In Mark [8:15], Jesus warns his disciples, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” This appears to come out of left field, and the disciples miss the point right away, thinking Jesus is talking about bread (he has just fed the 4,000).
When Jesus says to beware of the leaven (yeast) of the Pharisees, he is referring to self-righteousness, what we often call legalism. But legalism doesn’t always look like rigid fundamentalist hellfire and brimstone. The point is that self-righteousness is very subtle. Just a little can spread and take over. The same is true of the leaven of Herod, by which I take Jesus to mean, essentially, “worldliness.”
The leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod appear on the surface to be opposite dangers. Pharisees are religious; Herod is irreligious. Pharisees are legalistic; Herod is licentious. These are the two extremes we sinners often find ourselves swinging between on the great spiritual pendulum of life. Because this is true, it is true that our churches tend to swing between these poles as well. And often we justify our own tendencies by in some way saying, “Well, at least we’re not like thoseguys.”
But, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9). If we give either legalism or license an inch, they will take a mile. This is why Jesus says to “beware” of them both. And he also says to beware of them both so we won’t think that a dose of one is the antidote to the poison of the other.
Better Than Balance
I am convinced that is the way many have forged their church movements. We hope to flee legalism by “loosening up.” Or we hope to repent of worldliness by “tightening up.” Many traditionalist churches pride themselves on not being as worldly as those contemporary churches, while many contemporary churches pride themselves on not being as out-of-touch as those traditionalist churches. If we had our eyes on Christ, we’d simply be astounded instead that we get to be a church at all!
Certainly we could all use some loosening and tightening in strategic places, but this kind of “balance” is not at all what Jesus is recommending. Jesus says to beware of the bread of the Pharisees and beware of the bread of Herod, because he wants us to find our bread in him, to find in fact thathe is our bread.
This is certainly an underlying application of Jesus’s parable of the Lost Son. The man had two sons, one full of leaven of the Herodian kind, the other of the Pharisaical. They didn’t need “balance,” as it were, but to both understand that they were the Father’s sons by inheritance, a right they couldn’t lose through bad behavior or earn with good.
The very nature of grace throws off all measurements of balance. You don’t balance out law with grace, or vice versa. They don’t keep each other in check. Thinking so reveals a misunderstanding of both. Trying to strike a balance between the two is to envision them as equal but opposite forces, as if they are synonymous with legalism and license. We think the way to balance away from legalism is to get some license in the picture and call it “grace.” If we fear that “grace” is creating too much license, we seek to balance it out with a little law. But either option, to borrow from Lewis who borrowed from Luther, is “falling off the horse on the other side.”
Written by Jared Wilson
Full story at Desiring God