The tax collector, meanwhile, couldn’t even lift his gaze to heaven. He was so crushed by the weight of his sin that he dared not lift his eyes to God.
Instead, he beat his breast and pled with God for mercy.
At the end of the story, Jesus drops the mic by saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The legalistic Pharisees would have been sucker-punched by this statement. I can imagine them huffing and puffing, “What do you mean the tax collector went home justified rather than Pharisee? Tax collectors live large on the money they skim from innocent Jews. Tax collectors have sold out to the pagan Roman government. How could the tax collector be justified and not the Pharisee?”
The Pharisee in the story relied on his fasting and his tithing and his praying and his do-gooding to justify him before God. That’s textbook legalism. No surprise there.
But what was the tell-tale sign of the Pharisee’s legalism? He compared himself to the tax collector and looked down on him.
“God, thank you that I’m not like that man!”
Of course, you and I are probably likely to say, “But I’m not like the Pharisee!”
Yeah. I’m not so sure about that. How often have we said, “Lord, I thank you that I…”
- Don’t parent like that person.
- Don’t school my children like them.
- Don’t arrive late at church every week like that family.
- Don’t spend my money like him.
- Serve more frequently than her.
- Don’t watch the same movies as them.
- Keep myself in better shape than him.
- And on and on and on…
When I compare my moral achievements to someone else and then get satisfaction from the difference, that’s legalism! I’m basically saying, “God, thank you that I’m more righteous than that person!”
4. A Legalistic Person Lacks Joy
It’s impossible to be legalistic and joyful at the same time. Joy comes from knowing that your sins are forgiven, misery comes from trying to earn forgiveness from God. With the gospel comes great freedom, and with that freedom comes great joy.
Being a legalistic Christian and having joy simply don’t mix.
In Psalm 32:1, David wrote:
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
When you truly understand both the depth of your sinfulness and the extent of your forgiveness, the result is joy. How can you not experience joy when you realize that ALL of your sins are completely and totally forgiven? When you realize that the wrath of God for your sins has been completely satisfied and now all that remains is mercy, the result is a profoundly deep joy.
A legalistic person doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the staggering forgiveness they’ve received from God. Rather, they’re focused on all that they’ve done (or failed to do) for God.