grace and glory, but to live below with saints we know - well, that's another story'! I read a story this week of a father who was in his study reading, and he heard a commotion outside the window - it was his daughter who was playing with her friends. It that louder and louder and louder, and more heated and more argumentative, until finally he could stand it no longer - he pushed open the window and said: 'Stop it darling! What's going on?'. After the reprimand, after a few minutes she responded: 'Daddy, we were only playing church'. In the eyes of the world we as evangelicals, and even conservative evangelicals, are seen for our negative precepts rather than the positive life of God that is flowing out of our lives to the lives of those around whom we touch.
Now listen and see what you think of this, and perhaps this will be a test of whether you're a legalist or not. One preacher, around 1928, says these words: 'I led a Bible Conference at Montrose, Pennsylvania for about 200 young people and a few older people. On one of those days two old ladies complained that some of the girls' - mark this - 'were not wearing stockings. These ladies wanted me to rebuke them, but looking them straight in the eyes I said 'The Virgin Mary never wore stockings'. They gasped and said 'She didn't?'. I answered 'In Mary's times stockings were unknown, so far as we know they were first worn by prostitutes in Italy in the 15th-century when the Renaissance began. Later a lady of nobility scandalised the people by wearing stockings at a court ball, and before long everyone in the upper classes was wearing stockings, and by Queen Victoria's time stockings had become the badge of Victorian prude'. These ladies were, it seemed, struck by the forcibleness of my argument, and indeed I think stuck in the Victorian epoch. They had no more to say, I did not rebuke the girls for not wearing the stockings, and a year or two afterward most of the girls in the United States were going without stockings in the summer and nobody thought anything about it. Nor do I believe that this led toward the disintegration of moral standards in the United States, times were changing and to step away from Victorian legalism was all for the better'. Now, who said that? Was it a minister from the Church of England? Was it an apostate? It was Donald Gray Barnhouse, many of you read his books. I wonder if I had said it what would have happened to me?
One preacher said recently, and it made me think: 'I agreed with a statement that a man made, until I heard who made it'. Are we legalists? I think at times we are, I think at times I am, and I have been. We have our own form of legalism, and it's simply this - now, please listen to me today - it is an attitude that writes off all other believers who do not dot our i's and cross our t's. 'If you're not my denomination you're not worth your salt. If you do not read my version of the Bible you don't really have the Bible. If you don't sing Psalms you don't praise God. If you only sing Psalms you're not praising God by spiritual songs. If you are Reformed, or if you are Armenian, if you are pre-, post-, or a-millennial' - now let me say that all of these things are not unimportant, and you know better than I do from my preaching what I believe about these things - and I strongly believe them! But legalism is the step where you say that people are not worth anything because they do not believe what you believe!
Are we? What do we make of Paul's words in Romans 14: 'The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost'. Colossians 2:16: 'Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of sabbaths'. Let me express to you a personal story, and I want to carry on five or so minutes so make yourself comfortable. I was in a church recently ministering the word of God in the morning, and after preaching a man came up to me and gave me his phone number and said: 'Look, I want to help you as much as I can in any way' - that doesn't happen too often! After that I put the little number in my Bible and went away, and then I came back in the evening to preach. As is my custom at times before preaching the Gospel, I prayed, and in my praying - even unconsciously - I asked the Holy Spirit to bless the meeting and to bless the preaching that went forth. I preached the word - I thought I did it quite well - and came down to the door. As I was shaking hands with the people this one individual who gave me his phone number in the morning stopped, pointedly looked at me, and said: 'You don't pray to the Holy Spirit do you?'. I had to think...well, I did there...so that must mean I do...oh! I watched myself tumble off his pedestal, and then he said a remarkable thing to me: 'I teach my children not to pray to the Holy Spirit, and you would have confused them this evening'. Now I believe that we should pray to the Father through Jesus the Son, and that is the norm - but if we say that we cannot pray to God the Holy Spirit, I think we've gone into the step of legalism.
I want to say publicly today, with all that I can muster up in my being, I renounce and denounce legalism full-stop! I say with Paul that we have been made ministers, able ministers of the New Testament, not of the letter but of the spirit, for the letter kills but the spirit makes alive. I can testify that there were times in my life when legalism made me feel secure, but now I can honestly say to you today that it makes me sick! I think that we today are in the age of Laodicean liberal lukewarmness, yes, but we could also be in the age of Laodicean legalistic lukewarmness. How can we pray for God to move if we won't move? How can we pray for God to change things if we won't allow Him to change us? But do you know the thing that I hate the most about legalism? It's this: people are going to hell! And while the Pharisee debates and argues over his genealogies and minor points of pettiness, the child in number 100 Templemore Avenue goes to hell.
Can I just finish by telling you how the Saviour dealt with this problem? John chapter 8, a woman caught in adultery, the Pharisees say the law says that we have to stone her. The law says, and if you don't obey the law you're denying the law - you're not a true righteous Rabbi or man of God. 'Let him among you', He said, 'who has no sin in him cast the first stone' - and everyone went out, from the oldest to the youngest. And He said to that woman: 'No man has condemned you, neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more'. When it was the law and the spirit, the spirit had the upper hand. He's walking through a field, a cornfield, with His disciples in Mark chapter 2, His disciples pluck an ear of corn, it is on the Sabbath day. The Pharisees say to Him: 'Look, he has broken the Sabbath'. He says to the Pharisees: 'Do you not know the Scriptures, that David went into the temple and ate the holy shewbread? Why? Because he was hungry, he needed to eat'. When the need, hunger, is over the law the spirit is over the law, the spirit wins. In Luke chapter 6 the man with the withered hand, He heals him on the Sabbath day, and they say: 'You have broken the Sabbath again, you just disregard the law of Moses, you have come to abolish it and to destroy it'. What does the Lord say? 'Doing good, I am doing good - the Sabbath was made for man, not man to be squeezed into the Sabbath', do you see it?
What was Christ for? I'll tell you, listen now: He was for the sinner, He was for the adulterer, He was for the leper, He was for the disadvantaged, He was for the outcast and the untouchable - and the law said that you weren't to touch a leper, but He touched and He healed a leper. What was He against? The most vehement statements of a condemnatory nature uttered from the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ were to the religious prude, to the Pharisee, to the hypocrite, and to the one who used his religion to separate him from the sinner.
The first thing that this text tells me is that true Christianity ought to be primarily defined positively. Why? 'Why call ye Me Lord, and do not the things that I say?'. I wonder do some of us love the thing that Christ hates? What a tragedy that would be! If there is on the mean altar of our heart some little idol that may be right but is taking the place of Christ, can we repent of it? Should we? Of course we should! Will we? Well, that's up to you.
Father, we thank You for the directness of our Lord Jesus. We thank You for His simplicity, we thank You most of all for the truth that came from Him. We can truly say never man spoke like this man, it had the resonance of truth, and He spoke with authority - not as the Pharisees and Scribes spoke - and the common people heard Him gladly because of that, but the religious shunned Him. Father, may we be found with the common people today, and receive with meekness the engrafted truth, for Christ's sake, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the twenty second tape in his 'Sermon On The Mount' series, titled "Sanctified Selfishness: The Paralysis of Legalism" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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