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
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
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
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
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
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.