How Can You Spot Legalism?

How Can You Spot Legalism?

Romans 14:4-6 – Who are you to pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.  

Oftentimes, people either view Christianity and religion through the lens of legalism or liberalism. Legalism is the older, pious brother in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) while liberalism is the younger, rebellious brother.

Liberalism happens when you put too many things that should be in the “closed hand” (doctrinal, key issues to be a Christian) into the “open hand” (issues that Christians can disagree on and still believe in Jesus). Conversely, legalism happens when you put too many things that should be in the “open hand” into the “closed hand”, thereby dividing over them. Liberalism is the Bible with the subtraction of things we wish weren’t in it. Legalism is the Bible with the addition of things we wish were in it.

Many Christians tend towards legalism, especially new believers, so I thought it may be helpful to put together a list of how to know when legalism is taking place.

  1. You put religious rules over relationships. In this case, you put the relationship at the finish line and only after a person does everything by your rules, you can be friends with them.
  2. You focus on winning arguments over winning people. This is doubly true in the age of social media.
  3. Your preferences become your prejudices. We all have a certain way of liking or doing things, but we can’t let those become a measuring rod to judge others by.
  4. You confuse unity and uniformity. To have unity, we don’t need to all do things the same way. We need to ask the Holy Spirit what He would have for us, and our family specifically, not conform to peer pressure and fear of man.
  5. You don’t differentiate between God’s principles and your methods. The Bible has principles that are unchanging and singular, but our methods are changing and plural. Different cultures and denominations do principles differently in method.
  6. You bind others by your conscience. You may be weak in an area where you need to impose some boundaries in your life, but that doesn’t mean imposing it on someone else. Your conscience is for you and their conscience is for them.
  7. You ignore the spirit of the law but keep the letter of the law. If we stick to the letter of the law, and miss the point, we can actually do the very opposite of what the Bible intended. For example, the point of a “holy kiss” in the Bible was a warm, affectionate greeting but that doesn’t mean we actually kiss people at church in today’s time and instead use a handshake, fist bump, or appropriate hug.
  8. You replace Jesus’ righteous works for your works righteousness. Because we want to be good and right with God, we often want to know what we need to do to be a good person. The reality is, we can’t be good or righteous apart from Jesus and all our social justice and religious works may just be more pride, which is among the worst sins of all.
  9. You want to replace the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit controls and convicts people, so we don’t need to control and judge them. This is one of the most important parenting lessons, because even though we won’t always be there with our children, the Holy Spirit will.
  10. Your convictions become a prison instead of a home. The difference between a prison and a home is you never get to leave prison. You should be able to go hang out with Christians from other churches and denominations, love them, and learn from them.

Where do you see yourself tend towards legalism? Ask God to help you give this to Him and realize that people can disagree in “open handed” areas and still love Jesus.

To find the free Romans 12-16 digital study guide for individuals and small groups, hear Pastor Mark’s entire sermon series on Romans, or find a free mountain of Bible teaching visit or download the Real Faith app.

Mark Driscoll
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