The average legalist does not know that he or she is legalistic. I didn’t. I thought I was just following God’s Word. I didn’t think I was a Pharisee; I thought I was righteous.
Legalism is rightly considered a disease in the church, but most of its sufferers mistake its symptoms for holiness. They think they have the mind of Christ and that everyone else is carnal. Legalism, for all its damage, can actually manifest in very subtle ways.
Is there a practical way to discern if you have legalistic tendencies? If legalism is a type of spiritual disease, is there a way to quickly distinguish its symptoms?
Definitions of Legalism
We can start with a couple of helpful definitions:
“Legalism: Strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious moral code.” – The Tenth Edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
“Legalists are people who add personal preference to accepted doctrinal teaching, accept these additions as having equal weight with doctrinal teaching, and apply these additions in the judging of others.” – David Miller, Breaking Free: Rescuing Families from the Clutches of Legalism
“Legalism is the reduction of life to mere technicalities. It substitutes code for conscience, ritual for worship, rectitude for holiness, morality for purity.” – Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God
But I’m No Pharisee
In Matthew 23 and Luke 11 Jesus confronts the legalism and hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Most churchgoers are familiar with both passages—the symptoms appear obvious. Perhaps you, like me, can wonder how the Pharisees overlooked their own legalism. And how did their followers not see them for what they were?
The reason that both the Pharisees and their disciples failed to spot legalism was because their religious practices were a close counterfeit of genuine worship. The same is true for today’s legalists. Few see themselves as modern day Pharisees. Instead, they believe that they are particularly observant Christians.
Checklist of 30 Legalistic Tendencies
Are there modern examples of lifestyle patterns or habits which might indicate that someone has legalistic tendencies? Below are some suggestions.
- I am continually scandalized by the driving habits of others. Yes or No.
- I believe that God loves me more when I behave. Yes or No.
- When I write a check to my church, I tithe to the penny. Yes or No.
- I entirely avoid alcohol, makeup, or jewelry out of fear of contamination. Yes or No.
- I usually stand out from the crowd because of my formal or conservative attire. Yes or No.
- When I encounter another professing Christian, I find myself judging their appearance. Yes or No.
- My good friends are all from one church or denomination. Yes or No.
- When I miss a Sunday service, I feel guilty. Yes or No.
- When I miss any church activity, I feel guilty. Yes or No.
- There are only a few Bible teachers who truly teach God’s Word. Yes or No.
- When I sin, I feel guilty even after I ask God to forgive me. Yes or No.
- I believe that small children should behave like miniature adults. Yes or No.
- In a snow-covered parking lot, I feel anxious because I can’t see the parking lines. Yes or No.
- When someone gives me a gift or does something kind for me, I feel unsettled until I can reciprocate. Yes or No.
- I always clean my house thoroughly before anyone visits—even if they’re just popping by. Yes or No.
- I want my children to avoid contact with sinful people. Yes or No.
- I prefer to do things myself rather than accept help from people who are sloppy or less conscientious than I am. Yes or No.
- There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything. Yes or No.
- I believe that God is most glorified through my preferred style of music. Yes or No.
- I believe that all scripture is equally applicable to my life. Yes or No.
- I have had several conversion experiences but still doubt my salvation. Yes or No.
- I have a sneaking suspicion that if Jesus returned while I was sinning, I would go to hell. Yes or No.
- I take pleasure in reporting or punishing people who commit minor infractions. Yes or No.
- I like to make an example out of wrongdoers. Yes or No.
- I feel guilty when I exceed the speed limit by even a few miles per hour. Yes or No.
- I avoid certain behaviors primarily because they are wrong, rather than because they are harmful. Yes or No.
- I feel morally obligated to finish every book I start. Yes or No.
- Others could describe me as bitter and depressed rather than joyful and kind. Yes or No.
- I feel unlucky or cursed if I skip Bible reading or prayer. Yes or No.
- I believe that God is more like a policeman and less like a fireman. Yes or No.
Some of these are more crucial than others, but if you circled “yes” to a fair number, it’s likely that you struggle with a distorted view of God and his Word. It’s likely that you are legalistic.
Legalists, whatever they may say, are miserable people. Life is a ledger and they are always trying to measure up. They feel better only through their own perceived performance or by judging the bad behavior of others. It is a zero-sum game which never ends; you can never rest.
In Jesus Christ, God has crucified the law and fulfilled its requirements for perfection. If you have placed your faith in Christ, then when God looks at you he sees Jesus. God has saved you to a joyful, abundant life and to obedience lived out of gratitude; not to a cramped, fearful, nit-picky existence that chews lemons and keeps score and measures everyone against an impossible standard.
God, through grace, has something better.