Legalism is performance-based religion. The truth is, all of us are legalists. It’s basic to our human nature. We want to earn the approval of others. We want to deserve what we get. We want to work for our righteousness. It’s the affliction of every child born to man. Colossians 2:8 says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”

Think of Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Saving Private Ryan saying, “Earn this.” Think of the weeping old man, James Ryan, at the end of the movie begging his wife, “Tell me I’m a good man!” How many of us live our faith like this? There was only one man who “earned this.” Jesus, our Redeemer.

But even Jesus was tempted to be a legalist. In Matthew 4, the devil said, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Satan was trying to get Jesus to find his identity in a supernatural work instead of in what was already true.

When it comes to legalists, I am king. For years, I wanted to be the most spiritual guy in the room. I was a champion of spiritual disciplines, praying an hour every day, reading the Bible through every year, witnessing once a day, and fasting weekly. I was sure this was how I kept God “pleased with me.” I drove my wife crazy, and drove others from me. It was only grace that allowed me to be smashed into a humiliating basket case, until I saw that it was all grace, and no Derek. I still struggle to keep my eyes on Christ and not on self, and must “die daily” to works-righteousness.

That said, I’m not intending to condemn anyone with this blog, but to encourage the honesty and repentance that has brought such freedom to my life.

Some signs that you’re a legalist.

1. This blog makes you uncomfortable.
Legalists squirm when someone begins to talk about legalism. Thinking they’re defending God and his holiness, they cry foul, try to shut to conversation down, with stern warnings about not turning grace into a license to sin. I’ve often had legalists say something like, “There’s too much talk in the church today about legalism.”

One common tactic legalists use when discussing legalism is to reduce it to initial salvation, claiming that any discussion about legalism during sanctification is irrelevant. I don’t get it. There are as many passages that talk about legalism during sanctification (Galatians 5, Romans 7, 1 John 4) as there are during salvation. Further, sanctification is part of salvation, isn’t it?

CJ Mahaney, author of The Cross-Centered Life, has one of the best definitions of legalism I’ve heard: “Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God.”

Under grace, the object of our faith is the finished work of Jesus on the cross. Under law, the object of our faith is our obedience. There’s nothing more destructive to the life of the Spirit than this kind of thinking. Under grace, obedience is a fruit, not a condition.

Struggling with legalism is an ongoing temptation for every believer, so please don’t pull the “it’s only about initial salvation” card. That just doesn’t square with Scripture.

2. You feel superior to others because of your theology, your good works, or your spiritual gifts.
Legalism puffs you up with pride over your (perceived) spiritual achievements. Good things can turn into filthy rags if we become arrogant: a good prayer life, missionary service, a Bible school degree, correct theology, what version of the Bible you read, or speaking in tongues or prophesying. The Bible condemns religious boasting (Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 5:26). Here’s some questions to ask yourself:

Do you feel superior or more spiritual than others because you pray more, fast longer, or worship louder? Do you find your identity in that? If you do, you are a legalist.

Do you feel superior because of your spiritual gifts? If you do, you are a legalist.

Do you boast about your spiritual disciplines or exploits? If you do, then you’re a legalist.


3.  You feel superior to others because of your personal preferences.
There are matters about which the Scripture has no clear teaching; areas that are left up to personal faith, conscience, and liberty under grace. These personal convictions may be very important to you and considered very good for you: homeschooling, abstinence from alcohol or smoking, entertainment choices, style of dress, tithing, etc. Though there’s nothing wrong with these things, the legalist turns conscience issues into issues of righteousness for others. I’ve gotten slammed by legalists over music I listen to, movies I’ve watched, drinking wine, or my views on tithing. Here’s some more questions:

Do you feel superior or more spiritual than others because of your personal preferences and convictions? Do you impose your views on others? If you do, you are a legalist.

Do you group yourself with others who share your personal preferences, and avoid those who don’t? If you do, you are a legalist.

Can you celebrate that under grace that God has given liberty to his children so that some may have different convictions and preferences (1 Corinthians 8, Romans 14) than you? If not, you’re a legalist.

4. You are self-righteous.
The problem with self-righteousness is that it’s a blind spot. It’s deception. Deceived people don’t know they’re deceived. You need to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal this within you, but I warn you: Don’t try to analyze yourself. You’ll probably end up patting yourself on the back for your humility. Ask someone else. Ask a sinner.

This is a deadly sickness. Tim Keller said, “Morality and religion can keep you just as far from God as immorality and irreligion.” Self-righteous people have a hard time when God doesn’t come through for them the way they thought he should when they’ve done everything he told them to do (like the older son in the prodigal son story). Self-righteous people have a hard time being merciful on those who commit gross sins (especially Christians) like fornication, adultery, porn addiction, or drunkenness. “I’d never do that!” they say, but what do you have that you did not receive? Aren’t all things from the Lord? Even your ability to abstain from sin is from the Lord! Here’s some questions:

Do you feel a strong sense of “justice” and condemnation toward someone in sin? Do you have a hard time being merciful? If you do, you’re a legalist.

Do you commend yourself and thank God that “I am not like that guy” when you see someone in sin? If you do, you’re a legalist.

Can you have a loving conversation with a sinner? If not, you’re a legalist.

5. You struggle with condemnation.
Yup. That’s right. Condemnation is a sign of legalism, too. It’s just arrogance in a costume. You still believe that God accepts you based on your works. You still don’t believe that the cross accomplished what the Bible says it accomplished. Both the self-righteous and the condemned measure themselves by works. The self-righteous person thinks they got over the bar. The condemned person thinks they didn’t. More questions:

Do you live with a sense of guilt and struggle under a weight of condemnation? If you do, you’re a legalist.

Do you apply a harsh standard to others, commending them when they perform and condemning them when they don’t? If you do, you’re a legalist.

The answer for all of this is the cross! Repent of works-righteousness and place your faith in Christ’s work, and not your own. Ask God to help you learn to live under grace. He is kind and loving, and you’ll find his grace abundant and wonderful; an endless fountain of life.

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