Legalism: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

Defining Legalism

Legalism has been defined in a number of ways, but here is my attempt: Legalism is the tendency to regard as divine law things that God has neither required nor forbidden in Scripture, and the corresponding inclination to look with suspicion on others for their failure or refusal to conform. One might also call this a religious spirit insofar as man-made religion and legalism go hand in hand. It all comes down to this: I create rules and expectations not found in the Bible and then feel good about myself and my relationship with God for having obeyed them, all the while I judge others for having failed to live up to this artificial standard of godliness. So, how do I know whether I’m a legalist? Here is a simple test consisting of five questions.

1. Do you place a higher value on church customs than on biblical principles?

Many of our so-called rights and wrongs in church life are products not of the Bible, but of family background, culture, social and economic factors, geographical locale, and a longstanding institutional commitment to doing things the way they’ve always been done. Once again, as long as the Bible doesn’t prohibit such practices, you may well be free to pursue them. But you are not free to insist that others do so as well.

2. Do you elevate to the status of moral law something the Bible does not require?

Let me mention just a few examples. Whereas the Bible explicitly forbids drunkenness, it does not require total abstinence. Make no mistake: total abstinence from alcohol is great. As a Christian you are certainly free to adopt that as a lifestyle. But you are not free to condemn those who choose to drink in moderation. You may discuss with them the wisdom of such a choice and the practical consequences of it, but you must not condemn them as sub-spiritual or as falling short of God’s best.

The Bible encourages modesty in dress. Both men and women are to be careful not to dress in a way that flaunts their sexuality or is unnecessarily ostentatious and seductive. But we have no right to condemn others for their wearing of colorful clothing or the use of makeup or a particular hairstyle.

The Bible condemns lust in no uncertain terms. But the legalist uses this to condemn as unholy everything from television to the Internet to movies (even PG) to mixed swimming. Make no mistake: you may be significantly better off by severely curtailing your use of TV and the Internet, and I strongly advise that you be more discerning than ever when it comes to trash from Hollywood that often passes for “art.” But these forms of media can also be powerful tools for the expression of kingdom truths when wisely utilized.

Hold your conviction with passion and zeal, but do not seek to enslave the consciences of others who may disagree with you.

Parents are to raise their kids in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. About that there is no mistake. As a parent, you may believe that all public schools are tools of the Devil and cesspools of secular humanism. It is certainly your right to hold that opinion and make your decisions concerning your child’s education accordingly. But you have no biblical right to question the spirituality of Christian parents who hold a different view. Whether you educate your children at home or send them to a private school or public school is a matter on which Scripture is silent. Hold your conviction with passion and zeal, but do not seek to enslave the consciences of others who may disagree with you.

The Bible commands weekly gatherings for prayer, Bible study, worship, and celebration of the sacraments. But the legalist condemns as carnal anyone who ever, for any reason, misses a Sunday service or dares to watch a football game in the afternoon or chooses to mow the lawn after church. If you prefer not to work on Sunday or watch athletic events or perform household chores, that’s wonderful. But don’t condemn others who differ. Why? Because God doesn’t condemn them.

Let’s take a moment and explore this Sabbath issue in a bit more detail. Do you recall the incident when Jesus and his disciples were walking through the grain fields on a Sabbath day (Mark 2:23–28) and “began to pluck heads of grain” (v. 23)? The Pharisees went ballistic: “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (v. 24).

The Old Testament Sabbath law wasn’t all that complicated. Six days were to be set aside for work, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, no work was to be done. The people of Israel were to rest. The Old Testament, however, gave very few details as to what actually constituted the kind of “work” that was forbidden on the Sabbath. So the Jewish rabbis over the years took it upon themselves to supply what the biblical text left open-ended. They identified thirty-nine different expressions of what they called work prohibited on the Sabbath day.

As time passed, the various schools of Jewish rabbis added regulation after regulation, law upon law to the original commandment, going far beyond the requirement of Scripture and making the Sabbath and its observance a horrible burden to the people of Israel. God had meant for the Sabbath to be a day of rest. It was the day on which God wanted his people to be relieved from their burdens and to celebrate his goodness and provision for them. But the religious leaders of Israel had turned it into a day of incredible stress, anguish, and one heavy burden after another. In the years following the life of Jesus, literally hundreds of man-made restrictions were added to the original command. So many extra rules and regulations were heaped upon the original commandment that it actually became harder to rest on the Sabbath than on the other six days of the week!

Sabbath regulations increased exponentially. One law specified that a Jew could not carry a load heavier than a dried fig; but if an object weighed half that amount, you could carry it twice! If the Sabbath began as you were reaching for some food, the food had to be dropped before you drew your arm back, lest you be guilty of carrying a burden! Nothing could be bought or sold, and clothing could not be washed. Baths could not be taken for fear that water might spill onto the floor and “wash” it, something forbidden by these rules. A chair couldn’t be moved, lest by dragging it you make a furrow in the ground. A woman could not look in a mirror, lest she see a grey hair and be tempted to pluck it out!

Though not as bad during Jesus’s time on earth as later on, Sabbath regulations imposed a heavy religious burden on the Jewish people that God never intended. This, then, is the backdrop when Jesus and his disciples engaged in a gentle stroll through the grain fields one Sabbath day. Picking the heads of grain and eating was not itself a violation of the law (Deut. 23:25). But the Pharisees argued that it constituted “reaping,” one of the thirty-nine types of so-called work they determined to be in violation of Jewish tradition.

We see almost the same scenario played out in Mark 3:1–6. Once again it was the Sabbath day and Jesus dared to heal a man with a withered hand. And once again the Pharisees were up in arms that Jesus broke their cherished traditions. We’ll come back in a moment to how Jesus responded to their accusations. But notice for now the spirit of legalism that energized these men.

One unmistakable sign of a legalistic spirit is the tendency always to be looking for what’s wrong in other people’s lives in order to judge them, instead of looking for what’s right in order to encourage them. None of us does everything right. We all fall short in many ways. It may be how we respond to the poor or our style of worship or the way we preach or how we try to share Christ with non-Christians. But we never do it perfectly.

By way of illustration, suppose an especially godly believer is doing things well 95 percent of the time. If you are a religious legalist, you will look right past the 95 percent that she does well and hone in on the 5 percent that she does poorly. Since legalists love picking away at how others fall short, you will highlight how she fails to live up to your expectations of perfection. Her 5 percent failure rate undermines the 95 percent she does well. Any good that she does suddenly counts for nothing. You are blinded to the fruit it produces and incapable of understanding her best motives.

Legalists feel good when they can identify another person’s errors. It reinforces their feelings of superiority. They actually think themselves more spiritual, more godly, and more favored and loved by God.

There’s a flip side to the legalistic spirit. In addition to being quick and dogmatic in identifying the small and rare failures of others, the legalist never acknowledges his own faults and failures. To admit and confess to sin or misjudgment is to run the risk of losing power, losing face, or losing prestige.

What drives this spirit? It is the belief that one’s own efforts and achievements merit acceptance with God and approval from men. Instead of resting in Christ’s achievements, confident of what he has done for us, legalists redouble their own works and take pride in what they do in view of what others don’t.

Look again at Mark 2:24: “And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’” Or again, Mark 3:2: “they watched him closely” (niv). That’s the legalists’ spirit: always on the lookout for someone else’s sin; always scanning the horizon for someone’s failure to measure up to their rules, rules that aren’t in the Bible; always spying on the behavior and beliefs of the other person to root out the slightest deviation from their traditions. They nitpick and judge, nitpick and judge, nitpick and judge!

Ah! You actually drink alcohol! You attend movies! You mow your lawn on Sunday! You don’t wear a coat and tie to church on Sunday! I’ve got my eye on you. I noticed that you read a different version of the Bible rather than the one we approve! You don’t believe everything I do? Oh, my! You have a tattoo! I also noticed that you don’t always close your eyes when you pray! You tithe out of your net income rather than your gross. Ah! God’ll get you for that! And you call yourself a Christian!” Such is the energy that drives the spirit of legalism and man-made religion.

3. Do you tend to look down your spiritual nose at those who don’t follow God’s will for your life?

I remember hearing Chuck Swindoll tell the story of a missionary family that served in a place where peanut butter was hard to obtain. This family arranged for friends in the United States to send them peanut butter so they could enjoy it with their meals. They soon discovered that other missionaries in the same country considered it a mark of spirituality to abstain from peanut butter. It was their “cross to bear”! This family didn’t flaunt their enjoyment of peanut butter, but they did continue to thank God for it and enjoyed it in the privacy of their own home. But the pressure and condemnation from their fellow missionaries intensified to such a degree that the family eventually returned home, disillusioned and cynical.

Tough Topics

Sam Storms

Designed to shed biblical light on thorny issues, this book answers 25 of the toughest questions Christians are often too afraid to ask.

Someone might argue that the couple should have yielded and agreed not to eat peanut butter out of deference to the beliefs of their associates and for the sake of the gospel in that country. Perhaps. But to do so would also serve only to reinforce what was likely a larger pattern of error in the minds of the legalists. You are not doing anyone a favor by behaving in a way that encourages or emboldens such legalistic views.

Part of being a Christian is the freedom not to eat peanut butter. But it is not part of being a Christian that you condemn others if they do. You are free to exercise your freedom, but you are not free to insist that others not exercise theirs!

4. Are you uncomfortable that the Bible does not explicitly address every ethical decision or answer every theological question?*

Legalists tend to fear ambiguity. Their favorite colors are black and white. They are uncomfortable with biblical silence and insist on speaking when the Word of God does not. They feel something of a calling to fill in the gaps left by scriptural silence or to make specific and often detailed applications that God, in the Bible, chose not to make.

5. Are you more comfortable with rules than with relationships?

I’m not talking about explicit biblical rules. In Psalm 119 we see the proper Christian response to biblical laws and commandments and precepts and rules. We are to rejoice in and celebrate the laws of God and to obey them joyfully. But do your interactions with people center on rules of your own making, rules you feel are the only legitimate applications of what the Bible does say? God-given rules are good and righteous, but they are designed to enhance and develop Christian relationships, not stifle, crush, and kill them.

This article is adapted from Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions* by Sam Storms.

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