Mishpatim & Shekalim
For the week of February 17, 2007 / 29 Shevat 5767
Torah: Shemot / Exodus 21:1 - 24:18; 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim / 2 Kings 12:1-17 & 1 Samuel 20:18,42



These are the laws you are to set before them. (Shemot / Exodus 21:1).

Legalism and legalist are terms I often hear among Bible believers, but I am not sure if they are always used correctly. Legalism is a system of thought whereby our spiritual state is judged on the basis of how well we abide by a set of rules. This was the approach of the Pharisees during the days of the New Testament. They filtered the Hebrew Scriptures though a legalistic grid. Their obsession with God's commandments was such that they tended to miss the heart of what God was actually saying through his Word. Because they viewed all of life as dependant on observing the commandments, it was necessary to determine what constituted valid observance. This led them to create a vast and complex system of interpretations. The legalism of the Pharisees was inherited by later Jewish scholars and became the foundation of rabbinical Judaism.

This system of thought is confronted by the New Covenant writers. They rightly understood that true spirituality is not based on observance, but rather upon trusting in God and his provision of salvation through the Messiah. This approach to spirituality is in keeping with that of the Hebrew Scriptures. Right relationship with God has always been on the basis of faith, not observance. The New Covenant writers confronted the bad spirituality of the Pharisees, not the legitimate faith of centuries of godly people.

Legalism is not simply about following rules. It is about the establishment of spiritual standards based upon rules. We should not equate keeping God's commandments with legalism. God gave us rules to follow. While we might discuss which of his rules are applicable today, he is a God of rules. He is not a God of rules only, but he does expect us to obey his commands.

I have often heard legalism contrasted to grace. I think what is being communicated by this is the difference between a rule-oriented life and a grace-based life. Using the concept of grace this way, sounds as if it has nothing to do with righteousness or obedience to God. It seems many people think of grace as freedom from rules as if the grace of the New Covenant has to do with our free ticket of acceptance in the Messiah. Some proponents of this way of thinking give the impression that if we believe in Yeshua, God accepts us no matter how we live.

This is not the New Covenant concept of grace. Rather grace is God's empowerment to live the kind of life he desires and to do the things that he wants us to do. When we say we are saved by grace, we are not referring to God's mercy. While including his mercy, grace refers to our being made right with God based on what he has accomplished on our behalf rather than anything based on our own spirituality. This is how grace is in contrast to legalism.

Having received God's grace, we now can live godly lives. This same grace enables us to remain in right relationship with God even though we continually fail to fully live up to his righteous standards.

Where the Pharisees went wrong was that they thought that they could attain God's standard though their obsession with and adherence to his commandments. God had intended that the burden of his commandments lead his people to turn to him for salvation. But instead they formulated a system of righteousness based on the commandments, a system which became an additional barrier between them and God.

So let's not confuse legalism with genuine godly adherence to God's Word. As we rely on Yeshua for our right standing with God, we are enabled by God's grace to live godly lives.

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