Three Kinds of Righteousness: 2. Legal Righteousness

“… {A}lthough I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith…” (Philippians 3:4-9; all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible).

Image by rsand24 from Pixabay

In the previous post, I mentioned that there are several different ideas about righteousness. One false kind of “righteousness” is self-righteousness. The person assumes he is always right. A second kind can seem better, but it is still insufficient.

This second kind of righteousness is legal righteousness. A closely related attitude is “legalism,” which focuses on rules and personal effort as ways to gain God’s favor.

A person with a spirit of legal righteousness or legalism can be very different from a self-righteous person. Often, they are trying hard to please God. They might be keenly aware of their shortcomings. Their brand of righteousness may be producing depression or despair in their lives as they cannot live up to expectations. The person who is pursuing legal righteousness is committed to following the rules and will create even more rules.

The Old Testament had Ten Commandments, which God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. There were more laws in the Old Testament, mostly expanding on the Ten Commandments or giving guidelines for worship: In total, the Old Testament had 613 laws.

However, this was not enough for some people. Jewish rabbinic tradition added even more laws. For example, the Old Testament prohibited people from boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19; 34:26). However, to this day, many Jewish people take this even further: an observant Jew will not eat meat and dairy at the same meal. They will not eat cheeseburgers, nor will they drink a glass of milk while eating a steak. To avoid breaking the rule, they have added new rules.

Likewise, the Ten Commandments say that we must not take the name of the Lord in vain. This means that we should not misuse God’s name or speak it with disrespect. It certainly prohibits using God’s name as a form of profanity to express anger. It would also include using God’s name frivolously: perhaps taking an oath in His name that we do not intend to fulfill, claiming “God told me so” to justify your opinion or naming and claiming a “blessing” in Jesus’ name that does not appear in the Bible.

However, the Jews took that one even further as well: Many Jews in Jesus’ time, and in the centuries preceding Him, would not even say the name of God. Instead of saying the name of God, “Yahweh,” they would refer to Him as “the Lord” or speak of “the Name” or “heaven.” Being so cautious to avoid accidentally mispronouncing God’s name, they would not say it at all. (Some of my Jewish friends spell His name as “G-d” on Facebook, in keeping with this custom.)

The two examples above can seem pretty innocent. After all, maybe there are health benefits if we avoid eating meat and dairy at the same meal. Yes, we should respect God’s name. However, other “new rules” can completely miss the mark. When I lived in Missouri, I encountered several Christians who would avoid using God’s name as a curse word by saying something like “Dag-gummit!” I think God probably knows exactly what they meant and was not fooled by the new jargon. None of these people were invoking the name of the late United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.

But we can get carried away with other new rules. The Bible says “Do not get drunk with wine” (Ephesians 5:18). Many Christians take that even further to mean, “Don’t drink alcohol at all” but become addicted to Coca-Cola instead. The Bible prohibits sexual immorality and lust; in response, some churches prohibit dancing, television, or movies. We expand a simple biblical instruction to be a much stricter demand, perhaps prohibiting things God never forbade and Jesus even did. Sometimes, we end up claiming that people who break our new rules cannot possibly be Christians.

A rubbish pile in Angola. Paul wrote that his righteousness under the law was like rubbish, but he probably meant something even more unsightly than this. Photo by Paulo César Santos under a Creative Commons license, via Wikimedia Commons

The apostle Paul had achieved this high level of legal righteousness. He had mastered the rules. He could say that “as to the righteousness which is in the Law,” he was “found blameless.” Nevertheless, he considered this kind of righteousness to be “rubbish.” The Greek word he uses here is pretty strong: It is more than mere “garbage.” Some Bible translations use the term “refuse” instead. I am pretty sure St. Paul is in heaven, eagerly awaiting the publication of an English Bible that will translate it to read “bullshit,” since that word really captures what Paul was trying to say.

Legal righteousness and legalism are deceptive traps, even for the committed Christian. Sincere Christians want to please God. We want to obey Him. Sometimes, we might slip into a misguided belief that we have to play by strict rules to make God happy. This is not true. It is not hard to convince God to love you.

I would like to hear from you. Share your thoughts or suggestions by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.

Copyright © 2021 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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