“Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked” (John 5:8).

In John 5, Jesus heals a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. You would think that everyone would be happy for the man. But you would be wrong.

The Pharisees (really religious people) chastised the man. Why? Because it was the Sabbath. According to their religious rules, taking up your bed and walking was considered work. Therefore, according to their logic, the man was violating the Sabbath and not keeping is holy as the law demands (see the fourth commandment in the 10 commandments –Exodus 20:8-11).

Here is a classic case of legalism. Legalism is simply requiring more of people than God’s word requires. It is a form of adding to Scripture, which is a form of heresy (Deuteronomy 4:2, Revelation 22:19). It is misrepresenting God by putting words in God’s mouth. That’s dangerous ground.

Here are a few of the typical marks of legalism:

1)   Legalists always point the finger at others, never at themselves. Almost every reference to the Pharisees in Scripture describes them as accusatory toward others. They seem to always miss the beam in their own eye because they are consumed with the speck in their brother’s eye (Luke 6:42).

2)   Legalists know a lot of Scripture but don’t know a lot of truth.  Being able to recite verses of the Bible does not make someone a believer. Legalists love to use Scripture to control people rather than letting Scripture control their hearts. They abuse God’s Word to manipulate others into conforming to their will rather than submitting themselves to God’s Word in order to conform to His will (Hebrews 4:12).

3)   Legalists rarely smile. Because they are always accusing and manipulating others, legalists are usually miserable souls. They are convinced that at some point, by enforcing “the rules” they will make God happy and, as a result, be happy themselves. But this is faulty thinking. Keeping the rules does not please God. Only faith in Christ pleases God (Hebrews 11:6). Of course, that is the problem. Faith requires us to quit trusting ourselves and start trusting God. Legalists don’t want to give up control.

4)   Legalists are very sincere. Before you start getting mad at legalists, keep this in mind: Legalists are very sincere. They rarely realize their misguided mission to “keep everyone in line.” Instead, they sincerely believe they are serving God by their actions.

The truth is that churches are full of legalists. In fact, to varying degrees, we all struggle with legalism. It is a part of our fallen nature. From the beginning, sin caused the human race to point the finger at others (think of Adam blaming Eve in Genesis 3:12).  We come into the world as legalistic sinners, looking for a way to perform to God’s liking.

But Christ came to free us from our sin by His atoning sacrifice. He perfectly followed the law (God’s law, not man’s) and died in our place, so that by trusting Him by faith, we may be given His righteousness. “Therefore, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8:1).

Sadly, the convoluted mess of legalism leads sincere religious folks to ultimately scorn people from doing what Jesus has called them to do (ie. ‘take up your bed and walk).

Jesus condemned legalism this way in Matthew 23:13, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”

Perhaps we ought to reconsider actions such as:

  • Chastising people for not dressing the right way on Sunday morning. Usually, they don’t need a change of clothes, but a change of heart. Jesus can change people, legalism cant.
  • Marginalizing certain groups of sinners and discouraging them from attending church services. It’s strange how we select certain sins and consider them taboo (ie. Homosexuality, drug use, etc), while we accept others. All sin is unacceptable to God –and yet we are all sinners! Sinners looking down upon sinners is sin in and of itself. “It is the sick who need the doctor” (Mark 2:17). What an irony to turn people away because they are “sinners” so that we can preach the gospel exclusively to the “saints!” Have we forgotten that we are all sinners (Rom. 6:23)?
  • Criticizing other churches because they don’t do things the way we do them. While there is a place for Christ-like concern and discernment, we must not abandon a desire to love one another and support each other. Christ-like humility requires that we love those whom we disagree with and even count them as more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3).
  • Maintaining a “Holy Barrier” from sinners. Jesus was criticized by the Pharisees for eating and fellowshipping with sinners. Personally, I’m glad Jesus spends time with sinners because I am a sinner. The desire to isolate ourselves from sinners is not a Christ-like desire. In fact, it is a sign that we are disillusioned as to our own identity.

So the next time you feel the urge to push someone away because they don’t live up to your standard, just remember, Jesus may be calling them to “take up their bed and walk.” Maybe we ought to walk alongside, cheer them on, and praise God for the miracle!