Religious “Legalism” with a capital “L” is heresy. It’s the belief that one’s personal virtue and obedience to religious norms or standards merits God’s favor and/or salvation. This “do-it-yourself” religion is antithetical to the gospel of Christ and the Bible’s grace-based religion. “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” writes the apostle Paul. He goes on to remark, “This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). When asked what deeds God requires of men as a condition for eternal life, Jesus surprised his audience with the reply, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29; see also John 3:16, 36; Acts 4:12; 16:30-31; Rom 10:9-13).
I used to think that I could earn God’s favor and salvation on the basis of my inherent virtue and good works. Of course, I admitted I wasn’t perfect. But I foolishly presumed that my good deeds would somehow outweigh my bad deeds. In this respect, I thought and behaved much like the Pharisees, scribes, and Jewish people of Jesus’ day who trusted in their own inherent virtue and religious performance to merit their acceptance before God (Matt 5:20; Luke 16:14-15; 18:9-12, 14; Rom 10:1-3).
Thankfully, God helped me realize that my sinfulness was heart-deep (Gen 6:5; Jer 17:9; Matt 15:19-20) and that the best of my moral or religious deeds were worthless for earning His favor (Isa 64:6; Rom 3:20; Phil 3:4-9). By His saving grace, I repented of my sin and self-righteousness, placing my confidence and hope in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone. That’s when “Bob the Legalist” died.
Conversion freed me from the penalty and dominion of sin, but sinful tendencies were not completely eradicated from my heart. I still struggled with some of the old tendencies of “Bob the Legalist.” Though I was no longer a Legalist, I still tended at times to think and behave like a legalist (lower-case “l”).
Elevating My Own Opinions
Without biblical warrant I tended to view certain practices as “wrong” and Christians who endorsed or practiced them as “worldly.” Instead of basing my understanding of “worldliness” on the teaching of Scripture (John 2:15-17), I based it largely on my own preferences, prejudices, and personal standards. As a result, I sometimes condemned what the Bible doesn’t condemn and disapproved of other Christians whom God approves (Ezek 13:22; Rom 14:3-4).
Looking Down at Others
I also had a tendency to be hypercritical of Christians and churches that didn’t share all my beliefs and convictions, while remaining to some degree blind to my own remaining sins and weaknesses (Matt 7:1-5). Instead of focusing primarily on the central truths of the gospel, I was overly preoccupied with beliefs and practices that distinguished me from all other Christians and exalted those beliefs and practices to a place of unwarranted priority (Matt 23:23). As a result, I so focused on minute orthodoxy that I lost sight of brotherly love (Rev 2:2-4) and humility (1 Cor 4:7).
Trusting in Human Tradition
Related to the tendency above, I esteemed my own ecclesiastical tradition so highly that at times I forced the teaching of Scripture into the mold of my tradition or failed to hear the teaching of Scripture because I too highly venerated my tradition. Instead of reading my tradition in the light of Scripture, I tended to read Scripture in the light of my tradition. As a result, I proudly thought myself superior to other Christians (Mark 9:38-40; 1 Cor 12:21) and that I had little if anything to learn from them—only much to teach them. Worse, my veneration of human tradition sometimes invalidated the teaching and mandates of God’s own Word (Matt 15:1-9).
Thanks to God’s ongoing work of sanctification, I hope I understand God’s grace more clearly and am repenting of these legalistic tendencies, which ultimately spring from sinful pride. But I haven’t arrived. I’m still a “recovering legalist.” Ironically, one area I’ve been wrestling with lately relates to my attitude and posture towards other Christians in whom I perceive the tendencies of legalism. Christ has been so patient with me, yet I’ve not always been as patient with them. Instead, I’ve become so preoccupied with what I perceive to be their tendencies toward an imbalanced rigidity, a sectarian spirit, and an inordinate veneration of human tradition, that I’ve sometimes lost sight of God’s grace in their hearts and ministries. This too is a legalistic tendency.
May the Lord grant me to keep in view and never forget the great mercy He demonstrated to “Bob the Legalist” at conversion and has continued to show to “Bob the legalist” so that I might manifest the same charitable spirit toward my brothers and sisters who may still be struggling with legalistic tendencies (Matt 5:7; 7:2; 18:21-35; James 2:13).
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.