The Legalistic Mind

These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men. - Matthew 15: 8-9

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them."They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. - Matthew 23: 1-4

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!"- Matthew 23: 23-24


It was the sin of the Pharisees and is still the way most major religions, including Judaism, Islam and Christianity live out their faith. Though Jesus fought against it and Paul rebuked the early church for it, (see Galatians) modern Christianity has incorporated legalism into today's church. Those who practice it, deny it is wrong, don't think they are legalistic and make excuses for it. And the reason it is allowed to continue is because many pastors and ministers and priests live out their faith in exactly the same manner; the way they learned it from others.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definition of:


1: strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code <the institutionalized legalism that restricts free choice>
2 : a legal term or rule

Wordnet - A lexical database for the English Language - (Princeton University Cognitive Science Laboratory)

definition of:

(n) legalism (strict conformity to the letter of the law rather than its spirit)

Legalism is a very natural way of living...if you are a human being living in any organized societal structure. We have rules, regulations, boundaries and limits for everything in our lives. We can't say certain things, we can't do certain things, we can't believe certain things...rules...rules...rules. Rules at home, rules at school, rules at the office, rules for EVERYTHING.

We have been taught how to be legalistic from childhood and have learned that this is how the world runs today. Without rules there is chaos. Laws are made to try to get people to do the right thing or prevent them from going too far.

All of our lives we have lived the reward/punishment system. As children, if we were good, we got a treat, if we were bad, we got spanked. If we studied our homework, we got an A, if we didn't, we got an F. And as we got older the system remained the same. The government says, if we obey the law, we enjoy freedom, if we break the law...we go to jail. And even ministers have told us, if we are good we will go to heaven, if we are bad...we will go to hell. The ultimate failure.

Everything about our existence revolves around this reward/punishment system. Everything costs something. Nothing is free. In America, we have laws and rules just to make sure people respect each other, because they won't do it on their own. It has been shown that if you don't make a law...people will do whatever it is...whether it hurts someone or not. And in order to get people to obey these laws, we have to punish them if they disobey. This is how we all understand life to on earth.

But the way the world works, and how God works are two different things.

And so it seems also in the Old Testament of God as evidenced by the famous stories of Noah and the Flood or Sodom and Gomorrah. Laws were broken, people didn't obey, so they were punished. This is the basis for how we view God and the Bible. "If I don't obey God and follow the Bible, I will be punished". Our inner immature child is scared to death of the unreasonable God parent figure.

And one reason legalism is so prevalent in religions is, as faithful people, we all want to follow God completely and to the best of our ability... just as the Pharisees. So as Christians reading the Bible, we take the Word of God very seriously, but that also means when we study His Scripture, we have to follow what it says. Partly because we want to follow the intentions of God as He has commanded, but also because we are afraid of Him. So we follow the rules, hoping that will appease Him.

There are some direct commands and rules in the Bible for us to follow, but unfortunately, each Scripture can be interpreted in different ways, depending on how you look at the verses, who is saying what to whom, what the context of the verses are and who is interpreting them. But therein lies the difficulties. Some people insist that one verse has to be followed exactly, while others believe, some Scripture only applied to those people at that time in the Bible. Interpreting Scripture can be very tricky and very ambiguous. And even Jesus fought with the Pharisees and scribes about their misinterpretation and misuse of the Scripture and their intentions:Matthew 12: 1-13, Matthew 15:1-9, Luke 13:10-17

Many legalistic churches cannot accept gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender Christians because they see a conflict between our sexuality and Scripture, so they conclude that we cannot be saved. They dismiss our faith in Christ and say we are fooling ourselves and are destined for hell. They hold onto a few Bible verses, showing us how we are in sin (the Pharisees tried to do that with the Adulteress but Jesus did not let them), and they actually believe that these verses negate the power of the saving grace of the blood of Jesus Christ. They really don't believe John 3:16 can apply to us.

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.- Matthew 23:13

Legalistic churches insist that God can only be followed one way and one way only...according to how THEY interpret that one way to be. And many of their members are not so schooled in Scripture, so instead of listening to God, their members have to listen to them. Legalistic churches want their members to do everything their way, so they stop any conversation that might contradict them. And what better way to get them to stop inquiring, but by telling them that any other voices are those of Satan or that God will punish them if they disagree with their doctrine. "I didn't say it...God said it." Very clever!

And as Christians themselves, legalistic ministers bring their own fear of God to their congregations. So we have a whole church of fearful Christians who scramble to try to clean up themselves and each other before God zaps them. That is why you get so many threatening, scolding, fear-striken Christians...because this is how they feel. They are terrified of God.

And that is how many Christians live out their lives...following the rules so they will get on God's good side, because they are afraid of Him. We think God is a strict disciplinarian who rewards those who obey Him and punishes those who disobey. And though most Christians believe that we are indeed saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ, many also believe that you can lose your salvation, if you are not living there we go again...salvation by works. If you're good you go to heaven...if you're go to hell.

And what are the rules? In the Old Testament, the Jewish people had a whole set of laws and rules for everything and every occasion, that took over their lives. Most of those Jewish Laws have been discarded in Christianity, but Christians have created a whole new set of different rules. And yes, the church does not call them "laws" because the church does understand that salvation comes from Jesus Christ. Yet, when the church says, stay away from sinful activities, don't associate with sinful people, go to church every Sunday, dress this way, boycott this company, vote for this politician, support this government amendment, believe as we has created a whole new set of rules that...though they say are not required for salvation...most people have come to believe that following these rules are a sign of a faithful Christian. And when a person fails to do these things, they are certain they have backslidden and God is frowning on them, withholding His blessings or even punishing them. They can't help but believe that they have lost their salvation.

So Christians do indeed have a different set of rules. It is like a checklist...

"I go to church every Sunday...CHECK…I don’t murder…CHECK…I tithe every Sunday...CHECK.... I say grace before each meal ...CHECK...I follow the Ten Commandments...CHECK. I MUST BE RIGHT WITH GOD."

Well, not necessarily.

We believe that our behavior is our only gauge to check if we are following God correctly. We examine our actions, compare ourselves to others, (which is not necessarily a good thing), evaluate the ratio between our good and bad behavior and hope the good outweighs the bad, as if God was Santa Claus. "He knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake." Because if you're bad, you won't get God's present...Eternal Life. We think God is immature like this and good behavior is the only way we will get through to Him. But it is not.

People look at the God of the Old Testament and see His wrath and anger to those who disobeyed Him and have heard His thunderous voice when they read of Him and His frustrations with the Israelites and do tremble at His feet as well. But this has made it harder to see a God who has compassion or understanding. The image of an unforgiving God will not go away.

Many people know no other way to live out their faith but by being good for goodness sake, because of this view of a strict God. We have fooled ourselves into thinking that we are pleasing Him by merely being "good" when in fact, we are still as children unable to grasp faith, grace and the Spirit of God, trusting that our good living has ensured that we will have a reservation in Heaven.

We live uprightly to appease an unsmiling, distant God, like feeding coins into a parking meter before the time is expired.

The reason pastors and ministers like legalism is because it is easy to understand, easy to follow, there are no ambiguous questions or discussion (A SIN IS A SIN!), it is easy to control people and easy to see the results. And besides the "Golden Rule", pastors have thrown in all manner of activities: No fowl language, no substance abuse, no sex, no R-rated movies, etc. It is their attempt to make people more spiritual, adding to the collection of things that Christians have to do to prove that they are saved.

By looking at behavior, people think they can figure out who is good and bad, but ANYONE can hide behind legalism. It is easy to smile, be nice, avoid and condemn some people, and protest about immorality, but it is difficult to find evidence of someone who is greedy, self-centered, envious or judgmental, because these things are hidden in the heart. Being religious is easy. Being real is hard.

"...for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” -1 Samuel 16:7

Christians learn that if they show an outward appearance, no one will suspect what is inside. Being legalistic is an easy way to make sure that you're covered. But legalism leads to an empty heart that is only trying to save its own neck. Legalistic minds need to have black and white rules, because it is unable to navigate through grey areas. "Tell me what to do so I can do it." But the problem with true spirituality is, it is not something that is so easily accomplished.

Let's face it, the reason so many Christians want to know exactly what the rules are is so they can figure out how far they can go without breaking them. So though the church may say, "NO SEX", the legalistic mind might say, "Making out is NOT sex".
"Criticizing is NOT judging". "War is NOT killing".

Laws and rules make it easier to cheat.

But there are also the legalists on the OTHER SIDE who say, "Making out IS sex. "Criticizing IS judging". "War IS Killing".

You see, we are ALL legalists to a point.

What makes a legalist, a legalist is that their FOCUS is on following and obeying the laws.

The focus is NOT on Jesus Christ.

Jesus challenges every believer who thinks they can get away with just following the rules. He shows us that it is about what is in our HEARTS. It is not just about murder, but the anger and hatred behind murder. It isn't just about adultery, but the lust, envy, deceit, and betrayal behind adultery.

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.- Matthew 5: 21-22

"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. - Matthew 5:27-28

I believe most Christians DO try their hardest to do internal work through honest reflection, self-correction and a search for true spirituality. That is a great thing. Most Christians contemplate their relationship with God and do try honestly to regulate their thoughts and motivations and live in truth. But with that, there is still that uncertainty whether God will really forgive us, and accept our flaws, excuses, lack of commitment and laziness.

Legalism is a problem because people take it to an extreme. Legalists believe that by following all the Biblical rules they are more spiritual. But that can be the farthest from the truth.

For those who try their hardest to follow every rule, there is much sacrifice and work. And when we follow these rules strictly, we expect others to follow them as well as we do, and if they don’t, we judge them. Self-righteousness. And if you hang around people who are not as good as you are, you might be "contaminated", so you avoid them using the excuse and judgment that they are not right with God. That is why many legalists will "doubt" the salvation of other Christians. This is the way of the Pharisee.

- The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector: Luke 18: 10-14

And then we have the other side of legalism. If we cannot follow all the rules, we believe we have failed and fear that our salvation may be in question. That fear overshadows any kind of relationship we have with God because our shame makes us hide from Him, creating weak, joyless and ineffective Christians.

As Christians we know that salvation can't be earned, and comes only by the grace of God, but many of us subconsciously still cannot accept that salvation is completely free. It doesn't jive with the "reward/punishment system" that we are accustomed to living in every day life. We still think there is "a catch" and fear that on the Day of Judgment, God will unveil our self-delusions, and so again, we go back to our lives of legalism...just to make sure.

This is especially evident if things are going BAD for us. "Is God punishing me? What am I doing wrong?" It doesn't matter how "spiritual" some of us think we are. Once things go wrong in our lives...a lack of money, a loss, an illness or a death...we can't help but think that we must have done something wrong to make God unhappy with us.

But with God there is no catch. God's salvation IS free. God's love is free. And God is not easily fooled if you just do something to get points. He looks at your heart and who you really are.

Let's set the record straight...salvation is by faith ALONE and NOT OF is a GIFT. There is nothing you can do to earn it.

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast." - Ephesians 2:8-9

"I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" - Galatians 2:21

We've all heard this scenario:

A speeding car is stopped by police and it is found that the driver is speeding because he is taking his pregnant wife, who is in labor, to the hospital.

So on one hand, this man IS breaking the law, yet he is breaking the law to save his wife...he is acting in love. So yes, this man does deserve a ticket. He has broken the law and is entitled to be fined and punished. Yet he is allowed to go on with a police escort. It is understood why he broke the law, he is forgiven and is free from any wrongdoing. This is what we call having mercy, granting grace, and allowing justice to prevail.

And this is how Jesus is. Jesus is that policeman who knows our intentions. He sees our hearts. He escorts us in our life, though we are always breaking every rule around us. He gives us mercy.

But many think that God the Father of the Old Testament is different from Jesus the Son, so they still cling to the jealous God of the Old Testament who punishes, who sends plagues, who seeks retribution. Jesus is "nice", but the God of the plagues is really the one who scares us, so just to be sure, we follow the rules to avoid persecution. The Law - The Old Covenant.

But because of Jesus Christ, EVERYTHING CHANGES. His suffering, death on the cross, descent into hell and resurrection FOR US is our redemption. This is the punishment that we deserve, but He has taken it onto Himself in our place, the judgment of God for our sin. Jesus - The New Covenant.

And because of Jesus' sacrifice for our sin, God has given over judgment to the Son and if you have seen the face of Jesus, you have seen the face of God. The Jesus we know who has compassion, love, kindness, gentleness, forgiveness and mercy is the same as the God of the Old Testament. Jesus and the Father are one in the same.

"For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. - John 5: 22-23

"I and the Father are one." - John 10:30

Our salvation is by faith in Him alone, though our fear and insecurity make it hard for us to believe that. Because of Jesus, we are no longer bound by the way of the world or the way of the reward/punishment system. We are no longer bound by the Law. Our legalistic minds can't accept that God would give us something for free, because that goes against EVERYTHING we have ever known, which is why we fear that His grace has a catch and why we fear we might lose our salvation. After all, "Nothing in life is free".

But God's salvation is complete in Jesus Christ.

Legalists can't understand why they can't find the peace of God or the joy of the Spirit, because there will always be rules they are failing and there is always that uncertainty whether it will be good enough for God. That is because their focus and faith is on obeying rules...their focus and faith is NOT on God. They do not have absolute assurance, because their salvation is based on how well they are doing everything the Bible says and, believe it or not, there are those who have MORE faith in the Bible than in Jesus.

"You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." - John 5:39-40

Many high-ranking Christians use the fear of God to make their members follow strict adherence to Scripture and accept everything they say, to manipulate and control them. This is obvious when they toss out common sense and justice and use certain Bible verses to justify, un-Christian behavior. Whether it's keeping women in their place, judging others, waging war, or discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people...they hold onto a few Bible verses...yet IGNORE the basic teachings of Jesus about equality, non-violence, loving your neighbor, judging others, mercy, forgiving your enemy, human dignity...the spirit and intent of the Law. They follow the Bible rules rather than Jesus, the very basis of the Bible and why we are Christians in the first place.

Salvation and grace is bestowed because Jesus paid for our sin. Grace is contrary to the way of the world. There is no fear in grace. There is no fear in Jesus Christ. But legalists have a hard time with grace because they think that if people believe that they are saved by grace alone, everyone and their mother will just run off and do whatever nasty, immoral thing they want without any fear of judgment. And unfortunately yes, there are some who take advantage of God's grace and think that they can do whatever they want and get away with it - See Romans 6. But that still does not negate grace.

Legalists think that by living in grace, we don't believe that God will judge us. But that is not true. There WILL BE a judgment. Jesus talks about the Day of Judgment and that all of us will be accountable for our deeds.

-Matthew 25: 31-45Revelations 20:11-15

I believe that on Judgment Day we will ALL be found guilty and accountable for our sin. -"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" - Romans 3:23

So after all those years of trying to be a good Christian, trying not to sin, following the rules, sacrificing, denying ourselves, obsessing about the laws and rules we might be breaking...we will STILL be found GUILTY.

But for those who love and have accepted Christ as their Savior, His saving grace will wash over us because of His love and sacrifice and we will all fall on our knees in humility and gratitude, finally understanding what He has truly done for us. His sacrifice has cleansed us. There will be shouts of Alleluias that will ring out throughout Heaven because of His grace.

A person who truly experiences the grace of God understands that they are indeed a sinner, unacceptable to God without Jesus Christ. And it is by God's revelation of His love and Jesus' sacrifice for us that we have come to love Him EVEN MORE and have dedicated ourselves to serve Him, allowing the Holy Spirit of God to change our behavior...naturally...instead of trying to change our behavior through laws and rules.

The key is the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that helps us live our lives truly. The Spirit teaches us truth. The Spirit gives us faith. The Spirit gives us love. The Spirit gives us strength. And the Spirit gives us the assurance that we are saved.

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.- Romans 8:16

The Spirit of God comes to those who seek a deeper relationship with Him. Those who seek the mind of Christ and are in conversation with Him, will come to understand that the Kingdom of God is not about rules.

The legalistic mind is self-serving and seeks only to preserve itself. But the Spirit of God living within us seeks out what is good, sees hope, convicts our hearts and seeks to do more, while those who follow the rules, do only what is required.

Jesus says our righteousness has to surpass that of the Pharisees, which really scares legalists.

"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." - Matthew 5:20

But the Pharisees did EVERYTHING completely...except LOVE.

When we love, serve and forgive...we go beyond all the laws. The Holy Spirit gives us the love that surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees because that love goes beyond what is the minimum. It is not only just following the Ten Commandments, but love makes us go beyond to love God and our neighbor more than we ever thought possible.

Legalism is easy. Being religious is easy.

But being real is hard. You can’t fake real love, humility, compassion, kindness and gentleness, because this can only come from the Holy Spirit. Living in the Spirit cannot be obtained by those who seek to rely on themselves to be good for God, because the Holy Spirit does all the work. It is cannot be faked.

When we live a life of legalism, our hearts are not in it. Everything we do is for ourselves. But when we live in the Spirit of God, everything we do is for God and for His Kingdom. Our love for our neighbor becomes real, not just a good deed in our collection of good deeds to prove to God how good we are.

The difference between religious legalism and living in the Holy Spirit is like night and day. Rules are black and white. Rules are certain. Rules are easy, and we don’t have to get too involved. But following the Spirit of God is difficult because, it means listening to God, discerning difficult situations, sacrificing our own desires, taking the initiative, and doing things that might go against many manmade rules, laws, traditions and beliefs for the sake of compassion, peace, justice and the Kingdom of God.

So though we have tried to be good all of our lives:
If you are good …you get a cookie.
If you are VERY good…you go to heaven.

True spirituality is not black and white, but a whole lot of shades of grey that God will help us through with the Holy Spirit.

Ask God for His Holy Spirit and He will show you the difference between the old way of trying to please Him and the new way of living in His Spirit. Legalism only cleans the cup on the outside. It is a "show". Legalism cannot clean the cup on the inside. Only the Spirit can bring about goodness, love, compassion, and forgiveness...those fruits that cannot be attained through legalism.

Legalism and the Spirit of God cannot coexist side by side.

The New Wine cannot be held by the old wine skins.

The Old Covenant is obsolete, the New Covenant is here.

"By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear." - Hebrews 8:13

Ministers regularly quote the Old Testament to bring back the laws and rules to bind Christians, but what then was the purpose of the laws, rules, and commandments of the Old Testament if we are not to follow them today?

"Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law." - Galatians 3: 23-25

Instead of doing works to get points with God and hoping He will see your deeds, ask God to give you His Spirit so you can live and serve Him naturally with your heart. God acknowledges the faith of those who live by His Spirit.

When we live in the Spirit, we see the fruits...we feel the joy...we have the peace...we love as He has loved us and we have nothing to fear. Legalism is an attempt to mimic the fruits of the Spirit. But the true fruits of the Spirit can ONLY be manifested by those who live in the Spirit.

And to those in the church today who still insist upon looking back to the various laws in the Bible, saying that God hasn't changed and "if the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it"...Paul reminds us that if you decide to live by the will have the curse of the law upon follow every single one of them:

"For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM." - Galatians 3:10

But Jesus Himself said there were only two commandments to follow...the true intent and spirit of ALL the laws:

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." -Matthew 22: 37-40

"You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." - Galatians 5:4-6

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law."-Galatians 5:22-23

"Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." - John 4:23-24

© 2007 Edrick

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