Students in a class I teach deal with that discussion question. I always look forward to their answers. Nearly all of these students are pretty seasoned in their faith, so the overwhelmingly most popular answer is grace-based living. After all, that’s the “correct” one, right?
Nobody ever gets misty-eyed in church singing, “Amazing Law, how sweet the sound…
There are, of course, some brave souls who cop to law-based living. Some do it as an aw-shucks-pray-for-me kind of confession. Some try to reframe the question. “I prefer to think of it as obedience,” one student said recently. I like that.
Others crawfish a little more and ask questions like, “Now what do you mean by that?”
See, nobody wants to admit they’re a legalist. Legalists are the people Jesus reamed out repeatedly. Legalists are mean-spirited, proud isolationists. They’re judgmental, hypocritical, inflexible, unaccepting bigots. They’d leave their own mother standing in the rain or let your cat starve to death to avoid violating one of the rules.
But wait a minute. Doesn’t the Bible also speak a lot about keeping God’s commandments? Try the whole book of 1 John, for crying out loud. Jesus Himself said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” And He said it more than once in a variety of ways. If that’s not mixing a little law in there, what is it?
And for people who are right-handed and left-brained (I hear there are a lot of them), isn’t it OK to add a little structure to your obedience? A few clearly-defined steps or methods? (Don’t we have a whole denomination or two built around methods?)
But legalists? Noooooo. Nevah.
But the fact is, legalists do exist, and they’re among us. And you could be one. But since the first sign of a legalist is that they’re blind to that beam in their eye, I made up a little test to help you detect whether you are one. It’s deliciously unscientific. Take it if you dare.
1. Do you tithe down to the last penny?
Legalism is calculated Christianity. It measures everything. The Pharisees even paid tithes on the herbs they grew (Matthew 23:23). The problem isn’t with tithing; it’s with assuming that once the tithe is paid, the rest belongs to us. Or that we neglect justice and mercy – the “weightier matters” Jesus spoke of.
2. Do you keep records, mental or otherwise, of your service to God?
Remember what the older brother said in the story of the Prodigal Son? He’d kept a record of years served, goats killed in his honor, and probably a list of deeds done. Legalists do that. Sort of like keeping a religious resume.
3. Is it important to you that other people know how much you do for the church or the Kingdom?
Obedience and service is important. But the pride that drives legalism wants to be seen and noticed (Matthew 6:1-17). Here’s an easy way to tell: Do you get your feelings hurt when someone doesn’t notice what you have done for the church or for God?
4. Do you apply the convicting preaching or teaching you hear to someone else?
Legalists think things like, “I hope they heard that,” or, “Too bad he isn’t here to hear that.” After all, when you’re self-righteous, conviction doesn’t apply to you.
5. Do you find yourself comparing your spiritual life with that of others?
Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14)? Legalists measure worth by performance. So they keep score somehow. Their heroes are the high-octane doers in Church World who are always doing great deeds for God. Their pride gets fed by comparing themselves to the sinners and scoundrels – and they are good at finding them.
6. Are you disappointed, critical, or “concerned” about people who don’t have the same disciplines or convictions that you do?
Like it or not, the Bible doesn’t prescribe specifics in some areas. It gives you freedom to apply principles and convictions that serve your spiritual growth, but that may not be what someone else chooses. Just don’t tell the legalist. If he’s not supposed to drink alcohol, you aren’t either. If he follows the liturgical calendar, you should, too.
7. Can you “discern” the quality of a person’s spiritual life by the way they act?
It’s one thing to be on your guard about false teachers (Matthew 7:16). It’s another to presume to know the motives or contents of a person’s heart. The word for that is judging.
8. Do you often get into arguments or “deep discussions” about the Bible?
A legalist will not let what they perceive to be an error pass them by. They simply have to address it. Classic example: Miracles are flying everywhere, and the Pharisees are lost in the horror that Jesus did his miracle working on the Sabbath. He violated the rules, and that’s what they wanted to argue about. Seriously? With the Guy with the power to heal a gnarled hand?
9. Do you have a hard time unconditionally forgiving the failures of others, or of understanding God’s unconditional forgiveness of them?
Legalists love the idea of penance – doing something to earn forgiveness. And everybody knows that three strikes and you’re out, right? It’s right there in the legalists’ bible. But it isn’t in the real Bible. Forgiveness isn’t earned; otherwise it wouldn’t be forgiveness.
10. Do you use the Bible to determine what God can and can’t do?
Careful here. God gave us His word to reveal His heart and plan – to speak to us today. He didn’t do it so you could put Him in a convenient little box. Because He is a God of truth He would never violate His word. But He’ll gladly violate your interpretation of it. Just ask Peter. Or Paul. Or John. Or whoever wrote Hebrews. But legalists won’t blush at saying things like, “God would never…” Or “God doesn’t _________ anymore, even though He did it in the Bible.”
Again, this isn’t scientific. Just look for patterns. And if you find yourself with that uncomfortable feeling that you just may be a legalist, spend some time reading and studying Philippians 3. Good help there from a recovering legalist.
Oh… and don’t get too nosey about how I might know all this stuff. I might have to judge you or something.
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