Confession of a Recovering Legalist


The guy seemed somewhat indignant. “There are no legalists in this room”, he insisted in response to an indirect, and unintentional, indictment made by another member of the presbytery.

Little did he know.

“Absolutely there are legalists in the room”, I thought outloud.

I cannot say with certainty that this man, who felt compelled to defend himself and all those like him, is indeed a legalist.  I suspect he is. There seems quite a bit of evidence that suggests he is.  But I don’t know what is in his heart – or the heart of any other man in that room.

What I do know is my own heart.  And even if no one else there in that room matched the description, at heart I am a legalist.

That would surprise many. In our presbytery, which is historically characterized as being very narrow and uptight, I am, I suspect, by comparison seen as being ‘looser’ and to the Left of center. (NOTE: It’s probably the only place I ever go where I am consisered Left of anything.)  I am the guy who frequently points out the emptiness of Fundamentalism and all the associated rules as compared to the greatness of the grace offered us in Christ.

But as Craig Cabaniss articulately points out:

Legalism, however, is not a matter of having more rigourous rules.  It’s far more lethal than that. It strikes at the very core of our relationship with God.

C.J. Mahaney explains:

Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God. In other words, a legalist is anyone who behaves as if they can earn God’s approval and forgiveness through personal performance.

Now I am not usually so foolish as to think I can or will gain God’s forgiveness or acceptance by my behavior.  I realize my only hope is in Christ. And I know that Jesus – and He alone – has already accomplished everything that is necessary to reconcile me to God.  (This is known as forensic justification.)

But I often get the feeling that God likes me better than those uptight legalists because I am not as uptight. And I like that feeling.  Furthermore,  I like to think I am more committed to  the advancement of Christ’s kingdom than they are.  I am not sidetracked by mind-numbing minutia, as some others seem to be.  In short, I like ‘knowing’ that I am ‘better’ than others because I am faithful -more or less – to a set of behavioral standards that others are not so visibly faithful to observe.

And that is what makes me a functional legalist.

A legalist is not defined by narrowness or the imposition of rules upon others.  It is the erroneous sense that I can earn God’s favor by  my behavior – by what I do and what I don’t do.  And for me it is favor and not forgiveness that I desire through my legalism.

Cabaniss points out:

Legalism is a heart condition that can easily affect… and color any activity.  Legalism can taint our Bible reading, praying, witnessing, eating, sleeping, lovemaking, working, recreating, joking, shopping – we can be legalistic about anything!

The solution is not lowering our standards.  It is necessarily raising our understanding of and response to the glorious grace of God.

6 thoughts on “Confession of a Recovering Legalist

  1. “But I often get the feeling that God likes me better than those uptight legalists because I am not as uptight. And I like that feeling. Furthermore, I like to think I am more committed to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom than they are. I am not sidetracked by mind-numbing minutia, as some others seem to be.”

    –Interesting insight, especially the paradox that is presently at work when we see others whom we know are not in line with the truth, but then begin to puff ourselves up upon the basis WE are not like THEM.

    It reminds me of the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee in Luke 18:9-14– perhaps this same paradox is present here too. The audience is told that the tax collector is justified by his humility, but how soon will it take for this humility to turn to pride in the actions and hearts of the audience? How soon before their initial acts of humility lead them to say “thank God, WE aren’t like those prideful Pharisees”. At this moment, enter: pride in their hearts.

    It often seems like a lose/lose situation- we go astray no matter what we do…especially when we think we are in the truth about a particular issue. For me, I often snub my nose at Fundamentalists/extreme conservatives with regard to doctrine and especially concerning the way in which church is done. I say that I am open and tolerant, but this itself becomes a source of pride and intolerance.

  2. Dennis,

    I think this is one of your best posts. I can readily identify and would have to say I am a recovering legalist too. I appreciate your insights.


  3. So true dude. It reminds me of the attitude many evangelicals take towards fundamentalists — “I’m better than you because I’m not so uptight :-)”

    But when we walk in grace, we no longer see ourselves as better than others.

  4. Love this post ! It reminds me that we are so loved by God that trying to earn His favor seems so werid. He already loved me and loves me and will love me.

    My responce to Him however seems appropriate to someone you love back. That is, our obedience to His commands, Praising Him in Worship with our whole hearts, and Loving others.

    So the issue for me as I think about what you said is to respond appropriately out of love not because we try to best someone or look good in others eyes (as that is what I think legalism is somewhat about, but no questions it’s about trying to earn Gods favor) but to Love God back.

    I agree with Eddie here…one of your best posts Dennis.

  5. Dennis I was thinking about this blog post after reading it and I couldn’t get this thought out of my mind. Was wondering what you may think. We shutter at legalism and don’t want to be associated with it or accused of being one.

    But I wonder, don’t we all tend toward legalism if not in action then in thought. Especially when we think others are wrong in their approach to the Gospel or in certain theology perspectives ?

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