The Deceptive Nature of Sweet Legalism

False teachers of the gospel of Jesus come in many shapes and sizes. For the most part, false teachers are fairly easy to spot.

  • False teachers who haughtily and angrily put an emphasis on self-righteous fundamentalism – that’s fairly easy to spot.
  • False teachers who act as if they know the future, talk about the anti-christ all the time, and pretend that they have discerned the “oracles of God” to know when the “apocalypse” will happen – that’s fairly easy to spot.
  • False teachers who always talk about political power, and the supremacy of their country, and how we need to vote for “god’s man” – that’s fairly easy to spot.

But, there is a certain type of false teacher that is VERY difficult to spot. This is what I would call: The Sweet Legalist. The Sweet Legalist knows how to speak softly. He is always nice.He expresses an understated smile that gently says, “I’m a better Christian than you.” He exudes a quiet air of religious confidence that invites people to refer to him as “godly.” He bows slightly when he speaks to you to give an appearance of humility. He uses religious sounding phrases like “let’s fellowship together,” “bless your heart”, and “I was sharing with a brother.”

Yet… underneath, the Sweet Legalist is filled with tender pride. He knows how to gossip in a way that sounds like concern. He knows how to court sympathy. He hates open conflict – so he handles conflict by inviting someone into his confidence to manipulate them into fighting his battles for him.

And when he preaches or teaches, he knows how to create an allegiance of followers who – like him – smugly believe themselves to be better than others. He teaches them the “us versus them” principle. He commands them to “stay away from ungodly people.” He tells them to “act like Jesus” which subtly turns King Jesus into nothing more than a role model of so-called godliness. He tells them not to “blow their witness,” which really means “keep these particular rules so that people will think you’re holy.” He tells them to be sweet to their mamas, respect their daddy’s, love their country, and compliment their spouses. And he tells them if they are good little boys and girls, when they die they will go to heaven and get a mansion and an awesome sports car. And, if they are very VERY good – Jesus will give them a bigger mansion and a more awesome sports car than anybody else in heaven.

What a wretched message this is. It is so far from the gospel of King Jesus. Sweet Legalism takes the beautiful glory of the gospel and turns it into bitter vinegar, served with a spoonful of sugar.
And yet… it is so difficult to clearly see this wretched teaching because it is so deceptively tied with ribbons and decorated with bows. It is difficult to confront because it “seems” so right and the teacher “seems” so good. It is difficult to unveil because those who are trapped in Sweet Legalism, rarely see it in themselves.

  • They are sweet people,
  • — who teach a sweet message,
  • — and they teach this message in a very sweet way.

They simply have no idea that they have unwittingly turned the Gospel of King Jesus into behavior modification that earns material gain in heaven.

Oh, King Jesus. Please help us to learn the inherent danger in Sweet Legalism. Help us to remember that your Gospel of Love rescues the unlovely, the broken, and the desperate. Teach us to delight – not in our own morality, but help us to delight in the infinite Prince of Grace and the King of Love. And whenever we are blinded by Sweet Legalism, please open our hearts to see it in ourselves, so that we might joyfully repent and run back into the open arms of our Savior.
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“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”
— Romans 16:17-18

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