For a background to these thoughts, let us look at the legalistic Jews of Jesus’ day. They insisted that they did not need a new method of obtaining righteousness - they were satisfied with what they had. Jesus’ new teaching presented a threat to them, just as it does today to those who are Christians in name but legalistic Jews at heart. Jesus’ system of righteousness made Him a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to the Jews (Romans 9:33).
The old-time Jews appeared to have a good thing going. They had laws (standards) by which they lived, and they actually thought they scored quite well in their observances. If they did fail in any way, they would do one of two things: They would re-codify, i.e. redefine the law in order to make it easier to meet its demands; or they would offer a sacrifice to provide a covering for their transgressions.
The Gentiles, however, had no such forgiveness system. They recognized that works-righteousness - obtaining righteousness by cleaning up their thinking, feeling, choosing, and doing - was impossible. They were ready for a new system, a system based on faith instead of behavior. By faith in the finished work of Christ, resulting in the gift of life in Christ, they would be able to replace their own unrighteousness with the perfect righteousness of God (Romans 9:30). In contrast, the legalistic Jews were satisfied that they were doing just fine, thank you! They believed that, on the whole, they met the demands of law, so their works-righteousness (plus forgiveness) was A-OK; they saw no need for a different system.
But God never intended for the law to be a means of obtaining righteousness, even for the Jew. For example, "Abraham believed God and it (his faith) was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Romans 4:3). The law (standards) was never intended to bring righteousness, but to lead people to Christ, the only source of righteousness. Sacrifices were only prescribed as a means of temporarily covering unrighteousness, not of obtaining righteousness.
Today’s Christians who strive for righteousness under the law aren’t exactly like the legalistic Jews of Jesus’ day. Today’s Christian with a law mentality readily agrees that salvation is a free gift, received by faith in Christ alone. No true Christian believes in salvation by works.
But there really is little significant difference between the legalistic Jew and the Christian with a law mentality (see the comparative chart below).
The Christian with a Law Mentality
- Believes in God
- Works hard to do right
- Lives by the law with God’s help
- Seeks to establish his own righteousness
- Decries his unrighteousness
The Legalistic Jew
- Believed in God
- Worked hard to do right
- Lived by the law with God’s help
- Sought to establish his own righteousness
- Bragged of his righteousness
The major difference between the two lists is that the legalistic Jew bragged of his ability to keep the law, while the Christian with a law mentality decries his inability to keep the law. Today’s Christian with a law mentality loathes his unrighteous behavior, and his resultant tears look like humility, like spirituality! Rather than bragging about their righteousness as did the Jews of Jesus’ day, today’s Christians with a law mentality look at their performance - their thoughts, behavior, choices, and feelings - and say, "Woe unto us; we are miserable wretches as Christians. Oh, but for God’s continuous forgiveness, we would always be undone!"
What is wrong with this attitude, this belief system? It is that both the old legalist and the new legalist judge their righteousness (or lack thereof) by their behavior!
Today’s Christian with an uncircumcised heart (Romans 2:29) gets upset when we start talking about not being under law any more. He does not understand that the indwelling presence of Christ is sufficient to let us know right from wrong, so he clings in desperate dependence to the law that sets forth righteous behavior for him. So what, you say? Just this: God’s plan was that we would obtain our righteousness apart from the law - as a free gift! (See Romans 5:17, 20-21.) He intended that, in a faith transaction, we would receive His righteousness to be our righteousness.
You can easily identify a Christian with a law mentality. He gets nervous with verses like Hebrews 10:14 - "For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified." He gets agitated when we affirm that Christ became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). And we have become the righteousness of God in Him!
A Christian with a law mentality gets concerned if we do not keep our gaze on our evil thoughts, choices, actions, feelings. He measures himself by his performance, so he must meditate daily on his sins to determine whether he is of any worth or value to himself or others. His identity hinges on his self-righteousness and works-righteousness. He is on the opposite end of the behavior spectrum from the Pharisees - the legalistic Jews looked at how good they were because of their works, while the legalistic Christian looks at how bad he is because of his works.
Legalistic Christians give God credit for their better performances and blame themselves for their poorer performances. They regularly reduce themselves to tears as they promise God they will perform better with his help. But, as Paul observes, "We know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that the law is not made for a righteous man (Christian), but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching" (1 Timothy 1:8-10).
Those who look away from themselves and their performance for righteousness, glory in the righteousness God gave them as a gift (1 Corinthians 1:30-31) on the basis of faith. They praise God for the gift that made them acceptable, worthy, pure, and holy in Christ Jesus.
For those who insist on living under law and looking at their behavior for their righteousness whether it be good or bad - hear this warning! "But my righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him" (Hebrews 10:38). Friend, is it worth the risk of keeping a law mentality if we fall from grace? (See Galatians 5:4.) Do we want to experience His soul’s pleasure? The glorious result of a grace mind-set is that our behavior will change for the good without the coercion of the law!