Legalism is something we all lean toward in one way or another. Humanity has been plagued by this from the very beginning as we see in Job’s friends. Why is this? Well, we like to have everything under control. We don’t like risk. We don’t like it when things get uncomfortable. And showing grace, to ourselves and others, takes the ball out of our court. Rule, laws, and lists of requirements are so much easier than grace and freedom.
These characteristics of legalism that I am going to list here are not to mean that anyone who ever does any of these things is a legalist. Think of legalism as a sliding scale. Some of us practice legalistic tendencies here and there (I know I sure do). Some can find themselves practicing more of these on a regular basis and are more legalistic. Some can be full-blow legalists in all of these areas.
Here are the four characteristics of legalism (and I have more coming):
1. Legalists Condemn People for Minor Sins while their Lives are Filled with Bigger Sins
One time when I was at church, I was fellowshipping with a group of people. A guy came in and had a confused look on his face. We began to talk to him. As it turns out, he had never been in church before and was seeking some help. He began to tell us about his life and his current difficulties and he thought he might find answers in a church. The problem was that as he was telling us his tragic life story, he started letting out f-bombs left and right. People began to leave one by one. The last lady got up and verbally said, “I can’t take this anymore.” She left. It was only he and I left. He was confused. “Where did they all go? Did I do something?” He should have been confused. The Christians departed and left him. Why? Because he cursed. Whether or not cursing is objectively bad is not the issue. The issues is that some people abandoned their obligation for mercy, love, and evangelism because a guy cursed.
Jesus talked about this tendency many times:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
Legalists are able to ignore their own camel sized sins and complain about your speck sized sin. This is characteristic of a legalist. I ask you this: which is worse, the sin of offensive language or the sin of being without mercy and love?