True Confessions of a Recovering Legalist

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).

Hardcore Legalism

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.

Remaining Legalism

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).

Still Recovering

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).

Reposted, with permission, from It Is Written. Originally published at ChurchLeaders.com.

Bob Gonzales bio


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 ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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There are 7 Comments

Larry Nelson's picture

Great Article!  Thank you Aaron for publishing this.

G. N. Barkman's picture

"O that God the gift would gi' us, to see ourselves as others see us."   This article articulates a strong tendency within many of us, and deserves thoughtful evaluation.

G. N. Barkman

JBL's picture

Legalism is not just a problem for fundamentalists, but an issue for all practicing Christians.  Some of it may trace back to faulty soteriology, but for the better part of the current American evangelical scene today, the problem lies not with the teaching of a works based salvation, but what happens after one comes into the faith.  

My observation is that every denomination or church group has their list of how to be "super - spiritual."  So whether it is what you wear to church, how many nights a week you family has devotions, how many gay friends you have witnessed to, how many colored people are in your small group, what you give to missions, etc,. there is the list.  

The list will change whether you are in a MacArthur or Piper or Keller or Hyles or Hillsong church, but it's there.

The temptation for new Christians will be to bypass the process of growing in grace, and just perform the list without maturity.  The temptation for mature Christians, or those who have already made headway on the list, is to judge the maturation progress of newer Christians by their progress on the list.

Given this Pharisaical tendency, what the church has to guard against is segregating Christians into tiers strictly based on performance.  Many churches succumb to this Pharisaical type hierarchy, and end up promoting copycat spirituality instead of the real deal.  

John B. Lee

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I think we're often misindentifying the problem when we talk about legalism. That is, apart from the "hardcore legalism" Bob describes here, the term is often used of what is actually a spiritual reductionism problem: a tendency to want to simplify Christian living into a short list of behaviors we can check off, then declare ourselves "good enough" or "on the right track," etc.

This can take the form of compliance with simple (usually all external) rules as the measure of Christian genuineness.

It also take the form of rejection of any kind of social nonconforming or personal discipline as the measure of Christian genuineness.

These are both reductionism.

The first says "If you just do the right things and avoid the bad things, you're everything a Christian is supposed to be" (I'm omitting the question of "winning God's favor" here because I don't think this is usually the thought process.)

The second says "If you just avoid anything that looks like rules for life... and think about the gospel a whole lot... you're everything a Christian is supposed to be."

These are both wrong answers.

ScottS's picture

Legalism, as noted here, is indeed wrong.

Being a "legalist" (and overcoming it) often has to do with improper attitude, not the content of what some may end up deeming to be improper platitude. We are to speak truth in love (Eph 4:15). But getting that balance can be hard.

As Christians, we are to make judgment calls (after dealing with ourselves, Mt 7:5; after achieving some level of truly being "spiritual," 1 Cor 2:15-16). But when is that level? Submission is at least one step in that (Rom 12:1-2). But it is a building process (1 Pet 2:5). And finding balance is hard.

And having achieved some level to where the Bible would label us "spiritual," we are to help those going astray (Gal 6:1). And we are to "stir up love and good works" in others (Heb 10:24), and minister to edify toward a "unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God" (Eph 4:13, but Eph 4:11-16 for context). But there is always a careful balance of proper attitude (love) coupled with the needed biblical perspective (truth), even if it is deemed by many as a platitude. Finding that balance is hard.

Society changes, so what is "the world" changes; but not all that is "the world" is really immoral, yet things can be made immoral by their context. Partaking of unclean foods was immoral during the era of Mosaic Law (it was going against God's commands); partaking of unclean foods now is not. Human made laws that do not infringe on God's timeless morality become moral tests, since breaking those laws breaks one of those timeless moral laws to "obey those who rule over you" (Heb 13:17; God being the chief such ruler). But finding that balance of what is moral/immoral in society context is hard (Paul flexed with society as needed, 1 Cor 9:19-23, but that does not mean it was always easy).

Focusing on our attitude (why are we saying what we are saying, and how are we conveying our thoughts in a loving way) can diffuse a lot statements that might be deemed "legalist." Showing grace if our message is rejected. Self-examining that what we are saying is really promoting righteousness; and then focusing as well on the positives we all should be doing, more than (but not exclusive from) the negatives of what we ought to avoid. Most "things" and "activities" are amoral, but can become moral issues because of excess.

Balance is needed, but so hard to find in this sin-cursed world of ours. I pray we all can find the right balance to be effective ministers for God's glory.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Bert Perry's picture

....is that as I was growing up in a theologically liberal church (UMC), and having had a roommate who was still in one (ELCA), is that whenever you discard the essentials of the Gospel, you will get very strong adherence to a series of rules.  The rules are different in the UMC and ELCA from what they would be in "our circles", but they are emphatically there.

The danger I can see is that when those rules are not clearly Biblical, people catch on, and their response is often to discard not only the un-Biblical rules, but also the Biblical prescriptions for sanctification.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Ditches on both sides of the road, and humans seem to love heading for one ditch in our zeal to avoid another. 

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