[DANGER!] 5 Signs You’re Legalistic (and probably miserable)

Are you legalistic?

What exactly is legalism? A simple definition is:

Legalism is any attempt to gain acceptance or forgiveness from God through your own works or merits.

Let me tell you something about being a legalistic Christian: it’s a miserable sin.

There are certain sins that I call “happy sins” because even though they’re wrong, they at least give you some form of pleasure. But being legalistic isn’t a happy sin.

It sucks the life out of you, drains your joy, and makes your relationship with God an absolute nightmare. And more than anything else, it’s displeasing to God.

And while you may know the technical, dictionary definition, I’m beginning to learn that legalism (and being legalistic) is much slimier and more slippery. It shows up in odd places, unexpected and unwelcome.

It slides into the nooks and crannies of my heart. It’s an expert con man, pretending to be my friend and convincing me to give up the free grace of God for a much heavier burden.

It’s not something to be taken lightly. When I’m legalistic, I’m saying that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t quite enough and that I need to tack on a few of my good works to ensure my right standing with God. God hates legalism because it belittles his great work of salvation.

But how do you know if you’re legalistic? As one who is quite experienced in the area of legalism, let me sketch out the well-known symptoms of legalism.

1. A Legalistic Person Is Angry When Others Get Grace

legalistic christian

Remember the story Jesus told of the workers in the vineyard? Some worked all day, busting their backs in the hot sun after being told they would receive a day’s wages. Others worked half a day, some worked a quarter day, and a few only worked an hour.

At the end of the day, they all received the same wages. The men who worked all day were seriously ticked off:

Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house… (Matthew 20:10-11)

The workers thought they deserved more because they worked more. It was simple mathematics and economics to them. That’s how legalism works. When you’re legalistic, everything must be equal.

They were angry at the master for being gracious to those who worked only an hour. Even though they got a completely fair wage, they were furious that those who worked less got more than a fair share (at least in their eyes).

When they saw grace, it grated against them. Because they were legalistic, they wanted everyone to be paid in exact proportion to the amount they worked. Legalism has no room for God blessing a person when they don’t “deserve” it.

2. A Legalistic Person Constantly Evaluates Whether They’re Getting A Fair Shake

legalistic definition

After the Prodigal Son came home, his father threw a massive party to celebrate his return. A fattened calf was slaughtered, a ring was given, and everyone danced for joy. I like to imagine some karaoke as well.

Everyone was ecstatic except the elder brother (typical legalistic first born – like me).

He griped at his dad:

Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ (Lk 15:29–30)

The older brother was angry because the younger brother didn’t get what he deserved. He got grace and mercy. He got a party. He got a happy reception and a calf and a ring, even though he had wasted his entire inheritance on loose women, booze, and being the life of the party.

The older, legalistic brother had never gotten a party, and that really bugged him. He had always followed his father’s commands to the letter, and yet here was his dad running to celebrate the younger brother.

Something was backward about that. Because the older brother was legalistic, it drove him crazy that his brother was getting blessed when he should have been punished.

Legalism turns us into blessing accountants. We see the blessings God has given others, and we feel that an accounting mistake has been made by God. That somehow God has forgotten to give us the wages we deserve. That our obedience has earned a specific amount from God and that God hasn’t delivered on that amount.

When we’re legalistic Christians, we weigh our obedience against our blessings and come to the conclusion that our obedience outweighs what we’ve received.

3. A Legalistic Person Constantly Compares Themselves To Others

legalistic church

Jesus told the story of a legalistic Pharisee and a wicked tax collector who came into the temple.

The Pharisee stood loud and proud before God and prayed:

God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get (Lk 18:11–12).

It’s not exactly a prayer as much as a proclamation. The Pharisee looked at the tax collector, felt a cold moral shudder run down his spine, and passionately thanked God that he was not like that godless scumbag.

The tax collector, meanwhile, couldn’t even lift his gaze to heaven. He was so crushed by the weight of his sin that he dared not lift his eyes to God.

Instead, he beat his breast and pled with God for mercy.

At the end of the story, Jesus drops the mic by saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The legalistic Pharisees would have been sucker-punched by this statement. I can imagine them huffing and puffing, “What do you mean the tax collector went home justified rather than Pharisee? Tax collectors live large on the money they skim from innocent Jews. Tax collectors have sold out to the pagan Roman government. How could the tax collector be justified and not the Pharisee?”

The Pharisee in the story relied on his fasting and his tithing and his praying and his do-gooding to justify him before God. That’s textbook legalism. No surprise there.

But what was the tell-tale sign of the Pharisee’s legalism? He compared himself to the tax collector and looked down on him.

“God, thank you that I’m not like that man!”

Of course, you and I are probably likely to say, “But I’m not like the Pharisee!”

Yeah. I’m not so sure about that. How often have we said, “Lord, I thank you that I…”

  • Don’t parent like that person.
  • Don’t school my children like them.
  • Don’t arrive late at church every week like that family.
  • Don’t spend my money like him.
  • Serve more frequently than her.
  • Don’t watch the same movies as them.
  • Keep myself in better shape than him.
  • And on and on and on…

When I compare my moral achievements to someone else and then get satisfaction from the difference, that’s legalism! I’m basically saying, “God, thank you that I’m more righteous than that person!”

4. A Legalistic Person Lacks Joy

legalistic meaning

It’s impossible to be legalistic and joyful at the same time. Joy comes from knowing that your sins are forgiven, misery comes from trying to earn forgiveness from God. With the gospel comes great freedom, and with that freedom comes great joy.

Being a legalistic Christian and having joy simply don’t mix.

In Psalm 32:1, David wrote:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

When you truly understand both the depth of your sinfulness and the extent of your forgiveness, the result is joy. How can you not experience joy when you realize that ALL of your sins are completely and totally forgiven? When you realize that the wrath of God for your sins has been completely satisfied and now all that remains is mercy, the result is a profoundly deep joy.

A legalistic person doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the staggering forgiveness they’ve received from God. Rather, they’re focused on all that they’ve done (or failed to do) for God.

Legalism is the thief of joy. Instead of focusing on the finished work of Christ, the legalistic person is constantly focused on what he or she must do.

The result is a profound lack of joy.

I can’t help but think of the classic hymn “It Is Well With My Soul,” which says:

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul

This is not the experience of the legalistic Christian. They don’t experience the explosion of soul that comes with realizing that all their sins have been forgiven.

5. A Legalistic Person Feels Like God Is Never Happy With Them

legalistic christianity

Being legalistic is a strange thing. In some people, it manifests as feeling like they deserve something from God because of the good works they’ve done (see: Pharisees).

But in others (like myself), it shows up as if God is never happy with them. As if they can never do enough good deeds to make God love them. As if they have to earn God’s favor instead of receiving it freely through the finished work of Jesus Christ.

Yes, you know that technically, God accepts you because of Jesus’ death for you. But just because God accepts you doesn’t mean he has to be happy with you. You feel like you got into God’s kingdom through a technicality or loophole, and now he just tolerates you, like some sort of divine probation officer.

You always have this vague, nagging guilt that comes from feeling like you’re not doing enough for God. You’re not evangelizing or praying or reading your Bible enough. You should be fasting more and serving more. Remember that time you were able to rest in God’s presence? Oh wait, that never happened because you can’t rest, you need to do more.

Charles Spurgeon described you well when he said:

The poor sinner trying to be saved by law is like a blind horse going round and round a mill, and never getting a step further, but only being whipped continually. The faster he goes, the more work he does, the more he is tired.

The Solution To Legalism

So what should you do if you find yourself wallowing in the mire of legalism? How can you escape the misery of being legalistic? How can you break the insidious chains of legalism?

At the risk of oversimplifying, the solution is always and ever the gospel. To be free from the poison of legalism, you must drink deeply of the antidote of the gospel. And this deep drinking must happen on a constant basis, not just every once in a while.

In his book The Discipline of Grace, Jerry Bridges puts it like this:

If we are going to persevere as committed disciples of Jesus Christ over the course of our lives, we must always keep the gospel of God’s forgiveness through Christ before us.

Or as Robert Murray McCheyne put it, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.”

Are you legalistic? The solution is to constantly, consistently, relentlessly look to Christ and his finished work on your behalf. Only in Christ is there true freedom from the chains of legalism.

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Hey, I'm Stephen Altrogge. I'm a dad and published author. I've written for The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, ERLC, Church Leaders, Crosswalk, and many more outlets. You can follow me on Instagram and Facebook .

29 thoughts on “[DANGER!] 5 Signs You’re Legalistic (and probably miserable)”

  1. N8ce article about legalism. And how ironic it comes on the heels of yesterday’s experience in church where I learned of a fellow member’s loss and that their was an email that went out to the congregation and of course i didnt get the email–again. I have addressed this issue of being on the email list before with other people but alas i am still not on the mass emails. And you know what, it made me angry that I didnt know b/c I didnt have the contact info to perhaps send out a card etc.
    Anyway, as you can see thru this story the legalism coming thru…
    This article was helpful for me in getting me to get the log out of my own eye.

  2. You talking about me, right? Yes, you got me right there and I need God’s grace to escape from the tentacles of legalism. Instead of accepting Christ’s message of “done”, I often struggle with many religious and doctrinal “dos”. God bless your writing!

  3. This has been a life long battle with me. I believe that God is helping me make some headway at this, but this is a frustratingly slow process. I am seeing a Christian counselor to help me with this process. I highly recommend a book written by our Sr. Pastor to be, Kyle Idleman, called “Grace”. In it he talks about our “inner Pharisee”. A good read.

  4. “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13

  5. Dear Stephen, thank GOD for your giving you these good thoughts and the ability to express them in such a clear and humble way! I found this article very helpful.

    I work for a reformed tract society in Germany (“Herold-Schriftenmission” [translated: “Herald scripture missions”). Every month we publish a small magazine (8 pages) with sermons and articles for non-profit purposes. My question is: Would you please give us the permission to translate your article to publish it unabridged and without alteration in our magazine? Our print-run is 50.000 magazines per month. All will be distributed freely to churches, individuals and on campaigns.

    This would be a great blessing for many of our readers.

    Your brother in Christ,

  6. Thanks a bunch for the article. I felt so sorry for being a legalistic person all the while but,I’m also very grateful to God for bringing me to the bases of Faith through the article. May his Grace be sufficient to keep me above Legalism for ever

  7. Firstly, thank you for writing this article. It opened my eyes to my legalistic ways and now I have repented. Thank you Lord for your grace and mercy!

    I will need to read more about this topic and ask the Holy Spirit to guide me on my daily walk to not be legalistic.

  8. This is great, I read this article in the past, and revisited it again. Do you have any books or sermons that have helped you personally come to all these conclusions about legalism and overcoming it in Gods Grace? Thanks!

  9. “Am I doing enough” haunts me from time to time. I am saving this to my Home Page to reference the next time I feel the enemy putting doubts in my mind. Thank you for this helpful piece/peace.

  10. I have an idea for an article. “The Language of Aramaic” How Jesus sounded when he spoke in his native tongue.

    The bible shows Jesus greeted & departed with people everyday using the phrase “Peace Be Upon You.”

    In his native language of Aramaic, not Hebrew, it would be pronounced “Asalamualykum.”

    Something as simple as language translation is powerful enough to prove truth over lies. Now if we read Mathew 26:39, it shows Jesus prayed on his face.

    Amazing what the bible can show when you actually understand it. Now who do we know that greets & departs with the common phrase “Asalamualykum & prays on their face?

    Not Jews. Because Jesus definitely wasn’t Jewish. If we know historical facts, the only people to speak Aramaic in that region at that time were the Lebanese. This would make sense, since Jesus was actually born in Lebanon, in the district of Phoenicia of lower Galilee. Not Jerusalem, or Bethlehem, or even Nazareth (which didn’t even exist yet).

    See, facts matter. And when people really care about something & claim to be devoted to it, the look for the truth. After all, how can you love someone when you don’t even know who they were really were, or where they came from, what language they spoke, what foods they ate, where they were from, or even their nationality.

    That’s like saying you love a certain band, but don’t even know the name of a real song. The only songs you think you know are lies, and you never heard a real one. Can’t even name a band member.

    And what’s in a name? A lot, if you know their surname. How many self proclaimed Christians know any thing real about Jesus, let alone his last name? I’ve never met one.

    But I know it, and I’m not even religious. How embarrassing is that? Omram. That’s a Lebanese last name. And it should be, considering his grandparents were Joachim & Hanna Omram, of the village Qana, in Lebanon. Upper Galilee.

    So who made up all the lies about Jesus that Christians know (as the truth) lol? Look no further than John 8:44. The Israelites are of their father the devil and know no the truth. Liars, murderers & thieves. Chase them from the temple.

    See, lying about Jesus & claiming him as one of their own gives credence to the lie about being the chosen people. And without a care for the Christian religion or the truth embedded in historical facts, they lie, lie & lie some more for their own benefit.

    They hated Jesus, and he despised them. They even lie about Aramaic being closely related to Hebrew. Not even close. How do I know? Because I speak Aramaic.

    There’s truth in language. And if people truly cared about the real Jesus, they would take time to learn & teach it. Because the truth matters. And imagine meeting Jesus one day, only to find he isn’t what you thought he looked like, wasn’t about what you thought he was about, and didn’t even speak the way you thought he did.

    That’s the ultimate fakeness in a person. And when you say “I followed your teachings” he’ll say “No you didn’t. You followed the lazy morons on Earth who couldn’t even be bothered with learning the truth.”

    Hows that for a lesson? Maybe God meant it for you to learn for a reason.

  11. Happy that others don”t know know what you know…
    Comparing yourselves to others that you have serve the Lord for how many years now and others don’t.
    Advising others to read more as you do…while they only receive Grace!

    What you says will point to you!

  12. I am a legalist. This isn’t by choice. It is a behavioral problem as I don’t understand, believe or trust concepts of love, forgiveness and mercy. To me, love was something that could be withheld based on mood or if I had done something wrong. You could see how this could lead to problems in a christian walk. It stunts it quite a bit.

    Tonight I was pondering what it would be like to believe what is written in the bible about Gods love, his plan for my life and my salvation. What a foundation that would be, one based on his word and not on my fear, anxiety or constant negative thoughts (which tend to always go to the most negative outcomes).

    As I pondered I thought about a topic not really talked about in any church i’ve been in. Legalism and how it can apply to chritianity. A foundation for people like me. A quick browse of the internet of course brought up a lot topics on why legalism is bad but nothing about what I was looking for.

    The thing is, salvation is explained quite clearly for the legalistic point of view and may be an easier thing to explain and have a foundation on for people like me that struggle with the other concepts.

    It’s all there

    The Old testament law and sacrificial system for atonement for sin
    Jesus’ virgin birth to avoid original sin
    His sinless life making him the perfect Lamb
    His sacrificial death as an offering to God on our behalf
    His fulfillment of the law with his sacrifice

    I’m sure there’s more that I’m missing, nuance and the like. But you see, for me, this is an easier concept for me to grasp than grace. It’s a concrete explanation as to how salvation works in regards to the law.

    There’s a lot more of course, but from this foundation I can look at the rest of the story with a little more sureity. Christs resurrection and his intercession with God, The holy spirit, grace and forgiveness for sins. And obviously a whole bunch more.

    to reiterate. What I was looking for tonight was a book or something that could walk the legalist through salvation from a legalists point of view. Understanding that there are people out there that don’t easily grasp concepts of love, grace and forgiveness, but that there is a logical and more boring explanation of salvation and the meaning of Christs sacrifice in regards to the law that is, in my experience, glossed over.

    I don’t know, I ramble. Someone should write a book like that.


    • Very poignant reply, straight to the heart and describes me as well. Recently have asked God to please address and help me overcome my relationship flaws, basically help me have a real relationship with Him. I honestly do not know how to foster a relationship with anyone. I have a dysfunctional way of thinking or should say overthinking and it has prevented me in developing and cultivating relationships. I only know how to try and earn love and attention and to perfectly honest I am burnt out to the point of not caring anymore.

  13. and please understand that my looking for an easier explanation to build a foundation on is definitely not looking for an explanation that is apart from the grace of God and his works. Just so that’s clear 🙂

  14. Wow. The comparison, the doing enough… all me. I often compare wit others that that are doing more than me. I beat myself up when I fail or sin or don’t engage in THAT spiritual discipline. It’s hard life and yes, there is NO JOY

  15. This was an eye opening article. For someone who attends a church that teaches “the 5 solas” I assumed I was outside the grips of legalism. How wrong I was when I consider this list. I was quite relieved as I read the first 3 points as I can say that a humble heart has guarded me from them.

    Hitting the wall at numbers 4 and 5 however, really was a wake up call. I have realized lately that I have lost sight of what “joy” really means – it ain’t plain ol’ happiness like many would consider it. I have been in prayer over asking God to reveal its true meaning and restore to me the joy which seems to have gone M.I.A.

    The final point was the story of most of my Christian life. I have always felt that on that day when we are gathered together to the Lord I would be like that strange uncle no one talks to at family reunions, “there’s that Russ guy, he’s allowed in but just have him go hang out in the corner of the kingdom over there and just nod and smile.” Accepted but never tolerated. I don’t know if this stems from an earthly father, though not abusive just not nurturing or emotionally available – so my concepts of a fatherly love are a bit foreign to me. This has caused me to believe I aggravate God but in His merciful patience He endures with me. It is a struggle I have fought with for decades and hope to have the Holy Spirit teach and guide me to understand the love comparable to the returning prodigal son (whom I identify with quite intimately). Thank you for your efforts and your writing in this article.

  16. A great teaching indeed, it’s an eye opener to us in these times of grace. Justified by grace and not by works of the law

  17. Really greatful for your article on this topic. I know for me its about balance and learning to accept that we are saved through grace..not our works.our works are out of love not fear.its easier said than done but we have God’s word to lean on when we have negative thoughts about ourselves or others.
    Thanks so much for the article,Godbless.

  18. I am a Christian for 39 years and sometimes ago I fell into sin and ended up a felon, I’ve been out for 10 years and now the church treats me that now I’m a lower type of Christian. Though forgiven Christians ( some ) forget where they came from.


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