The Danger of Externalizing our Faith
Read Matthew 23:13-33
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like wash-washed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and uncleanness.”
In his most potent indictment and condemnation of the religious leaders, Christ pronounces 8 “woes” against them. The word translated “woe” refers to a strong expression of regret or sorrow for the punishment an individual brings upon themselves because of their actions. It gives weight to his condemnation of the religious leaders as they externalized their faith and manipulated the Law from the focus on complete inward transformation to external rules and regulations. While we quickly join Christ in his condemnation of these religious leaders, we often walk the same path as they did. We reduce our faith to a set of religious acts; going to church on Sunday, reading the Bible every day, participating in ministries, etc. but fail to be transformed within our character. This is the subtle danger of legalism, for legalism is often grounded in critical aspects of the Christian life. Certainly, expressing our faith through external acts is part of a life of obedience. Christ is not condemning what they did (i.e., prayer, making a proselyte, tithing, honoring the prophets, etc.). What he is criticizing is that they focused only on the externals.
Legalism focuses upon external acts rather than internal transformation. Rather than the outward, visible religious activities being an expression of their faith, it became the sole basis for their faith. In other words, instead of surrendering to God’s will so that they would be changed inwardly, they only did their religious rituals to give the appearance of being righteous. It was all show and no substances. However, before we condemn them, we must acknowledge our propensity to do the same thing. An externalized religion satisfies our need to connect with God but not be transformed by him. We can be religious without being changed.
Legalism focus on personal agenda rather than obedience to God. Instead of walking in obedience to God, these religious leaders used their religion to elevate themselves in the eyes of others. In the end, religion becomes another business where we seek to advance our prestige and recognition in the community. But God does not desire religious people; he wants obedient and transformed people. People who strive to obey his word, not to gain notoriety before others, but to become conformed to the character and image of God.
Legalism results in spiritual arrogance rather than humble submission. When we focus upon external acts, we can quickly become spiritually arrogant because we compare ourselves to others and thus see ourselves as “more righteous.” If we do more in the church, give more to the church, and be more vocal during prayer and praise, we see ourselves above others. However, when we are truly being transformed inwardly, we are humbled, for we begin to recognize our sinfulness and unworthiness to have God’s grace bestowed upon us.
What Christ confronts us within this passage is the necessity of being transformed inwardly so that our outward acts are an expression of the character within. This begins by surrendering to Christ and recognizing the importance of seeking him. Character becomes more important than performance, and people are more important than religious activities. Today ask God to examine your heart and ask yourself, are you merely acting the part of being a Christian, or are you daily striving to be transformed by Christ to be what he desires you to be?