3. Christ’s Appeal Is to Wayward Rule-Followers, Not Wayward Rule-Breakers

Like the Pharisees, or the older son in the parable, the legalist might appear obedient to God, but as theologian Thomas Chalmers points out, under the surface of legalistic pursuits lies an evil root:

On the tenure of “Do this and live” . . . the creature[,] striving to be square and even with his Creator, is, in fact, pursuing all the while his own selfishness, instead of God’s glory; and with all the conformities which he labours [sic] to accomplish, the soul of obedience is not there. (10)

In such a case, the appearance of obedience is present, but not the soul of obedience. Through outward conformity, the legalist pursues God on his own terms. He may do many of the right things, but for the wrong reasons. He chooses a transactional arrangement with God based on works, rather than a relationship with God based on undeserved favor.

Since God refuses to honor the legalist’s terms, the legalist is in a constant state of inner agitation. Because he seeks the rewards of merit, he misunderstands, and sometimes even loathes, the rewards of grace—especially when those rewards are bestowed on those the legalist deems unworthy.

It is ultimately this legalism that Jesus unpacks and addresses in the climax of his third parable in Luke 15. And how does the father in Jesus’s parable respond to his legalistic son? “My son,” he says, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (v. 31).

It is almost as if Jesus is pleading to the Pharisees through the father: “Stop acting like you have to earn what God has, or that his pleasure is contingent on your performance. Accept your sonship without merit or effort. Rejoice in the reality that everything God has can be yours—not because you don’t have a wayward heart (you do!), but because his inheritance is given freely, not earned.”