COVID-19 Updates | Livestream of Worship Service (16 Oct 21) | Register for Worship

The Hope for Legalists


Following from his sermon on empty religion last Sunday, Pastor Oliver expands on what legalism is and the importance of preaching the gospel to ourselves daily.

I am a recovering Pharisee: I struggle with a self-righteous approach to living the Christian life. I identify with the lost elder brother of the story of the two lost sons in Luke 15. When God rescued me out of the lostness of self-righteousness, I recognised that my self-righteous legalism was as offensive to God as the prodigal rebel. I was trying to get favour and merit with God through my efforts at keeping the rules and doing good works. I was transactional: being moral and doing "religious" activities so that in some way, I would obligate God to provide for me what I want. My religion was a "business" transaction, empty of a relationship with God. 

I was studying the passage from Luke 11:37-54, and I was convicted again. It was so easy to fall back into self-righteous legalism. But just what is legalism? The late RC Sproul wrote,

...legalism manifests itself in many subtle ways. Legalism involves abstracting the law of God from its original context. Some people seem to be preoccupied in the Christian life with obeying rules and regulations. They conceive of Christianity as being a series of do's and don'ts, cold and deadly set of moral principles. That's one form of legalism, where one is concerned merely with the keeping of God's law as an end in itself... The second form of legalism divorces the letter of the law from the spirit of the law. It obeys the letter but violates the spirit... The third type of legalism adds our own rules to God's law and treats them as divine. It is the most common and deadly form of legalism.

At its core, the legalist is trying to earn his or her position before God by their efforts. And the approach is devoid of relationship, grace and gratitude. Why give thanks if I deserved it? 

The danger of legalism is not only to oneself where the person is pursuing a religion empty of the gospel, but legalism also hinders other people from coming to Christ. In Luke 11:52, Jesus denounces the pharisee lawyers of God's Law, "Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering." By their legalistic interpretation of scriptures, they have failed to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. They have also hindered others from accepting the gospel too.  

How are we tempted to do this? What are some of the ways that we might hinder people from coming to Christ? Philip Graham Ryken in the Reformed Expository Commentary on Luke expressed that we take away the key of knowledge when: 

  • We fail to be clear and simple in telling people about Jesus.
  • We speak about the business of the church but not about the saving work of Jesus Christ.
  • We add works to faith as the basis for our standing before God.
  • We focus on outward religious rituals rather than the inward transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
  • We treat the Bible as a text to analyse rather than as a Word from God to believe and obey.
  • We get caught up in complex theological arguments that are not vitally connected to the person of Jesus Christ.
  • We so overemphasise one particular doctrine that we distort the message of salvation.
  • We confuse our Christianity with our politics.

We also take away the key of knowledge when in our fear and indifference, we fail to give people the gospel at all.

But the excellent good news is that the gospel is hope for legalists (and recovering legalists) too! Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Lk 19:10), and this includes lost elder brother type—self-righteous legalists. There is hope for the forgiveness of sins at the cross of Christ. There is the promise of life in the resurrection of Christ. There is reconciliation with the Father, and you will enjoy a relationship of love. And once you trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Spirit of Christ comes and dwell in you, changing you from the inside-out. The love of God in Christ Jesus will thaw even the cold, calculating heart of this legalist. May the recovering Pharisees in Grace Baptist Church join me; as we daily repent and turn to Jesus Christ. May the grace and the gratitude from the gospel continue to encourage our recovery!


  1. Do join us for the Monthly Prayer Meeting at 8pm on 25 Sep 2020. Let us come together in persistent prayer and call out to our Father God with our prayer requests and thanksgiving. The Zoom link: 
  1. Members of GBC are invited to our next Quarter Congregational Meeting at 11am on 4 Oct 2020. Do come and hear what is happening in the life of the church and to encourage one another as we support and pray for one another. The Zoom link: 
  1. The elders have decided that during phase 2 of Singapore’s reopening, we will offer the Lord’s Supper on site every Sunday. This gathering will be limited to 50 people. Participants will have to register online beforehand at Online registration for the following Sunday opens at noon on Sunday. Places will be allocated to the first 50 registrants on a first-come-first served basis. Please present your email confirmation for admission into the church building. 
  1. Join us 9am this Sunday as we look at Luke 12:1-12 on “Godly Fear”. Pray for God’s Spirit to prepare our hearts even now as we read the scripture passage a few times before Sunday.