I’d like to introduce you to four members of the Legalism family that I’ve frequently run into in pastoral ministry.

Mrs Try-Harder is trying to reach heaven by her good works. You’ll know her if you meet her, because she talks so much about herself that you’ll hardly get a word in.  You certainly won’t be asked any questions about your own life and interests.  If you manage to speak about the Gospel of grace, and “Whiter than snow” salvation, she may go quiet for a while and smile in a sort of condescending way. But she soon manages to change the subject from God’s Works to her own again.

Mr Addition knows the law so well that he’s decided to add quite a few of his own. He is often motivated by a desire to see Christians live more godly lives and feels sorry that God left so many gaps and grey areas in matters of personal conduct. So, to help everyone else he has scoured past tradition to fill in the gaps and eliminate the grey areas. There are two things Mr Addition hates. He hates being asked, “Where does the Bible actually forbid this or require this?” And he hates people pointing out his own failures in areas the Bible is crystal clear on. He’s much happier talking about his own laws rather than God’s.

Mr Contract has had quite a sad upbringing. He was raised in a family that believed in grace, but which conducted relationships on the basis of law. If a sister did something for a brother, the brother knew that he would have to return the favor soon, or else he would be reminded of his debt (usually in the middle of an unrelated argument). No one seemed to do anything for anyone else out of sheer love, without expecting repayment. Long records were kept of how much each had done for, or given to, the other. And woe betide anyone who failed to repay in kind before the next argument. Unfortunately this quid pro quo, like for like, commercial contract spirit is often carried into adult relationships and even into their relationship with God. For example, Mr Contract finds it difficult to receive grace from God or gifts from others without thinking immediately about how to quickly repay and equalize the accounts. Don’t ask him to do anything for you, unless you are willing to do something in return, usually with a bit of interest. And never ask him to go above and beyond the call of duty. He knows his rights! Having grasped and enjoyed little of grace himself, he is not going to show it easily to others.

Mr Pleaser is a pastor. Yes, pastors can be legalists too. Sometimes they look awfully like Mrs Try-harder. Regrettably, they are sometimes influenced too much by Mr Addition, who always seems to have the loudest voice in the fellowship. And too often they do their work out of a sense of contractual duty, rather than out of love for Christ and His people. But most often, Mr Pleaser’s day is dictated by the expectations of others, a legalism as demanding and demoralising as all the others. Instead of being motivated to serve God’s people by his own experience of divine grace and love, Mr Pleaser ends up being pushed and pulled by the desire to avoid criticism or receive praise. His daily agenda and schedule is determined not by love for the Lord but by trying to live up to other people’s demands.  Instead of serving the Lord whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light, Mr Pleaser puts himself under the cruel, relentless, insatiable yoke of other people’s expectations.

I am sure that you will have frequent opportunity to meet these sad and sorry members of the Legalism family. (Sometimes, you only need to look in a mirror). If you do, I hope you will take them to the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. I hope you will introduce them to Jesus who calls these weary and burdened souls to find perfect rest in Him. I hope you will show them how, through the cross, Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having been made a curse for us.

May God use us to break up this needy family, and to build up the happy family of His free grace.