Weighing in on Legalism

The problem with legalists is that not enough people have confronted them and told them to get lost. Those are strong words, but I don’t mess with legalism anymore. I used to kowtow to legalists, but they’re dangerous. They are grace-killers. They’ll drive off every new Christian you bring to church. They are enemies of the faith.  ~ Chuck Swindoll

I’ve been on a diet for a while now. I don’t mean a messing around, hit and miss kind of diet. I’m mean an old-fashioned, calorie counting, keeping record of everything I eat kind of diet.

I found a good free on-line program that does all the calculations for me.* I’ve had a good bit of success. I’ve done it by being completely legalistic. Except for vacation, when I had no intention of dieting, I’ve never exceeded the recommended caloric intake (and it’s pretty low). Not once since April 1st. I have 5 pounds left to lose to meet my goal.

For many, many years I was the same way with my faith. I tried to pray enough, share enough, memorize Scripture enough to meet my goal of being A Practically Perfect Christian. I kept track of sin, mine and sometimes others, weighing the significance of each action on my own made up sin scale.

Being legalistic in my eating helped me reach a goal. So did spiritual legalism. The problem was the goal. It wasn’t the Westminster Shorter Catechism goal: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. It was the Army goal: Be All You Can Be. I was out to continually improve myself (and others).

One hard legalistic lesson learned is that success in all of life lies in the heart not in a discipline. I knew how to lose weight. It’s not complicated. Use more calories than you eat. I was legalistic because I was afraid to give myself any leeway. What if 30 extra calories today led to 50 tomorrow? I was afraid to trust myself.

It’s much the same with spiritual legalism. Legalism isn’t just being careful, it’s being lazy. I was afraid to not know the answer about everything for everyone. So instead of depending on the Holy Spirit, I chose the path labeled: Show No Mercy. Swindoll’s words are a timely reminder  I used to kowtow to legalists, but they’re dangerous. They are grace-killers.

*If you’re interested in the diet I’ve written about it in The Dreaded D Word on my other blog.

Author: Debbie

A former counselor and public speaker, I'm grateful for many, many things - God's grace most of all!

40 thoughts on “Weighing in on Legalism”

  1. Hi Debbie:

    I’m in the middle of a book you might enjoy, “The Discipline of Grace” by Jerry Bridges. It deals with the need for both ‘discipline’ and ‘dependence’ with grace: how there is too often a discrepancy between Biblical head-knowledge and heart-knowledge. I’m finding it a very convicting read on this subject. Blessings to you!

    1. Hello Kent!
      I’ll have to look for the book – thank you for the recommendation.
      I’ve just finished a couple of books you may have already read as they’ve been out for quite a while:
      Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller and
      Dangerous Wonder by Michael Yaconelli
      Both have challenged my thinking about grace. 😀
      Thanks for your encouragement and comments!

      1. Loved ‘Blue Like Jazz’. I’ve enjoyed a couple different books so far from Mr. Miller. I’ll have to look for the Yaconelli book. Thank you, Debbie.

  2. someone from church overheard me telling my mother that my girlfriend and i went to the theater to see “the rise of the dark knight”(i’m a batman fanatic)..an acquaintance from church(a devout legalist) asked, isn’t that movie rated R? I knew I was in for an argument regardless of what I said,so I replied,”yeh,and it was a good one too!!” she didn’t say anything.

    1. hello wvmmrh –
      That’s a sad but perfect example of legalism is a grace-killer.
      We’re so replete with opinions about how other people should conduct themselves, aren’t we?

  3. I would like to add that legalism is not just what that church down the road is teaching simply because they have some strange rules to follow. Legalism is any attempt to live up to an external standard of behavior in the belief that this is what makes you more spiritual. And we hear that teaching all the time in most churches. For example, “You should do the right thing whether you feel like it or not” and all other forms of self-effort that relies on willpower to live up to the principles we see in the Bible. And asking the Holy spirit to bless our self-effort does not make it any more Christian. Righteousness is a characteristic of the heart, not an outward action we do in spite of where our heart is. Truth be told, very few of our churches know how to help people engage with God in ways that actually changes their heart. Most teaching is bout external obedience. That’s legalism.

    1. David – Thank you! What an excellent description of legalism. I so appreciate you coming back and adding this because it adds a lot.

      Your comment makes me think of I Samuel 16:7:
      But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

      You’re so very right – it’s all about our hearts!

  4. Hey Deb! I love this quote from your hand “Being legalistic in my eating helped me reach a goal. So did spiritual legalism. The problem was the goal. It wasn’t the Westminster Shorter Catechism goal: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. It was the Army goal: Be All You Can Be. I was out to continually improve myself (and others).” The truth I have learned is, I can never be all I can be in my own striving. Often by sitting down and waiting for His grace to act in my life or in others the greater achievement is discovered, uncovered, and received.

    1. dear Pastor J –
      Yes my friend – so true (of course your line of thinking would cause devastating fiscal peril to the self-help sections at Barnes and Noble and Borders)! 😉

  5. I didn’t even know what legalism was but my perfectionist, controlling person entered it so easily. I was hearing a message today that talked about being “reborn” everyday….for this very reason – I agree! Wonderful words Debbie!

    1. Hello Judi!
      Me either, until I was knee deep into it…
      Your comment reminds me of a C.S. Lewis quote (no surprise) 🙂
      “Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done.” – C. S. Lewis

  6. Always enjoy your analogies. I know you’re point wasn’t about losing weight, but congratulations. I did that same type of diet on my own a few years ago. I reached my goal weight by the end of the year and went off my diet for the New Year. Unlike I’ll be doing this year. I think I’ll be starting a calorie counting diet as my new year’s resolution. Thanks for sharing the info on that site.

    1. Hello dear Lori –
      I really wrote the post on Fork as a reference point for this post.
      All the time I’ve been dieting, I’ve thought about how insanely legalistic I’m being (I didn’t even go over my calorie limit on Thanksgiving). 😉
      It’s served me well as a red flag – every day I make choices about food – but every moment I make choices about grace.
      Will I receive it? Will I extend it?
      What are the consequences of spiritual legalism?
      It seems to be the OK sin aujourd’hui.

  7. Legalism is the death of grace. We really need to hear that. But legalism has such appeal, because it’s so much easier; as you say, it’s the lazy way out.
    I loved your analogy of dieting. it works very well. Well done. Thanks Debbie.

    1. Hello Ian!
      Legalism, even in dieting presents some danger. If I count calories, like counting sin, without making any heart changes, I’ll end up back where I started or likely, in a worse place yet.
      Withholding grace, from ourselves and from others has that same negative effect and must surely grieve the heart of the One who died to give it to us.
      As always, thank you for reading and sharing your reaction to my thoughts.
      I’m always interested in your heart.

  8. For many years I thought I was a bad person as legalism and I didn’t get along very well. I couldn’t understand how God was supposed to throughly know and love each and everyone of us but if we made mistakes he would send us to hell. If you didn’t follow the bible and its rules right to the tee, there is no grace. I was terribly frightened of God as a child. As I grew older and moved away, I then realized that if everybody who made mistakes or did not follow the rules of the church went to hell, there would not be anyone in heaven. Our world is in a very sad place right now. Not due to the lack of legalism but because of the lack of grace toward one another. The only answer is more grace and less legalism and a whole lot of prayers. Hopefully this makes sense. Just finishing my 12 hour shift of my secret job. lol Great post Debbie.

    1. Jill –
      “…more grace, less legalism and a whole lot of prayers” – Amen!
      You always make sense, even if you are a sleep deprived TSA! 😉
      I’m so sorry that the picture you were given of God when you were young was such a frightening one.
      What a grand journey you’ve undertaken since you’re one of the most gracious people I know!
      My experience was just the opposite. I loved God with fearless abandon when I was young and grew into legalism.
      That doesn’t speak well for my choices but I will say that grace is as precious to my heart now as water is to a parched throat.

    1. Hey there, Wendy!
      You know, I hadn’t thought about Swindoll for years although I used to listen to him on the radio all the time and had a shelf full of his books.
      One of the things I appreciated about his preaching was that he was willing to be weak. That takes strength, doesn’t it?

    1. hello, my friend –
      What a terribly sad combination of traits. I can’t begin to imagine the struggles that must have caused you.
      I’m so thankful that you’re blessed with a sweet husband who has loved you enough to make grace make sense!

    1. Hi Katharine!
      AND – to add to your thoughts, one of my favorite non-famous quotes: “I have a Holy Spirit and you’re not it!” 😀
      Paul puts it another way in Romans 5:20,21:
      “All that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers. But sin didn’t, and doesn’t, have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace. When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down. All sin can do is threaten us with death, and that’s the end of it. Grace, because God is putting everything together again through the Messiah, invites us into life—a life that goes on and on and on, world without end.”

  9. Thank you for confirming the ache in my heart, Debbie. I despair that so many believers are passing up the joy and freedom of Jesus’ Grace. Hope you are feeling better–tummy troubles–I’m praying for you daily. God bless you–love, sis Caddo

      1. Yes, we can’t afford any joy-killers–there’s only one of me, and it’s a full time job, trying to spread JOY as thick as I like it!

    1. Hi Clare –
      While I think we all have less personal insight than we’d like to believe, I would answer your question with Yes, I’m legalistic about some things (for example, the diet which I referred to and linked to) but I don’t think I’m especially spiritually legalistic anymore (no doubt there are some areas of legalism in my heart that I’m unaware of).
      I agree with Swindoll when he says that legalists are driving Christians away from the church (I would add increasingly) and in that sense, are “enemies of the faith”. I wouldn’t have stated it quite that strongly but I think his point is valid.
      Legalism is in direct opposition to grace and I think, just like me with my diet, it’s chosen out of fear, evidencing both a lack of discernment and a lack mercy.

  10. Thank you, gracious one, for helping us on this grace journey .. .for showing us the dangers of legalism. Praying for Him to keep me from slipping into what will only hurt and not encourage someone in Christ. God bless you! love and prayers!

    1. Deb –
      I’m joining you in that prayer – for both of us!
      I used to think legalism was just sad.
      I’ve come to agree with Swindoll – legalists are more than just well-meaning folk who’ve crossed a line – they’re truly grace-killers (speaking as a reformed, praying not to slide back into it legalistic).

    1. Hello David!
      Thank you for being here and for leaving a comment. 😀
      Please cross reference anything anytime you wish.
      Thanks so much for your kind words.

  11. When I saw the title I thought, “this girl has courage. I like that!” And a wonderful quote by an old favorite of mine, Swindoll. His words, as are yours, ring true with me. A slippery slope I still find myself leaning towards at times. Thankful for the reminders of grace and how I need it everyday.

    1. Debby –
      A slippery slope is a great way to describe legalism. I think intentions are often, at least initially, good. But good intentions aren’t what it takes lead us into His arms or open our arms to others.
      I was pleasantly surprised to find this Swindoll quote! I used to listen to him a lot and have read many of his books.
      The one Sunday I was able to go to his church, he wasn’t preaching – but he did sing a duet with his sister! 😉

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