Legalism is something we all lean toward in one way or another. Humanity has been plagued by this from the very beginning as we see in Job’s friends. Why is this? Well, we like to have everything under control. We don’t like risk. We don’t like it when things get uncomfortable. And showing grace, to ourselves and others, takes the ball out of our court. Rule, laws, and lists of requirements are so much easier than grace and freedom.
These characteristics of legalism that I am going to list here are not to mean that anyone who ever does any of these things is a legalist. Think of legalism as a sliding scale. Some of us practice legalistic tendencies here and there (I know I sure do). Some can find themselves practicing more of these on a regular basis and are more legalistic. Some can be full-blow legalists in all of these areas.
Here are the four characteristics of legalism (and I have more coming):
1. Legalists Condemn People for Minor Sins while their Lives are Filled with Bigger Sins
One time when I was at church, I was fellowshipping with a group of people. A guy came in and had a confused look on his face. We began to talk to him. As it turns out, he had never been in church before and was seeking some help. He began to tell us about his life and his current difficulties and he thought he might find answers in a church. The problem was that as he was telling us his tragic life story, he started letting out f-bombs left and right. People began to leave one by one. The last lady got up and verbally said, “I can’t take this anymore.” She left. It was only he and I left. He was confused. “Where did they all go? Did I do something?” He should have been confused. The Christians departed and left him. Why? Because he cursed. Whether or not cursing is objectively bad is not the issue. The issues is that some people abandoned their obligation for mercy, love, and evangelism because a guy cursed.
Jesus talked about this tendency many times:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
Legalists are able to ignore their own camel sized sins and complain about your speck sized sin. This is characteristic of a legalist. I ask you this: which is worse, the sin of offensive language or the sin of being without mercy and love?
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Book Recommendation: Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll
2. They focus on sins of the flesh and ignore the sins of the heart
This is similar to the first, but it needs a category of its own. Legalists are notorious for recognizing sins that can be seen, not the hidden sins of the heart. These sins that can be seen can be called sins of the “flesh” (although Paul has a broader understanding of what “fleshly” means (1 Cor. 3), we will use it in the more narrow sense). Sins of the flesh could include drunkenness, gluttony, fornication, adultery, prostitution, drug abuse, and homosexuality. These are all real sins, some more serious than others, but sins nonetheless. Sins of the heart would include pride, hatred, unforgiveness, bitterness, greed, envy, being without mercy, prejudice, etc. Sins of the flesh quickly deteriorate the body. Sins of the heart quickly deteriorate the soul.
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Christ says to the Pharisees (the legalists who focused on the sins of the flesh while ignoring their sins of the heart):
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.
And there is the sin of hypocrisy that is always tied to this kind of attitude. Paul follows Christ here in this thought:
Therefore, any one of you who judges is without excuse. For when you judge another, you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the same things. 2 We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is based on the truth. 3 Do you really think—anyone of you who judges those who do such things yet do the same—that you will escape God’s judgment?
Paul also alludes to this flesh/heart distinction here:
1 Tim. 5:24
The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after.
The point is that some people can and do have so many sins in their heart, even though they may not have many sins of the flesh. Sins of the heart are easy to hide. Sins of the flesh are not so easy to hide. Because of this those with sins of the heart normally don’t get a scarlet “A” on their shirt. And because of this, they feel as if they can draw attention to other people’s sins while ignoring their own. How much would the world change if we all walked around with all our sins printed on our shirt. At the very least, humility would abound.
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As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity:
The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither. (Book 3, Part 5)
3. They Separate from You When you Don’t Conform
Legalists are normally separationists when you don’t conform to their demands.
I know a Christian guy who loves the Lord dearly and has a body filled with tattoos. They are all about the Gospel and are designed to walk people through the Bible. Yet his Christian sisters (biological) have not talked to him for more than a decade because they told him to have the tattoos removed (since, to them, it was not Christian to have tattoos). They have separated from him because he did not conform to their standards.
I know a girl who was told by members of her church that she had to quit smoking or she could not come to their Sunday School class anymore. She left, but often tries to call them. These formally good friends won’t talk to her anymore because she smokes and they told her to quit. They said they won’t sit by while she destroys her body.
It is typical among legalists to separate for anything and everything. This is the way it has been from the beginning. These type of people believe that their opinions about your life have authority over your life. If you don’t abide by their demands, they just won’t fellowship with you anymore. In the end, you have to tip-toe around them, letting them know as little about your life and problems as you can in fear that they may demand change or leave.
Book Recommendation: Phillip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?
It is little wonder that people sometimes steer clear of Christians. They have been hurt too bad, lost too many friendships and family members to this kind of judgmentalism. I heard about a missionary who was in England attending a missionary conference. The one he was going to was a very conservative Christian conference. But down the street was a liberal missionary conference. When he found out, he bowed his head and in shame went to the liberal conference. Why? Because he wanted to go some place where he could be himself. You really can’t be yourself around legalists. There is too much fear they will judge you. And there is too much fear that they will leave. We don’t like to be left.
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4. They would never be called a friend of a sinners
Christ was accused many times of being a “friend of sinners” (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34). He hung around tax-gatherers, prostitutes, and drunkards. He did not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners (Luke 5:31-32). So who would you expect him to be friends with? It is not as if the Pharisees were righteous and did not need to repent; they just did not recognize it since it is so easy to hide the sins of their heart. If the Pharisees would have recognized their depravity (as some did—John 3ff), then Christ would have come to them . . . and still been a friend of sinners!
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I don’t know where I heard this, but, on average, Christians lose all their unbelieving friends within two years of their conversion. My experience says this is true. This is not following Christ’s example. Christ was a friend of the lost. In just about every area, he did what all the legalists thought was taboo. Though Christ would call all to repentance, he would do so at the right time.
Legalists do not have friendships with unbelievers. If they see you hanging out with unbelievers, they will accuse you of the same fleshly sins that they are engaging in or they will say you are condoning their sin by befriending them. At the very least they will say you are “walking the line” of compromise and are sure to give in.
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But what the legalist does not realize is this: not only are they following Christ more in befriending sinners (so long as the intension is to be Christ to them), but if they were to come back to the “fold” of the legalist, they would be befriending worse sinners. The only reason Christ did not hang out with the Pharisees is because they did not know how sinful they were and were not falling on their face saying “Have mercy to me, a sinner” (Luke 8:13).
Who do you think Christ would hang around today were he here on earth? Legalists or drunkards and homosexuals? Let me ask you this probing question: Have you ever been accused of being a friend of sinners? If not, why?
Further Reading: “Fourteen Characteristics of Theological Legalism”