Wait a minute, they were people of faith? I thought they were caught up in a legalistic religion in which they thought they had to earn their way into heaven through good works rather than through faith. That they depended on following the Law rather than simply having faith. Well, first of all, the most recent biblical scholarship calls into question that characterization of 1st century Judaism as a legalistic, works-oriented religion void of faith. When we look at not only the Old Testament but also the actual practice of 1st century Jews we see that it is less a characterization than a caricature. The Jews understood that they were in covenant with God not because they earned it but because God, acting on his own, chose their forefather Abram. But that’s another discussion for another time. For now, let’s accept that legalism can be found in all religions, Judaism and Christianity included.
Now, legalism can be faithless, but the problem with legalism is not that it’s a denial of faith—even the most legalistic of religions, whether Jewish legalism or Christian legalism, asserts the need for a person to have faith in God. The problem with legalism is its denial of grace. Legalism says you have to earn God’s favor; grace says you’ve already got it. Legalism views God a tyrant who is easily ticked-off if his laws are not followed. Grace views God as a parent who loves unconditionally and bestows his favor upon his children because that’s his nature.
It would disturb me greatly to find that my children think they have to earn my love, that they have to earn my goodwill towards them. The fact is that before they were born, I loved them, and there is nothing that they can do that can change that. Nothing.
If you don’t get anything else out of this, I want you to get this: there is nothing you can do that will cause God to love you any less than he already does. You are completely loved, completely accepted, completely embraced right here, right now. Period. Because that’s who God is. God loved you so much that he died for you. That says it all right there.
The other side of it is that there is nothing you can do that can cause God to love you any more than he already does. That’s the part of grace that may be hard for some people to believe. Surely God is impressed with my years of service, of teaching Sunday School, of reading my Bible every day, of witnessing to my co-workers, of my condemning the immorality in society! Surely these things count for something! Surely this makes God more pleased with me than if I weren’t doing these things. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But don’t you see how that is grace-less as well, and legalistic, thinking there is something you can do that can cause God to love you more than he already does, that there is something you can do that can earn more of God’s pleasure?
But watch, because here’s the danger: if you accept that God is impressed with your years of service, of teaching Sunday School, reading your Bible every day, witnessing to your co-workers, condemning the immorality in society, that doing these things makes God more pleased than if you weren’t doing these things, then it’s just a small step to thinking that God is more pleased with you doing these things than he is with others who don’t do them. That you have a higher standing with God than those who don’t serve God, who won’t teach Sunday School, who don’t read their Bibles every day, who won’t witness to their co-workers, who won’t condemn the immorality in society.
If you won’t accept this aspect of God’s grace, then you won’t show much grace to others. And graceless faith makes for mean religion. See, the problem with the Pharisees and Sadducees wasn’t that they practiced a faithless religion, but that they practiced a graceless religion—they didn’t accept God’s grace, and they didn’t show grace toward others.
And, just like the Pharisees and Sadducees in their day, a person who doesn’t show grace is mean.
They may not realize it, and it may not even look like it, but they are and it is.