The written record we have makes it clear. Our life experiences confirm it in every instance. We are swept from God’s way at any given point from one of two streams of thinking. We either are bewitched into idolatry by our desires or we are escorted into legalism by our pride.
I realize sins themselves can be categorized into sins of the flesh or of the spirit, but I refer to where these sins come from. Whether idolatry or legalism, sins of the flesh and of the spirit easily emerge. Before this discussion becomes academic exercise for Christian readers, I, too, want to add that the subject is not any more geared to unbelievers than it is to believers. In that the flesh remains, idolatry and legalism find fertile ground to thrive in any of us. (Since I have swan in the putrid waters of idolatry and of legalism, as well as committed a wide variety of sins of the flesh and of the spirit, I find myself unusually qualified to speak).
If you think about it, you find the story of the Old Testament as it traces Israel from its infancy to the threshold of its Messiah tells this very thing. For centuries Israel fell into idolatry at every turn. Whether she ran after the false gods of Canaan, or wanted a king over the King of Kings, she was never far from idolatry till she watched herself ruined and carried away into the Babylonian Captivity.
After she endured that painful captivity she shook off idolatry once and for all, but replaced it with a more subtle type of sin—legalism. The key difference in the two is that when you fall into idolatry you tend to know it. You and the Lord are not on good terms and it is as obvious to you as anyone. On the other hand, when you are drowning in legalism, you are usually the last to know it. You and the Lord are still not on good terms, but you are convinced He sits on the throne giving you regular rounds of applause.
To understand sin, you must begin with God. It is not only that sin is an affront to God, but that every sin is personally against Him. Every sin we commit is then connected to Him in the sense that it springs from what we think about Him. That thought horrifies me as much as anyone, but it is true.
In idolatry I want something other than Him. Any one of a thousand things will do; it just can’t be Him. I want to distance myself from Him, from His way cramping my style. Like the idol of stone, the quieter the better. I will be God for a while.
In legalism, I don’t necessarily want Him because I am so sure I already have Him. I get to thinking I have earned God and that blinds me in the ugliest ways. I make myself pleasing to Him and that builds up a reserve that covers an indiscretion here and there, even if that indiscretion is actually horrendous. In a way not so obvious, I will be God for a while.
I am sure the Pharisee of Jesus’ day was embarrassed by the idolatry of his fathers while he lived in his legalism. Well, it was embarrassing. Still, there were plenty of Pharisees in the crowd ready to stone the woman taken in adultery when Jesus stopped it.
The point is not that legalism is that much worse than idolatry. When Israel was in idolatry, however, she did bring reproach on His Name; and when she was in legalism, she nailed Him to a cross. Still, both are bad and I do no favors to attack one at the expense of the other.
That is, though, the heart of the problem. We are usually blind to one or the other. If I am in idolatry, I can spot the ugly pride inherent in legalism a mile away. If I am in legalism, I can find the reprobates all around me so easily. The issue becomes which road temptation will travel to get to me. As you can see, it will either be the road of idolatry or of legalism, and it will depend on what I think of the Lord at the time. Looking down one road or the other, temptation will sneak up on me from the other direction. I guess that explains how I have been blindsided so many times!