The “Triple-trap” of Legalism, Self-righteousness, and Superstition

Reading the bible is so important to do.  So are praying and fasting, giving, being kind to a neighbor, and so many other things.  As most of you are well aware, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives many things (some listed above) that are important for his followers to do.

But here’s the thing, in doing them we can quickly find ourselves having the wrong reasons or the wrong motivations. I was powerfully reminded and convicted of this reality just yesterday morning from something I read.  It’s so helpful, I thought I’d include the entire quote.  Please consider it carefully and slowly:   

“HOW SELF-DECEIVED WE HUMANS ARE when it comes to matters religious. So many things that start off as incentives to repentance and godliness develop into vicious idols. What starts as an aid to holiness ends up as the triple trap of legalism, self-righteousness, and superstition.

So it was with the bronze snake in the wilderness. Although it was ordered and used by God (Num. 21:4–9), it became such a religious nonsense in later times that Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kings 18:4).

So it sometimes is with other forms of religious observance or spiritual discipline. One may with fine purpose and good reason start “journaling” as a discipline that breeds honesty and self-examination, but it can easily slide into the triple trap: in your mind you so establish journaling as the clearest evidence of personal growth and loyalty to Christ that you look down your nose at those who do not commit themselves to the same discipline, and pat yourself on the back every day that you maintain the practice (legalism); you begin to think that only the most mature saints keep spiritual journals, so you qualify—and you know quite a few who do not (self-righteousness); (c) you begin to think that there is something in the act itself, or in the paper, or in the writing, that is a necessary means of grace, a special channel of divine pleasure or truth (superstition). That is the time to throw away your journal.”

-Quote from D.A. Carson, For The Love Of God, vol. 2

“What starts as an aid to holiness ends up as the triple-trap of legalism, self-righteousness, and superstition.” I don’t know about you, but this struck me as being very true and also very convicting.  How many times do “good things” we strive to do fall into one of these traps?  For example, it painfully occurred to me that even as I was reading Carson’s words yesterday that many times my Bible reading falls into the trap of legalism. Sometimes I just read my Bible, as he said, to “maintain the practice”—reading words on a page to check off my daily “responsibility” to be in the Word, rather than in a spirit of humility and a hunger to meet with God and to be conformed more to his ways and likeness.

Now, this doesn’t mean of course that if you or I struggle with this that we throw away our Bibles, but it does serve as a warning for us to take stock of how or why we’re doing it.  Reading the Bible is crucial in our lives so we ought to regularly reflect and pray about why we’re doing it.  Are we doing it to be able to feel good about ourselves, that we can say to others, “I read my Bible regularly?”  Or are we doing it to know and follow God better?

By they way, Carson’s comments come in the context of Isaiah 58 where the Lord is rebuking Isreal for their hypocritical fasting. Of course, fasting or Bible reading are just two of countless things we can turn from being good things to “vicious idols.”

How should we respond to this danger?  It would be profitable to take time to humbly and prayerfully think through our lives in relation to those three traps.  Are there things that you or I are currently doing which land here?  If so, confess these to the Lord as sin and then seek to do those good things for the glory of God.

Along with that, we must remind ourselves that our standing with God is not based on what we do, but on what Christ has done for us.  We have nothing to boast of in and of ourselves.  God has saved us by grace, and He is growing us by grace as well.  All that we are and all that we do is of grace (e.g., “What do you have that you did not receive?” – 1 Cor 4:7).

Therefore, let us not approach God or do things for God in a legalistic, self-righteous, or superstitious manner. Instead, let us read, fast, pray, journal and otherwise out of our dependence on Christ, gratitude for the gospel, and in order to bring God glory with our lives.

May God help us to that end~

Dennis