We’ve all experienced times when our faith in the finished work of Jesus morphs into legalism. These are warning signs.
Growing up, Sunday mornings were dreadful. Most everyone wore suits. The preacher yelled especially when it seemed like he had nothing to say. And the same old guy prayed marathon prayers using a host of words with more syllables than his age. Since I was too young to understand churchy vernacular, I timed his prayers instead. Sorry, God. It helped pass the time.
Maybe it’s not fair, but years of Sunday sermons painted a God who was, at least in my mind, agitated, skeptical and shallow.
After graduation, I entered a new season, away from parents and Sunday suits. By this time, I was convinced I couldn’t earn God’s love. Besides that, I hadn’t been baptized, and in my fellowship, the road to heaven passes through a small pool of water.
So, I began my new season without God (thankfully he never left me).
Behind my earliest picture of God and my eventual (though temporary) divorce was legalism. I breathed its toxic fumes from a young age. Breathe in … Frank, if you don’t give your life to God, you’ll go to hell. Do you want that? Breathe out … God is an angry master. Breathe in … Frank, are you really going to a church outside of the Church of Christ? Do you know what they teach? Breathe out … I’m right, everyone else is wrong.
For years, legalism distorted my perspective and desire to follow Jesus.
What is legalism? In short, legalism is adding anything to the gospel. Legalism takes the words “Follow me” and adds stipulations, clauses and barriers. It’s a facade, and, over time, you believe its lies. The ultimate lie being the simplicity of the gospel isn’t good enough.
Legalism shifts the end goal from Jesus to something else. Legalism doesn’t care where you focus, anything but the risen Savior will do. And, it inevitably turns God into an agitated old man, skeptical about anything that breathes.
If you’re exhausted with legalism’s demands, you can break free. It won’t be easy or quick. I’m still fighting for freedom. But you can break the chains, and it starts with recognizing you’re enslaved.
Here are 8 signs you’re trapped in legalism.
1. You believe God loves you. But you don’t believe he LIKES you.
If you painted God’s face right now, what would it look like? Is he smiling? Is he frustrated? For most of my life, I pictured God with a Lee Trevino in Happy Gilmore face. It was a slow, disapproving, puzzled head shake.
Don’t get me wrong. I believed God loved me. But I didn’t believe he LIKED me.
And we all know loving someone and liking them are two different things. When you like someone, you enjoy their presence. You welcome their company. You ask them over to watch the Super Bowl or go to the movies. You take selfies with them.
And here’s what legalism knows but won’t tell you. As long as you don’t believe God likes you, you won’t draw near to Him. Legalism never allows you full access to God’s presence. At some point, the “I’m not good enough” or “God isn’t pleased with me” voices will speak to your heart, forcing you to retract.
If you’re a Christian, God doesn’t look at you with a Lee Trevino in Happy Gilmore face. God is pleased with you. And, unlike most of us, God isn’t fickle. When you suck at life, his disposition doesn’t change. You can [thank] Jesus for this. Way to go Jesus. No, seriously. Way to go.
You see, when God sees you, He sees Jesus. Check out Colossians 3:3.
“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
The cross says Gods favor is on you. God likes you! Rest. In. Him.
2. You have never been sure about your salvation.
“If you died tonight, where would you go (heaven or hell)?” If I heard this question once, I heard it … well &helllip; once. After the first time, I placed imaginary muffs over my ears. While I’m not denying the question has sincerely brought people to Jesus, it uses unhealthy fear as the entry point to Jesus. And that’s … unhealthy.
Don’t misunderstand me. You must fear God to experience life in God. But the question above isn’t about fearing God. It’s about fearing hell. This was my entry point to Jesus. And, for years, I thought more about not spending eternity in hell than spending eternity with God.
Years later, here’s what I realized. It’s entirely possible to run away from hell and not run to God.
Again, legalism doesn’t care where you focus as long as you don’t focus on Jesus. Focus on hell, go ahead. Yeah, God saves you from hell. But legalism knows you can’t focus on hell and sustain a relationship with God.
Here’s the irony.
I’m afraid if I asked many Christians where they would go tonight if they died, they might say heaven, but they wouldn’t be entirely sure. They might even tell you they’re sure, but if you asked their heart, you would receive a different answer.
I say this because, as a recovering legalist, I struggled with salvation for years. I thought (kinda, maybe) my salvation was secure. But, in the back of my mind, I wasn’t sure. In reality, my salvation was only as secure as the present day’s actions.
But slowly, Jesus changed my heart. Today, I’m learning to rest in what Jesus has done, not what I did.
Should you fear God? Absolutely. He’s infinitely powerful. But when you truly fear God, you don’t cower or run away. You draw near. As you draw near to God, terror turns to wonder, fear turns to love, shame turns to forgiveness and doubt turns to acceptance.
3. The world’s injustices aren’t important to you.
It’s not possible to draw near to God without developing a heart for injustice and oppression. Justice is central to God’s character.
Even the commands of God reveal something deeper about his heart for justice. Here’s what Jesus says.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and Pharisees. For you are careful to tithe … but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23).
It was never about following rules. It was always about something more. It was about justice, mercy and faithfulness.
But legalism says doing the right thing is the weightiest matter. Don’t curse. Come to church every Sunday. Don’t drink or smoke. And don’t have sex before marriage.
So, this is where legalists focus their energy. It’s behavior modification, and simply following commands doesn’t create Christ-followers. It creates Pharisees.
Where you have Christians apathetic about justice and oppression, unconcerned about widows, orphans, oppression and brokenness, you can be sure legalism has drowned out the voice of God. You can be sure following commands has become the weightiest matter. And you can be sure God, like Jesus, won’t allow it to go unchecked.
4. You compare your righteousness to other Christians.
Legalism rarely celebrates others’ successes. It says heaven is a fixed space, and only the best get in. Life’s a competition. Second place is the first loser.
With legalism, Jesus isn’t the standard. The standard is the Christian beside you. As long as your life looks better than Jim or Jill, you’re good.
Except you’re not.
When you make heaven a competition with other Christians, you secretly hope people fail. Rather than walking with people through struggles, you give yourself a silent fist pump. Instead of celebrating with people who accomplish great things, you silently hope they fall down.
Legalism pits you against your brother or sister. It makes righteousness a competition and heaven the prize. And it leads to an exhausting life, one where you ride an emotional roller coaster because you’re worth and acceptance are tied to other people.
5. You believe outsiders must behave before they belong.
This is a core requirement of legalism. There’s a particular standard, though relative and unwritten, outsiders must conform to before being accepted. Legalism says you worked hard to get to this point. You’ve been in the church game for a long time, and until others get on your level, they’re on the outside looking in.
If you don’t allow people in, whether it’s in your worship, your home or your life, you’re making a declaration over them Jesus never made. You’re declaring some sins are worse than others, and certain behaviors are too ugly or distasteful for God.
You’re also declaring yourself the standard for God’s acceptance. That’s not a weight you can bear. Eventually, it will crush you.
6. Your private life doesn’t match your public life.
Legalism loves an audience. To the world, you’re an amazing Christian. You know the words. The lingo comes second nature. But away from the crowds, you’re “slightly” less than amazing (and by “slightly” I mean you’re a different person).
This was me. In high school and college, I knew when to turn it on. When the world watched, I played the Christian game. I was the guy parents wanted their daughters to date.
Away from the crowds, however, I was different. The “lights off” Frank battled pornography, lust, envy and bitterness. He was self-centered and greedy. I knew God saw through my facade. But I was more concerned with putting on a show.
If this is you, understand a lesson I learned the hard way. Who you are in private will inevitably be revealed in public. Legalism won’t tell you this, but it’s true. What you do when the crowd leaves is who you are. And you can only put on makeup and costumes so long before life exposes what’s underneath.
If your private life doesn’t match your public life, it’s likely legalism has shifted your focus from God’s holiness to others’ acceptance. You won’t fool the world forever. And you’ll never fool God.
7. You believe in joy and peace, but you’ve never experienced them.
Legalism allows you to see God, but it never allows you to swim in the ocean of his grace, joy, and peace. Legalism doesn’t care if you worship God, read the Bible or pray. But it’s not cool with those things drawing you closer to God.
The church today is filled with men and women who are deeply spiritual, but incredibly distant from God.
I know this from experience. For several years after becoming a Christian, I read the Bible every day. Seriously, I didn’t miss a day. I also prayed every day. I had perfect church attendance. But I was light years from God.
If your spiritual activities aren’t bearing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, you’re likely on the road to spiritual legalism. When you’re in God’s presence, you WILL bear the Spirit’s fruit (Gal. 5:22).
If you’re a follower of Jesus, you should be increasing in joy. You should have increasing peace. This is the ONLY result of being in God’s presence. But, if legalism has enslaved you, increasing joy will be replaced by increasing skepticism towards people and hostility towards God.
Is your heart increasing in joy and peace or cynicism and unrest? Is your perspective on life optimistic? Does God appear more like a grumpy old man or a life-giving Father?
8. You only participate in Christian activities with other Christians.
Numerous times in his short ministry, Jesus was called a “friend of sinners.” But he wasn’t called this by everyone. Only religious Christians used this phrase. You see, it’s the ones who grew up in church, gathered years of information, but never allowed the information to pave a road to Jesus who are in danger of legalism.
And, consequently, in danger of missing Jesus.
Many Christians make separating from “sinners” their primary mission, and legalism allows you to justify it. Protecting your children from sinful people and activities makes sense. Legalism says if someone discovers you at the bar or hears you invited a prostitute over for dinner, you will be labeled. And God can’t work through a stained reputation. So separate from evil sinners. Protecting your reputation is a stewardship issue.
Don’t listen to the lies.
What message are Christians sending when they attend Christian schools, sign their kids up for Christian activities, and only have Christian friends?
Reaching the lost is difficult inside a bubble.
God knows you can’t live up to his standard. You sin every day. So do I. He doesn’t condemn you. He’s for you. Breaking free from the shackles of legalism takes time. But you must start somewhere. Embrace the simplicity of the gospel. Rest in the security of your salvation. Jesus has accomplished everything. It is finished.
Frank Powell is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside Church in Granite Bay, California. He is also a husband, father and Jesus follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee. You can find more of his content at Blog.Bayside.com.