It’s not easy to identify legalism among professing Christians. Here’s why.
First, people do not label themselves as legalists. Nobody says, “I try to be as legalistic as possible.” No church is called First Legalistic Church or The Legalistic Church at Porter Creek. This means that most legalistic people are unaware of their legalism.
Second, legalistic tendencies come in degrees. Few self-identified evangelicals are pure legalists. That would be self-contradictory—to be evangelical means to believe in, receive, and celebrate God’s grace. Thus, among evangelicals, legalism is typically more subtle and mixed with notions of grace, which makes it more difficult to discern.
Third, legalism is not typically well-defined, which creates confusion. The theological definition involves the tendency to import effort and works into our understanding of justification. But most folks don’t think of legalism that way. On the street, the word “legalist” usually refers to a person who places an annoying emphasis on rules and attempts to impose those rules on others. These rules are often focused on lower-level issues like clothing styles, hairstyles, acceptable jewelry, tattoos, card playing, dancing, alcohol use, movie watching, using salty language, and things like this.
Here I’m focusing on a theological definition of the term: a legalist is someone who believes that a person must improve in some way in order for God to be willing to justify him by grace.
Fourth, sometimes Christians appear to be legalistic when they are actually striving for holiness as part of their sanctification. Such people are simply attempting to obey God’s commands as a grace-filled believer. For example, a Christian might avoid using profane language in an attempt to obey this command: “Set the believers an example in speech” (1 Timothy 4:12). Others, who feel they have freedom in Christ to use salty language, may think of this person as a legalist. But this is not legalism. This is a justified believer who is striving to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15; Romans 6:1).
With these important clarifications in mind, here are a few signs that you might be a covert legalist.
1. You don’t believe that serial killers can be saved.
The notorious murderer Jeffrey Dahmer made what appears to be a credible profession of faith in Christ while he was in prison. Is he in heaven? Can a person who commits the worst conceivable acts ever be redeemed?
A legalistic mindset says no, or probably not. Legalism states that a person must improve before God would allow her to enjoy eternal life. She may not have to earn all of her salvation, but she must earn some of it. Therefore, to a legalist, Dahmer’s moral account was far too tarnished for him ever to be admitted into heaven.
But when Jesus was on the cross, the man dying next to him was in a similar situation as Dahmer. He was likely a terrible criminal (probably a murderer) since crucifixion was reserved for the worst offenders, yet when he professed faith in Jesus, the Lord said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This man wasn’t in a position to improve morally. He had no means of making restitution for his crimes or for cleaning up his reputation. All he had was faith, and he was justified exclusively by grace.
God’s full justifying grace has a scandalous feel to it because it’s powerful enough to save even the worst kinds of people. The inability to accept this reality betrays a legalistic mindset.
2. You’d rather unsavory people not attend your church.
Many Christians love their churches and don’t want “sinners” (like drug addicts or those struggling with sexual sins) coming in and ruining things. They think, “If those people clean up their lives first, then we will welcome them into our group.” But that way of thinking is based on the idea that a person must improve morally in order for God to justify them.
Shouldn’t we want lost sinners attending our churches regardless of their current moral standing? Shouldn’t they be where they can hear the gospel? I’m not suggesting we allow people to join the church who are not believers or who live in open sin. But to shun them altogether is to express a legalistic mindset that demands they improve themselves before they are qualified to be justified.
3. When you sin, you feel like you need to be re-saved.
This one is more personal. The one who has a legalistic mindset tends to feel that his salvation is shaky. When he sins, he may even feel that he has lost his redeemed status. He thinks of his standing before God as being based on his own moral account, his good works versus his bad works. So long as the good outweighs the bad, he feels justified before God, but when the bad outweighs the good, he loses his assurance.
This can be extremely subtle. A genuine Christian who fully believes in God’s justifying grace can slip into this mindset quickly without even knowing it. When we sin, it often blinds us to grace and reverts our thinking back to the notion that we must earn favor with God.
Christians must rest in their justification. A true Christian might sin, but he can never be lost because he doesn’t justify himself. God has already justified him. He is saved by the work of Christ, not his own moral efforts.
The feeling of a need to be re-saved (or to make up for sin with good deeds) occurs within those who believe they must save themselves. However, Christians depend not on themselves, but on the perfect obedience of Christ, who died in their place and paid the price for their sin.
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight…For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:20, 23–25a)
Every Christian is in danger of slipping into legalistic ways of thinking. We must avoid it by remembering the distinctions between justification and sanctification. When we do, we can enjoy the scandalous and freeing grace of Christ which assures us of eternal life (justification). At the same time, we fight against sin as adopted children of God with the help of the Holy Spirit (sanctification).