1. Excels only in the visible aspects of righteousness
Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.
If you are a legalist, you care mostly about how others people perceive you. Legalists are more concerned about what their neighbors, their mom and dad, people at church, and their friends see than what God sees. In fact, their self-perception is determined by the mirror they help create. The legalist may not know it, but most of what they do is for show. They homeschool their kids because it looks better. They show up at church early and stay late so people will see how committed they are. They bow their heads at restaurants so others can see them. They give money to the poor but always find a way to let this secret out.
2. Focuses on the easier commands of God
Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin…
The Pharisees, when it came to giving the tithe, went so far as to give a tenth of their salt and pepper. There was not anything wrong with this. But tithing is a relatively easy law to keep. The legalist not only does the visible things, but the things that are easy (at least for them).
The legalist doesn’t curse, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t sleep around, doesn’t miss church, has never taken drugs, takes a shower every day, and does their devotional every morning. All of these things can be important to do. However, comparatively speaking, these things are easy. The legalist will focus on “right” acts that come easy to him, thinking his discipline in small areas is more than enough to make his back straight before God.
Pelagius, a fourth-century ascetic monk, was a pretty good chap (at least from his perspective). Doing good came easy. He hung around the right friends, was never tempted to escape life with alcohol, and had a pretty stable personality. These are all great gifts, don’t get me wrong. But normally the things that come easy for us become the paradigm around which we create our view of righteousness and our standard by which we judge others. Pelagius ended up fighting St. Augustine, enraged by Augustine’s claim that God has to supernaturally give us the power to do what he commands. Pelagius thought we could do it, pretty much, on our own.
This viewpoint can only come when we focus on the things that come easy in our lives and make this the guide to universal spirituality. And this, the legalist does very well.
3. Follows by the letter of the law
You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER ‘ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
The fifth commandment says that we should not murder anyone. Many of the Pharisees in Christ’s day checked this command (along with all the “big ten”) off on a daily basis with great ease. But Christ informs them that the fifth commandment goes much deeper than just the physical act of murder. It extends to the very seed emotions that give rise to murder.
The legalist, like the Pharisees, looks only to the letter of the law to evaluate her spirituality. She sees that she has not actually committed murder or adultery or theft, but doesn’t realize that hatred, lust, and envy are all that are needed to be guilty before God. As long as we look at only the letter of the law, many of us might look pretty clean. But when we look to the principles or the spirit of God’s commands, then our mirror reveals a hopeless mess.
The legalist will do everything he can to keep his self-perception only on the most visible and blatant violations of the law. Only then can he place himself on a pedestal of self-righteousness. But once he looks at the spirit of the law, he will find that he needs mercy just as desperately as the rest of us.
4. Neglects the more important morals
Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law– justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others. 24 Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel!
Now we are focusing on the second half of this verse.
The legalist, while doing the small things, ignores the spiritual elephants in the room. He neglects the things that matter most: “justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” The camels that are being swallowed at are issues of the heart. Pride, jealousy, hatred, and lust fill his soul. But he has trained himself to strain out so many gnats that he can’t even see the elephants (or camels) anymore.
Then, a legalist judges others based on these gnats. Others may have their lives filled with justice, mercy, and all manners of self-sacrifice, but because they drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and curse, they are permanently identified as unspiritual (at best) or pagans (at worst).
I remember being at a church where I was talking with a woman who was very involved in this church. As we talked, a man walked up. He said that this was his first time to the church. We continued to talk and every other word that came out of his mouth was a curse word. After about ten seconds, the lady got up and said under her breath to me (as if we were in cahoots), “I can’t take this anymore.” She left. And in doing so, unknown to her, she just swallowed a camel. She would have been better off letting out a thousand f-bombs than turning her heel on this guy.
5. Has a distorted view of others due to their legalism
You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
The one thing the legalist continually does is the one thing the legalist is not in any way qualified to do: correct others. She can’t help it. It helps her mirror. The more she corrects people, the better she thinks she looks.
There are many people I dread hearing from. I know what is coming right when I see their number on my phone or email in my inbox. They are going to pick apart some aspect of my life, telling me how to get better or change my spirituality. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind correction. I do need the “wounds of a friend.” But correction from a legalist is worthless. They are not friends.
Not only do they have no audience with the person they are correcting (due to the dreadfulness of their connection) but their correction will be completely distorted due to the greater issues they have in their life. They don’t see themselves as God sees them. Their admonition will undoubtedly be to make you look more like they look as they look in the mirror. Their pride, selfishness, and hatred keep them from seeing the world clearly.
I am not saying that legalists are not saved. In fact, we all have this tendency toward legalism. Why? Because it is easy and makes us feel better about ourselves. But legalism offers no hope, no grace, and no mercy. There are only standards that are weak and frail. Ultimately, the cure for legalism comes when we see sin as God sees it. When we fall apart when we look in the mirror and realize that our only hope is in Christ, this brokenness saves us from legalism. Then and only then are we in a position to help others.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]