Diagnosing Legalism


Several years ago I preached through Matthew. Here are some diagnostic questions from Matthew 23 on whether or not you are a Pharisee. I understand that legalism has numerous ways of showing itself. And I realize that there are technical definitions of legalism. But throughout my pastoral ministry these are questions that will help expose what is happening in our hearts. Legalism is not first about rules and regulations. It is about our hearts and where they are directed. 

Are you a different person in private than you are in public? I don’t mean do you eat ice cream in your pajamas at home and don t’in public. I mean do you pretend to be more holy in public than you are in private?  Is your public impression a true one or a false one? Would a person be surprised by how you talk if they secretly recorded you at home? Do you say things you don’t mean?  Continue reading

The Christian and His Possessions


Here are some basic principles for handling possessions and money. These are not comprehensive, but give a biblical framework for how we should think about our money and possessions. Many of the principles come from Matthew 6:19-34 and I Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19.

  1. God is our Father. He loves us and will care for us. Therefore we should not worry. If he chooses to remove some of our possessions, it is for our good. Because he is our Father we should pray to him when we are needy and thank Him when He provides for us.
  2. We will die. Therefore we need to store up treasure in heaven not on earth.
  3. We should earn our money through honest, hard work that does not take advantage of the poor and weak.
  4. Laziness is a sin that can lead to poverty. Not all the poor are there because they are lazy, but some are.
  5. One key reason we labor is so we can have money to help those in need (Ephesians 4:28).  We earn to serve, not to horde.
  6. We should not expect others (government, church, family) to provide for us except in extreme circumstances where God’s hand of Providence forces us to go to others for help. Expecting others to bail us out is a sign of immaturity.
  7.  A Christian should give a minimum of 10% to their local church with the goal of increasing the percentage to give to ministries outside the local body.
  8. Our possessions are gifts from God, even those possessions we have worked hard for. Work and the fruit of our labor, money, are part of God’s grace to us.
  9. We are stewards of our possessions. A steward was someone left in charge of a house while the master was away. Jesus uses this model in Matthew 25:14-30. Paul also uses a similar idea in passages like Colossians 3:23-25. We will answer to our Master with how we use our time, money and possessions.  Our approach to money should be principled and biblical, not haphazard.
  10. Neither wealth nor poverty are necessarily a vice or a virtue.  A man can be poor and godly or poor and ungodly. A man can be rich and godly or rich and ungodly. We should be careful in making sweeping generalizations about a person’s righteousness based on their wealth.The questions are: 1.) How did they get there? Are they rich because of theft or cheating or hard work? Are they poor because of laziness or because they got cheated by one of the rich guys in the previous question? 2.) What is the attitude towards their situation? Are the wealthy full of good works or proud and arrogant? Are the poor patient and working hard to earn so they can serve others or are they whining, blaming others, grumbling, and looking for a handout?
  11. Debt is not an automatic sin. Not all debt is equal either. $10,000 on a credit card for a vacation is different from a mortgage which is different from a business loan that could turn a profit. But debt does put a man in bondage and could be a sign of laziness and greed. A man should be careful about who he goes in debt to,what he goes in debt for, examine his heart when he does, and should seek to get out of debt quickly.
  12. The wealthy should not take advantage of the poor by using money to manipulate them or by giving the poor high interest loans. The rich can manipulate the poor by keeping them in bondage through favors. The rich give, but use the “gift” to bind the poor to them. Wealthy in this situation does not have to be a multi-millionaire. It could just be someone who has more free income than someone else.
  13. Both wealth and poverty come with temptations. The rich tend to forget God, become proud, and oppress the poor. The poor tend to doubt Him, grumble, and become jealous (See Proverbs 30:7-9). God is to be honored with our possessions, whether we are rich or poor. The rich assume the problem is with the “lazy poor.” The poor assume the problem is with the “greedy rich.” Let each man look to his own temptations.
  14. Those with more often look down on those with less and vice versa. Envy, bitterness, and pride often characterize our relationships with those on a different economic level whether they are above us or below us. Christians should not treat people differently based on their wealth or poverty (James 2:1-4).
  15. Frugality can be greed in pious disguise.
  16. Those who are wise with their money and those who are wasteful can both be dominated by money. Saving a lot and being wise with your finances does not mean you are free from the love of money. Being generous does not guarantee you are free from the love of money either. “Love” is internal. It does express itself in concrete ways, but humans have an amazing ability to cover their sins with pious deeds.
  17. God wants us to enjoy our possessions. We should not feel guilty enjoying what we own. This does not mean we are selfish gluttons or live in luxury (See points #5 and 9 above). But we should eat our food, drink our beer, sleep in our beds, read our books, play in our yards, and drive our cars with thankfulness and joy. If you live under a haze of guilt for what you have you do not understand God’s grace.
  18. Those who are rich in this world are to be rich in good works. Most American Christians fit this category. To whom much is given, much is required. The wealthiest Christians should be the ones doing the most good deeds. But these good deeds should be hidden, not paraded before men (See Matthew 6:1-4). And of course, it is not a good deed to irresponsibly throw money at a problem (See When Helping Hurts). 
  19. We should be known for our contentment. We should not be proud when we have a lot. Nor should we disturbed when God removes some of our possessions from us. Contentment in all circumstances is the goal (Philippians 4:11-13). In a world that always wants more, contentment is great witness to our trust in Christ and our Heavenly Father.
  20. The desire to be wealthy is usually a sin. We should work hard, plan wisely, and let God build our bank account as he sees fit. Proverbs 27:20 says, “The eyes are never satisfied.” We will not be satisfied when we get what we want, so let’s be content with what we have.
  21. Love of money can destroy someone’s faith and plunge them to ruin (I Timothy 6:9-10). We joke about greed, but in the Scriptures it is a terrible sin. Greed can choke the spiritual life out of a man and send him to Hell.
  22. Finally, in our current situation the greatest thief is government.

Having a Knife to Our Throats

John Calvin on Matthew 5:1-4

Here we need to reflect on the kind of life to which our Lord Jesus Christ calls us once we are in his school. He bids each of us renounce self, and take up our cross. The word “cross” implies that everyone should carry with him his own gallows, that we should be like those poor wretches who have a knife to their throat, that we should be afflicted and mocked, that not only should death be our companion, but that we should be vilified and slandered as well, insulted and spat upon. We are meant to endure all of that, to bear bravely the burden placed upon our shoulders, just as a traveler might carry his bundle on his back. As so our Lord declares that we cannot come after him or be counted as one of his followers unless we take up our load. To do that we have to give up our comforts! We are to be as men condemned, under threat of death, beset from every side, our life lived in continual weakness…In a word, to take up our load is to be reckoned as utterly miserable so far as this world is concerned. That is the plain ABC which is taught in the school of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Sermons on the Beatitudes, p. 19)

I wonder how many of us view the Christian life this way. We quote the verses, such as take up your cross, etc. But we do not see ourselves as dying daily. We love our comforts, our easy living. Calvin does not mean that we must go and live in a monastery forsaking all material possessions. What he means is that we must learn to die to self, in the kitchen, at the office, on the floor with our children, at church with our sinful brothers and sisters and most of all before the watching world as we cling to Christ and are hated by the world.

Washed with the Most Impure

Calvin on the call of Matthew from Matthew 9:4-13. He explains what we should do if we find ourselves not wanting to associate with sinners in the Church.

He whom you detest appears to you to be unworthy of the grace of Christ.  Why then was Christ himself made a sacrifice and a curse, but that he might stretch out his hand to accursed sinners? Now, if we feel disgust at being associated by Baptism and the Lord’s Supper with vile men, and regard our connection with them as a sort of stain upon us, we ought immediately to descend into ourselves, and to search without flattery our own evils.  Such an examination will make us willingly allow ourselves to be washed in the same fountain with the most impure, and will hinder us from rejecting the righteousness which he offers indiscriminately to all the ungodly, the life which he offers to the dead and the salvation which he offers to the lost.” (Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, p. 402-403)

Our Greatest Fear is Not Loss of Life, But of Reputation

I am preparing to preach on suffering. This topic led me back to John Calvin’s sermon on Matthew 5:11-12, which can be found in this book. In that sermon I found this quote about how it is easier to endure death than humiliation.

Moreover we are not only encouraged to put up with personal injury and trouble, but also with criticism, slander, and false report. This is perhaps the hardest thing to bear, since a brave person will endure beatings and death more easily than humiliation and disgrace. Among those pagans who had a reputation for courage were noble souls who feared death less than shame and dishonor among men. We, therefore must arm ourselves with more than human steadfastness if we are to calmly swallow all the insults, censures, and blame the wicked will undeservedly heap upon us. That, nevertheless, is what awaits us, as St. Paul declares. Since, he says, our hope is in the living God, we are bound to suffer distress and humiliation; we will be objects of suspicion; men will spit in our face [I Cor. 4:11-13]. That is God’s way of testing us. We must therefore be ready to face these things and to take our Lord’s teaching here [Matt. 5:11-12] as our shield for the fight. 

Calvin understood that often our greatest fear is not loss of life, but loss of reputation.  For those of us fighting the battle against sexual immorality, gender confusion, sodomy, the traditions of men, our government, and increasing compromise in the church, we know this is true. Would you rather live branded as a bigoted, hateful, man ostracized from society like a leper or malignant sore or die a hero? I think we would all rather die heroes. But our reputation is the first thing that will be lost in this battle. In the end the question will be, Do we love Jesus more than we love our good name?