Let me tell you something about legalism: it’s a miserable sin.
There are certain sins that I call “happy sins”, because even though they’re wrong, they at least give you some form of pleasure. But legalism isn’t a happy sin. It sucks the life out of you, drains your joy, and makes your relationship with God an absolute nightmare. And more than anything else, it’s displeasing to God.
What is legalism? A simple definition is:
Legalism is any attempt to gain acceptance or forgiveness from God through you own works or merits.
It’s not something to be taken lightly. Legalism says that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t quite enough, and that I need to tack on a few of my good works to ensure my right standing with God. God hates legalism because it belittles his great work of salvation.
But how do you know if you’re a legalist? As one who is quite experienced in the area of legalism, let me sketch out the well known symptoms of legalism.
You Lack Joy
It’s impossible to be legalistic and joyful at the same time. Joy comes from knowing that your sins are forgiven, misery comes from trying to earn forgiveness from God. Legalists don’t smile, they just grimace.
You Feel Like God Is Always Unhappy With You
You know that technically, God accepts you because of Jesus’ death for you. But just because God accepts you doesn’t mean he has to be happy with you. You feel like you got into God’s kingdom through a technicality or loophole, and now he just tolerates you, like some sort of divine probation officer.
You Feel Like You’re Never Doing Enough
You always have this vague, nagging guilt that comes from feeling like you’re not doing enough for God. You’re not evangelizing or praying or reading your Bible enough. You should be fasting more and serving more. Remember that time you were able to rest in God’s presence? Oh wait, that never happened because you can’t rest, you need to do more.
You Add Good Works to Your Repentance
When you sin you repent. But you still feel guilty so you repent again, this time with more feeling. But you wonder if you really felt sorry enough, so you repent again and vow to read your Bible for an extra hour that night. You try to use your good works like a salve for your guilty conscience.
You’re Hard On Others
Criticism is the native language of the legalist. You aren’t aware of God’s grace toward you and you don’t give much grace to others. You’re like a shark who can smell the slightest drop of sin and the water. When you see someone thrashing and struggling with sin, the criticism frenzy begins.
It’s time for a checkup. Do you see any of these symptoms in your life? If so, you might be a legalist? What’s the remedy? More on that later.
What are some other symptoms of legalism?
NOTE: I have learned so much about overcoming legalism from C.J. Mahaney. His message “Enjoying Grace and Detecting the Legalist Within” is incredibly helpful. You can download it here.
photo by ~Duncan~
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