Very few things feel sweeter than a good old fashioned, "I told you so". It isn't just enough to be right, we like to bask in the gloriousness of our rightness while rubbing other peoples faces in their wrongness.....Especially when we perceive someone's being wrong as a personal affront of some sort. You probably don't think of yourself as being a snotty 5 year old tricking his sister, but ask yourself how you feel about people who defend a diametrically opposed political position. WE LOVE to see them be wrong. And if we have a good clickbait article to illustrate it we will find some way to slyly post it in the social media world so that they have to see it....
Legalistic morality is the dressed up and articulated version of the "told you so's". Religious Laws are a tool that are used as hammer to bludgeon those who do not live up to the standards that we appeal to. While the Law in general serves a helpful purpose in structuring and protecting culture, it does not develop people who live naturally within the framework illustrated by the Law. It, quite frankly, does not change hearts.
Will my son stop tricking his sister with his questions because he wants to be loving and encourage her to feel good? Or, does he stop tricking her because he doesn't want to put his nose in the corner anymore? If the only reason we do what is right is to avoid something that is bad, are we truly doing what is right?
The Law is a trap that is used to produce guilt.
In the Gospel of John chapter 8 a woman is brought to Jesus
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him." John 8:4-6
Is a law against adultery a good thing? Sure. But do we hear from these Teachers a broken heartedness over the damage of this sin on her family or the family of the person she sinned with? No.....Do they seem personally broken up about having to confront such a difficult situation? No....They were just giddy(I say that because of the preceding context that we know these men were previously brainstorming a way to get rid of Jesus) at this golden opportunity to trap Jesus.
The Law was not being used for the woman, it was being used for their selfishness. It wasn't an opportunity to correct a harmful behavior, but a chance to prove that THEY are the righteous ones.
Those who are most comfortable with appealing to the rules are often those who do so to assert their specialness because of how they perceive that they themselves measure up in comparison.
Jesus makes an appeal that cuts to the heart of our "gotcha" attitudes.
When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” -John 8:7
Those who want to harness the hammer of the law need to recognize that it will be equally upon them. The Law does not give freedom to anyone. It enslaves everyone. Jesus is making very clear to us that the their are no degrees of condemnation that the Law brings with it.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” - John 8:9-11
The Law exists. It is true. But it does not change us. Grace and love are the tools that change our hearts. When Jesus came He fulfilled the demands of the Law and offered Grace to all who accept it. When we don't accept it, we make a claim that we would rather live with the Law. When someone says that they think they are going to heaven because they are a good person they are appealing to the prison of the Law as their hope. They are hoping that they can do enough good to avoid punishment.
The irony is that one of the oft used criticisms of Christianity is that Christian's use the threat of hell to get people to behave. Yet by divorcing ourselves from the Grace of Christ the only reason we have to behave is to avoid punishment. Either in this life or the next. Why should the atheist "act" good? Because there are "consequences". Why should the generic spiritual person "act" good? To avoid consequences. Only in Christ are we told we can be fully loved even when we break the "Law".
Let me say here for the record...if anyone tells you that you should be a Christian so you don't go to hell, they are not telling you about Christianity. They are just telling you the age old performance based story of the Law dressed up with some "Christ-yness".
Having the Law doesn't change the Heart