1. Excels only in the visible aspects of righteousness

Matt. 6:5-6
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

Matt. 23:23
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

Matt. 5:21-22
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

Matt. 23:23-24
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

Matt. 7:5
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.

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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 Seminar (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]


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

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 Seminar (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]

    42 replies to "Five Characteristics of Legalism"

    • Romeo Fulga

      Very good points!!! I would add a sixth one: It generates a distorted view of God.

    • Jin

      Legalism is the act of self reliance on the law. A legalist does not recognize Jesus as their savior. A legalist relies on their own ability to keep themselves righteous. However, this does not mean that they can be a genuinely good hearted person. Take the modern Jew for example. The modern Jew is a legalist because they don’t believe in the saving grace of Jesus. They still believe in their “works”. But I have no doubt in my mind that there are plenty of kind hearted good Jews.

      Let us NOT judge others just on their characteristics. After all, there are plenty of non-legalist Christians who have one or more of the above listed characteristics. Let’s make sure that we ourselves rely wholly on Jesus and His imparted righteousness first.

    • Luke

      How do we discern between our current conception of law (which is merely constrained by the letter) and the true spirit of the law? Ultimately, by listening to and obeying God. The Israelites in Deut 5 didn’t want to hear God, the Rabbinical Not in Heaven doctrine uses Deut 30:12 to argue that God no longer speaks to us, and there were plenty of false prophets who told their lords what they wanted to hear. Paul offers a critique of this in Rom 9:30-10:13 and Gal 3. Hebrews has “Today, if you hear his voice” multiple times.

      The legalist is deaf to God’s voice, thinking that what he has already (whether it be Torah or the OT + NT) is all that God will ever say—all the rest is merely legal outworkings from the closed, extant source material.

      For more, read Jon Mark Ruthven’s “What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology?”

    • Coleman Glenn

      While I generally agree with these points about what defines legalism, as an outsider looking in at Protestantism there seems to be an excessive amount of emphasis on avoiding legalism in a lot of Protestant circles. I’d love to see a follow-up post on the defining characteristics of anti-nomianism…

    • Irene

      There’s a lot of potential for misdiagnosis here.

      –What may be easy for one person may be challenging for another.
      –It’s just too easy to look at someone more holy than ourselves and say, “Eh, he’s a legalist.”, as an excuse for our own lack of progress.
      –What appears to be legalism rooted in pride may actually be scrupulosity rooted in insecurity.
      –Whatever the possible circumstances, they could change! There’s a saying I like that goes something like:

      Don’t be quick to judge. You may yet be a Judas, and he may yet be an Augustine.

    • Well of course first before we can really define Legalism, we simply must define as best we can biblically and theologically, what is the great Law of God! For our Reformers following St. Paul preached and taught Law and Gospel. The biblical balance must include the great aspect of Law & Gospel! One of the great problems today in so-called evangelical theology is the great ill of antinomianism, one that believes that faith alone does not require obedience to the moral law itself. And this is antithetical to the great biblical doctrine of the Law of God! We can easily see this great balance of the love of the Law of God in the teachings of St. Paul himself, (1 Cor. 9: 19-27). I say this, for besides the Judaization of the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, the great enemy in Legalism is the human heart itself!

    • Luke

      There’s something very meta about defining legalism in a legal way…

    • Btw, I am really with Michael here, that Pelagius and Pelagianism is one of the greatest ills of the essence of a hidden legalism in the church!

      *And of course a semi-pelagianism is quite among us in the church today!

    • And as # 1, this is a great distortion in the doctrine of God!

    • Luke

      Fr. Robert, I’d caution you against thinking that only one of two extremes is a problem. 🙂

    • david carlson

      We tend to legalism because it is easy and comforting

    • @Luke: I am looking at the doctrines of St. Paul himself on the Law of God! The extremes are always many, but we must look theologically, and for me especially with the Pauline. 🙂

    • And btw, all great ill doctrine and even heresy is as # 1, a distortion in the doctrine of God! Note, God’s grace & glory!

    • Luke

      @Fr. Robert: I was thinking more the spectrum which has lawless ‘freedom’ on one end and slavery to law on the other. In my view, the issue is focusing on law instead of Jesus. It’d be like football players obsessing about the rules instead of learning to play the game well.

    • This is the great problem today with what we hear from the new pope “Francis”! He misses God’s great grace and glory, for some idea of Palagianism in my opinion.

    • @Luke: St. Paul simply MUST honor and find the glory of God’s Law! And here too, Christ brought the glory & honor to the Law of God on the Cross, this is the “Imputation” of Christ’s Righteousness, indeed both an ‘active’ and ‘passive’ obedience!

    • Aye, I’m more “Calvinist” than “Lutheran” theologically. Though I certainly love Luther himself! But both preached Law & Gospel, as did Paul I believe! 🙂

    • eman

      The law is for the flesh. Where Gods Spirit is there is no law. Legalists are men and women who desire authority and leadership but are not anointed. So they rely on rules to dominate over others while at the same time hide their faults. Hypocrites interested in honor received from men.
      Those interested in being sons of God are not so interested in hiding their faults as much as their interested in having them forgiven and being renewed by God through Christ.
      Satan is going to attack anyways. Those forgiven rest in the fact that their faults are forgiven by God not whatever people talk or not that much.

    • theoldadam

      There is an excessive amount of legalism (ANY amount is excessive) in most Christian churches.

      They know the gospel, most of them…but they give it with one hand…and rip it away from you with the other hand.

      “Biblical principles for living” (BTW) is just another term for ‘the law’.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Hi Fr. Robert,

      Have you ever witnessed Liberal Protestantism Legalism which incorporated 3 or more of the characteristics that C. Michael Patton has described above?

    • […] 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. Read more of this post […]

    • a.

      Along with this, I appreciated this from Ray Ortlund the other day.
      “when we perform a good deed, we advertise it, display it, draw attention to it, at least hint at it, hoping to collect on the emotional credit of it. But when we do something cheap, evil or stupid, we hide it, deny it, minimize it.”

      maybe a regular first greeting between brothers should be “ Today, I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body waging war against the law of my mind..
      .. so I might (probably) will give in to it choosing not to yield to the Spirit so, would please consider forgiving me in advance today!

    • @Truth.. As a Anglican, yes I have surely seen Liberal Protestantism! Note, however, how many – even here – don’t see the antinomianism of even some aspects of so-called conservative Christianity!

    • The loss of the Moral Law is simply profound in many groups today in so-called Evangelical Christianity! Noting statements like this…

      “Biblical principles for living” (BTW) is just another term for ‘the law’.

    • Sadly it appears many Lutherans don’t know of Melanchthon’s full work on The Divine Law!

    • And in my opinion, certainly Luther did not seek to diminish God’s Moral Law either! But we must surely distinguish the different classification of the Laws of God… the divine law, the natural law, and human law. But in some sense the Moral Law of God is found in all three, at least is some way. For God calls humans to obedience! And indeed only ‘In Christ’ does the Christian obey the Law of God! (Romans 8: 2-3-4)

    • *in

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Hi Fr. Robert,

      Can you recall a vivid example of Liberal Protestant Legalism?

      And a vivid example of Conservative Protestant Antinomianism?

    • bethyada

      Good post.

      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.

      This is good advice to a legalist, people are less likely to listen to you. It is not good advice to someone listening to correction. He should be willing to listen to valid advice whoever gives it. Refusal to listen to truth because of faults in the speaker is itself a fault.

    • Luke

      @bethyada, good catch! I agree with you; the only exception is for pure spiritual milk. If we can’t deal with solid food, we’re the blind leading the blind.

    • @Truth: I would consider some of the emergent types to be to here, like Bell and MacLaren. And the latter to be some in the more ‘Once Saved Always Saved’ camp, with too some Lutherans, who reject the aspect of the Law as important in discipleship and sanctification. Again, the loss of the proper Law/Gospel is seen in both!

    • Margaret

      I must say many of the churches feed this legalistic mentality. The emphasis is on what we as Christians should be doing or acting (behavior). I rarely hear messages that simply tell me Who God is and what He DID for us. I wrote a book about my experience into legalism. It’s called Legalism the Other Gospel. That legalistic mentality brought me to complete burn out. It was then I was able to truly see God as He really is!!!!

    • I take it, this is the “other” Margaret.. the non-Catholic?

    • Margaret

      Smile.

    • Yes, I figured so, as I have never seen a legalistic Lutheran, at least one that was properly “Lutheran”! Our “Catholic” Margaret, was once a Lutheran btw.

    • Margaret

      I’m just a humble seeker of Jesus Christ, and in seeking discovering God’s passionate love for me. Thank you for your teaching. I wish I had understood this when I first believed.

    • Indeed the true Christian life is a love-affair, with Him who first loved us! (1 John 4: 10-11) 🙂 But keeping and maintaining this relationship is an I-thou mystery!

    • Jeff Ayers

      can a person be a guilty of legalism and antinomianism at the same time?

      I have been accused of both in my lifetime and the persons making the charge NEVER have a cogent and consistent definition of both terms that did not ultimately end of refuting their own argument against BOTH POSITIONS!

    • Jin

      What is all this labeling?!?!

      You are either a Christian or not. Certainly there are degrees of understanding depending on what God gives you and what your ego allows you to understand. But we are all on a journey of sanctification. As long as your heart is perfect in pursuing Jesus, God will lead you. Don’t confuse yourself with religious philosophy thinking that we are smart.

      Please let’s all be humble in our thoughts and heart!!

      that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, (Ephesians 4:14 NKJV)

      As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving. Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:6-8 NKJV)

    • Jeff Ayers

      As an independent fundamental baptist (IFB) , I have seen and been party to some of the most egregious legalism in Christianity.

      Touch not taste not handle not (Col 2:20-22) don’t come close to describing all of the ridiculous “standards” in IFB circles.

      Women cannot wear open toed shoes
      Women must wear pantyhose
      Women cannot wear pants or shorts (Culottes and gauchos are acceptable so long as they are loose)
      Don’t eat a sucker, someone might mistake it for a cigarette
      No movies, no TV, no rock music, no country music etc. NOT even U2!

      But the reality is that legalism is what Paul warned against in Romans, Galatians and Acts 15.

      Obedience to the law of God does not save or sanctify in this age.
      Trying to keep the law for sanctification or salvation in the church age is legalism.

      Antinomianism is PURELY A PEJORATIVE imposed on those who actually believe and understand Paul as he explains how we are not under law but under grace yet at the same time we are to use the law LAWFULLY.

      The former list of idiotic standards found in most IFB churches is phariseeism and not legalism.

      Legalism is actually what you find in almost every Christian church who seeks to say that faith in Christ for eternal life is insufficient, but you must also keep God’s law or commandments to get saved, stay saved or prove you are saved… and they (the true legalists Gal 3:1-5) ALWAYS places the Christian back under OT laws, commandments and ordinances<<<<THAT IS LEGALISM!!!!!

    • Oh yes indeed, one can be quite antinomian and legalist at the same time! For again an antinomian spirit or mind-set, is the loss of Moral Law of God. Which going all the way back to # 1, is “a distorted view of God”! Surely when we loose the proper doctrine and revelation of God… we loose practically at least the moral law of God! And here we can again loose practically, and even finally the Grace of God. Again, it is proper Law & Gospel.. something for which our Reformers sought and fought hard for! We can see this in Paul for Timothy, in 1 Tim. 1: 1-7, noting too verses 8-11, etc.

    • Über Genius

      Little afraid to wade into these shark-infested waters but here goes…

      Agree with Jeff above that works do not lead to sanctification and legalistic don’t seem to fully recognize this point but if we look at the Synoptics, Galatians, James, Revelations, and other NT books we see the principles of evidence of salvation and sanctification being living a life with certain good works. Secondly NT talks about being separate from the world not in location (i.e. monasticism) but in actions and appearance to non-believers. If these premises are true then it seems that legalism has to do with a misunderstanding of causation in sanctification. Namely, appearing and acting sanctified actually causes sanctification. The legalistic might conclude ” in any case it certain wouldn’t hurt anything or anyone to take this approach”!

      To be fair I must disclose that I am a recovering Fundamentalist and as part of my 12 step out program am required to drink, and smoke, every damn day.

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