Legalism chart

I’ve been thinking about what it is to be legalistic recently.

The most basic meaning of legalism in Christianity is simply to have a wrong view of the gospel — to think that one is saved partially based on works. This is the kind of thing Paul has in mind in Galatians and Romans.

Another broader meaning of legalism is a certain kind of self-righteous attitude. This is the kind of thing Jesus objected to in the Pharisees.

In my experience, the second kind arises among Christians when we try too hard to control other people (or ourselves). We find it hard to trust the Holy Spirit to motivate them sufficiently, and so we try to motivate them by guilt and fear in some way.

Here is a chart I put together several years ago to show the difference.


  Self-indulgence Legalism Grace
Motivation 1. Motivation is based on feelings. 1. Motivation is created by outside pressure. 1. Motivation is grown from the inside by the Holy Spirit.
Spiritual disciplines 2. Spiritual disciplines are discontinued if “they just don’t work for me anymore”. 2. Spiritual disciplines are chosen and followed inflexibly. 2. The Holy Spirit leads us into or out of spiritual disciplines.
Spiritual maturity 3. Spiritual maturity is redefined as necessary to make me “mature”. 3. Spiritual maturity is gauged by outward measures. 3. Spiritual maturity is seen as primarily inward, but is expected to have visible effects.
Victory over sin 4. There is no real victory over sin.  Defeat is accepted and rationalized. 4. Victory is temporary and only in certain areas. 4. Victory is lasting and in the areas where we need it most.
Focus 5. The focus is personal fulfillment. 5. The focus is a particular pattern for Christian living. 5. The focus is trusting God.
Resolutions 6. Personal resolutions arise from fear. 6. Resolutions arise from frustration. 6. Resolutions arise from faith.
Experience 7. As a self-indulgent person tries to live the Christian life, he experiences growing frustration and isolation. 7. As a legalist tries to live the Christian life, he experiences growing frustration and isolation. 7. As a grace-centered Christian tries to live the Christian life, he experiences growing peace and compassion.
Word / Spirit 8. The Spirit seems more important than the Word. 8. The Word seems more important than the Spirit. 8. The Spirit and the Word work powerfully together.
Failure 9. Failure is frequently “dealt with” by denial. 9. Failure is dealt with harshly. 9. Failure is dealt with gently.
Source 10. Comes from trying to hide sin from oneself, from others, and from God. 10. Comes from attempting to conquer sin through sheer force of will. 10. Flows from a walk with God founded on repentance, trust and joy.


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