Righteousness Exceeding Legalism and License
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The scribes and the Pharisees—for us Christians today those names conjure up negative images for they were the primary opponents of our Lord. But it would not have been so in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were well-known and highly respected religious leaders who believed and taught that in order to live under God’s favor the Jews needed to separate themselves from the Gentiles and return to strict observance of Mosaic Law. The scribes could trace their origin back to Ezra, the first priest called a scribe (7:11-12). The title literally means a writer, a secretary who prepares and copies scrolls, but over the years, their role was greatly increased to being the chief interpreters and public teachers of the Law.
Both groups were established with good intentions. Prior to the Babylonian captivity, God’s Word had been so neglected that 2 Kings reports the discovery of a scroll of the Law of Moses in the temple during the days of Josiah (22:8-20). Imagine: being shocked to find a copy of Scripture in a house of worship! That says a lot about the spiritual decline of Israel. To prevent this from ever happening again, the scribes devoted themselves to the studying and teaching of God’s Word. The Pharisees developed their own traditions to make certain that they held to the letter of the Law, right down to its last jot and tittle. They were expert legalists.
Now to be a good legalist you want to make the rules so that they’re easy enough you can keep them, but hard enough so that barely anyone else can. The trick here is to convince everyone around that you’ve got a higher standard, a more rigorous law, a stricter interpretation of God’s commandments and you have the strength to pull it off. But what you’ve really done is softened the Law and made it easier. The Law is now doable, keepable, manageable.
In Luther’s Small Catechism we learn that there are three functions of the law: curb, mirror, and guide. But the legalist only has one use: the measuring stick. We say that the Law shows us our sin. For the legalist, the Law shows his righteousness… or at least how much more righteous he is than everyone else.
This is the context in which Jesus preaches the words of our text, Matthew 5:20: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Imagine the reaction to this statement. The crowds must have thought: “What! More righteous than the Pharisees! Inconceivable! If you have to be that good, how can anyone get into heaven?” And the Pharisees would have thought: “Who is this guy and what is He talking about? Is He a new Moses?”
But what Jesus is actually doing is wrenching the Law out of the hands of the legalists. Those who would misuse the Law for their own purposes will now have the Law used against them. Jesus shows the Pharisees they are not really upholding the Law, but have actually watered it down. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Now that does it! Before Jesus says this we might have asked the Pharisees, “Have you kept the Fifth Commandment?” and they would’ve answered, “Of course! I’ve never murdered anyone.” So would we. But Jesus won’t let the Pharisees (or us) off so easy. He says that anyone who calls his brother a fool or insults him or is angry with him is guilty of breaking this commandment. And He goes through the rest of the Decalogue the same way intending to make it clear that if you think you’ve managed to keep any of the commandments, you’re very mistaken, for sin is not just a matter of doing, but begins in the heart and mind.
Now Old Adam says, “Come on. This is going a bit too far. It’s one thing to hit a man on the head with a rock. It’s another matter to mutter a few choice words about him under your breath when he cuts you off in traffic.” But Jesus’ words make it clear and leave no wiggle room. So, why would we argue?
Perhaps it’s because we are legalists at heart. We want to see how good we are doing, to justify ourselves and our sin. Or maybe, it’s because we’re licentious? We just don’t care who or what anybody says, we’re going to do what we want to do and to hell with anything that gets in our way.
Legalism and license. They seem so different. But are they really? One person lives his life striving for moral perfection. The other one doesn’t really try. The first is convinced that he can avoid sinning if he tries hard enough. The second is convinced he can’t avoid sinning, so why bother? “After all,” he says, “I like to sin. God likes to forgive sin. Sounds like the perfect arrangement to me.”
While at first glance they may appear to be opposites, legalism and license have several very important things in common, including the basic assumption upon which they are built. Legalism reasons: “God forbids me to sin. God cannot forbid something I cannot avoid. Therefore, I must be able to avoid sinning.” On the other hand, license reasons: “I cannot avoid sinning. God cannot forbid something I cannot avoid. Therefore, I must have permission to sin.” Although they come to completely different conclusions, both legalism and license share a basic assumption: “God cannot forbid something I cannot avoid.”
This assumption is not Biblical, but rather based upon human reasoning—faulty human reasoning, at that. God’s commandment doesn’t imply your ability to obey. And your inability to obey doesn’t nullify God’s commandment. St. Paul makes the point in the third chapter of his letter to the Romans that God’s commandments are given to show us our sin. They highlight our inability to obey, and they hold us accountable for our sin and disobedience (vv 19-20).
Another thing that legalism and license have in common is that they both underestimate sin. The legalist underestimates sin’s depth in the Christian’s life. He thinks of sin atomistically: “There are thoughts, words, and deeds that I do that are sins; and there are thoughts, words, and deeds that I do that are without sin.” The legalist’s goal therefore is to minimize the sinful thoughts, words, and deeds in his life; and to increase the sinless thoughts, words, and deeds in his life. This reminds me of the kind of philosophy that Baloo sings about in The Jungle Book or that Joel Osteen preaches to millions of people each week: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative.” Of course, the Bible doesn’t support this view at all. There is nothing we think, say, or do that is without sin. Everything we do is stained by sin, even our good works.
License stems from a misunderstanding of how dangerous sin is in our lives. The licentious person views sin as mostly harmless, and without serious consequence or penalty. To do this, the licentious person must ignore not only the warning bell of his conscience, but also the constant drumbeat of Scripture warning that sin is dangerous and incurs God’s wrath. We can clearly see from our text that Jesus took sin and its consequences seriously, warning any of us who’ve ever muttered at “one of those idiots” out on the road that we are actually flirting with the hell of fire.
Legalism and license have something else in common: Both of them prevent the Christian from truly struggling against his sin. The legalist mistakenly thinks that he is struggling against sin successfully. The licentious person has likely given up the struggle against sin altogether. Neither is able to avoid sin or its penalty because neither is really struggling against sin. Oh, the legalist thinks he is, but he is only struggling to keep the rules, and that isn’t the same. In fact, the legalist’s rule-keeping is no better than the licentious person’s rule-breaking. Both only increase sin and its power in their lives (Romans 7:7-13; 5:20).
As you can see, legalism and license are not actually two different errors. They are the same error expressed in two different ways. Whether you travel the path of legalism or of license, you come to the same inevitable end. Both ultimately ignore the saving work of Jesus Christ. The legalist believes he can avoid sin and manage to live righteously. If he is right, then the legalist doesn’t need the righteousness of Jesus, or only from time to time when he fails to avoid sin. The licentious person believes he has permission to sin. If he is right, then the licentious person doesn’t need Jesus to suffer the penalty for his sin.
If legalism and license are really the same error, it there one answer to both? Yes, God’s Word—His Law and Gospel—properly distinguished and applied.
First, the Law. The legalist needs to see that he is totally sinful, from top to bottom, from beginning to end. The legalist needs to confess along with St. Paul, “I know that nothing good dwells in me,” and cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18, 24). The licentious person needs to see his sin for what it is: open rebellion against God. Though he may take his sin lightly, God does not. The licentious person needs to answer along with St. Paul, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2).
The proclamation of the Law leaves the legalist with no place to stand; no thought, word, or deed—that he can call righteous. Likewise, the Law leaves the licentious person on God’s enemies list; an impudent creature, spitting in God’s face with every sin. The Law says, “I don’t care what you think of yourself. You are a poor miserable sinner. You have murdered and committed adultery and stolen and cursed and coveted and worshiped idols and slandered your neighbor and blasphemed your God, and for all of this you deserve the hell of fire.” The Law is swung like a hammer to demolish us. It plucks out our stone cold, sin-hardened hearts that we might receive new hearts transplanted hearts.
And so, the first answer to both legalism and license is God’s Word of Law that condemns sin completely. What comes next is counterintuitive. Many preachers think that they can cure people of licentiousness by preaching the Law more. This is a good first step, but the Law is only the diagnosis and prognosis, not the cure. Similarly, some preachers think that legalism can be cured by really driving the Law home to those who think they are keeping it. Again, this is a good first step, but the Law alone cannot cure legalism either.
The Law destroys the common, false assumption of both legalism and license: “God cannot forbid something I cannot avoid.” The Law says to the legalist, “You cannot avoid sin.” The Law says to the licentious, “There is a penalty for your sin.” However, this is all the Law can do. The Law cannot save. The Law cannot motivate or empower godly living. The Law accuses and kills. Only the Gospel gives both the legalist and the licentious freedom from their error—not by avoiding sin, nor by indulging sin, but by forgiving sin. Only the Gospel shows the legalist the exceeding righteousness of Jesus Christ, and the licentious the great penalty Jesus paid for sin.
Some pastors are hesitant to preach the Gospel to the legalist and the licentious—especially to the licentious. They mistakenly think that the Gospel needs to tempered with a dose of the Law, or Christians will become lax about sin or lazy in doing good works. By doing this, pastors only reinforce the error of both and fail to share the only message that has power to save—the Gospel.
The Gospel says, “Yes, God always forbids sin, and you can never avoid sin. But the very sin you cannot avoid, Jesus avoided for you. The very sin God forbids and condemns, Jesus took to the Cross in His body for you.” Theologians call this it the active and passive obedience of Christ. The Gospel replaces all the legalist’s efforts to be righteous with the righteousness of Jesus. The Gospel shows the licentious person the true penalty for his sin paid by Jesus.
The continual proclamation both of Law and Gospel is the only cure for legalism and license. Not only that, but only the continual proclamation of Law and Gospel engages the Christian in the true struggle against his sin… repentance, contrition for sins and faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Once the legalist finds his righteousness in Jesus alone, and once the licentious person finds the penalty for sin paid in Jesus alone, then the struggle against unavoidable sin can really begin. The former legalist will now struggle like he’s never struggled before, because he realizes there won’t be a single second in his life when sin will not be there close at hand. And the former licentious person will struggle against sin, perhaps for the first time. Now, he won’t be able to sin without hearing the Law’s condemnation and sin’s penalty. The lives of both will become lives of constant, daily repentance and faith.
You may have noticed as we began this sermon that it was difficult to diagnose yourself as either a legalist or as licentious. There is a good reason for that—because we are all both. We go back and forth between the two every day. We think we can avoid sin sometimes; we give ourselves permission to sin at other times. But God’s Word will not permit our legalism or license. It puts us in the impossible position of struggling against our sin, so that we might turn to Jesus and cast ourselves upon His mercy, His grace, and His love.
Jesus takes your sin, the very sin that God forbids, the very sin that you cannot avoid, and then He exchanges it for His perfect righteousness. Therefore you who stand condemned by the Law in every part also stand absolved by Jesus in every way. The Law that was aimed at you, crushed Jesus instead. And now His perfect keeping of the Law is credited to you. You are His saints, His forgiven children. You have that righteousness that exceeds the scribes and Pharisees. Yours is the kingdom of heaven even now. For you are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.