Police arrested three men in Brooklyn, NY for Cocaine Trafficking. One of the men worked as a driver for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Cameras caught him delivering four and a half pounds of cocaine to the manager of a nail salon. In exchange the MTA bus driver received $74,300. Police searched the home of a third man involved in the transaction and found another four and a half pounds of cocaine.
Although they make drug busts every day, the police found this one most memorable because of its disguise. The drug traffickers covered up both four and a half-pound packages of cocaine in Minnie Mouse gift wrap.
Naturally, illegal substances are never packaged in such a way as to advertise their true contents. Criminals typically hide away the contraband in toys, food items, and legitimate merchandise. They always disguise them as something innocent, as something pure and holy.
Some of you have probably seen the 1948 John Ford classic cavalry movie, Fort Apache. One scene in this film portrays a detachment of cavalry troopers investigating the dubious practices of a local Indian trader. Inside the trader’s store are some barrels which are marked “Bibles.”
Suspicious that Bibles are packaged in barrels, the commanding officer, orders a sergeant to break open one of the barrels. There are no Bibles inside. Instead a pungent liquid, which Colonel Thursday believes to be near-toxic whiskey, fills the barrel. He tells a sergeant to “sample some scripture” to determine its fitness for human consumption. The sergeant tastes a mouthful of the liquid. He gasps and nearly chokes on the stuff. When asked about the whiskey’s quality, the teary-eyed sergeant replies, “Well, Sir, it’s better than no whiskey at all.”
You know, Satan works much the same way. He disguises his temptations in such a way that they look harmless, even noble and holy. This is particularly the case when he tempts people of faith, who are on their guard against anything overtly evil.
Satan must be subtle when tempting people who sincerely yearn to please God. So he wraps his temptation in the trimmings of religion. This usually expresses itself in something called legalism. Legalism is a tool of the devil. Its goal is to get believing Christians to move their faith and dependency from Jesus to themselves. It sends the message, “It’s not enough to believe in Jesus. That’s just the start. You must take it from here and strive to make yourself pleasing and acceptable to God.” Legalism diverts our faith from Jesus onto our own efforts and deeds. It makes us self-conscious, causing us to examine our lives to ensure we’ve prayed enough, fasted enough, attended enough religious services, and witnessed for Jesus enough.
Legalism can look so spiritual and noble. Yet it’s lethal to our Christian walk, because it attacks our faith. Of all the sins which Satan tempts us to commit, legalism is the most deadly.
Just compare Paul the apostle’s approach to the churches of Corinth and Galatia. The Corinthian church was deeply troubled. Divisions, arrogance, and immorality riddled the church. In the opening words of his letter to this church Paul wrote,
“Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns” (1 Corinthians 1:7-8).
In contrast, the Galatian church were humbly striving to please God. They were so concerned about making themselves acceptable to God that they were going to the Old Testament requirements of the Law. As a result, they were circumcising themselves and adhering to the Levitical commandments. Now look at Paul’s opening words to them in his epistle.
“I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News, but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ. Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you” (Galatians 1:6-8).
Yes, Paul considered legalism more deadly to the believer’s spiritual walk than immorality, quarreling, and pride. This is because legalism erodes the very foundation of our salvation. Faith in Jesus Christ and His finished work on the cross. So deadly did Paul consider legalism that he told the Galatians that they had fallen from grace and severed themselves from Christ (Galatians 5:4).
“But legalism looks so good and spiritual.” Sure it does. That’s why cults and false religions are so effective in capturing the souls of so many. They’re loaded with prayers, fasting, and good works. But they divert our faith from its true object – Jesus Christ.
Avoid legalism at all costs. Legalism only robs believers of their joy and makes the Christian walk a loathsome chore.
Through legalism Satan wears us out and makes us ineffective.
Dear Father in heaven, I acknowledge my own sinfulness and my powerlessness to ever save myself or make myself righteous. I embrace Your supreme sacrifice for my sins – Jesus Christ. I trust in His blood to cleanse me. May His righteousness clothe me and make me acceptable to You. I trust in His Holy Spirit to transform me and empower me to do what is pleasing in Your sight. Amen.