Ten Commandments by Ji-Elle. CC BY-SA 3.0

Legalistic Christians

We all need some rules to live by.  Rules give order and boundaries to life and relationships.  Yet some Christians make rules the very core of their Christian faith.  Legalistic Christians place a major emphasis on the rules and regulations of the Bible. During my ministry, I have observed at least two types of legalistic people in church settings. Salvation legalists and sanctification legalists.

Salvation Legalists

Salvation legalists are just confused about how people receive forgiveness and new life. They may not fully grasp the Bible’s teaching that people are saved from their sins and their alienation from God purely by God’s grace. They may not know the core New Testament teaching that people are not saved by being good, or by doing good things, but by trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Because of their ignorance, these folks may insist on rigid conformity to various standards and often cause controversy and dissension in Christian circles. It seems to me that these people fail to understand the purpose for law in the Old Testament explained in Galatians 3:23-25. These verses tell us that the Law of Moses served as a device for making people aware of their shortcomings.  Understanding how far short we fall of God’s holiness was meant to motivate us to seek God’s grace.  Clear and systematic New Testament teaching about salvation by grace may help salvation legalists see the gospel more clearly.

Sanctification Legalists

The second type is harder to deal with. These legalistic Christians give every appearance of being genuine believers in Jesus. They understand that we receive salvation because God is gracious and merciful toward us, and not by any efforts on our part to be worthy. Yet, in living their own lives and in their relations with others, this second type continue to act as though people must live up to strict standards in order to be acceptable to God.   I call the second type of Christian legalist sanctification legalists.

Harder to deal with

In my experience, sanctification legalists may be more difficult to reason with than salvation legalists simply because they DO understand salvation by grace. What they don’t get is that grace applies to anything outside of salvation. For example, Romans 14:1 counsels gracious behavior among Christians over issues that are not clearly spelled out in the Bible: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.”   I John 5:16 urges grace toward fellow believers who sin, “If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life….”.

Righteousness and grace in balance

True, the Bible does set standards of behavior for Christians. In 1 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul urges the church to disassociate a believer who was caught in a highly disreputable sin. The lesson in this passage is that the Church should not tolerate sinful behavior that is willful and persistent. Yet in 2 Corinthians 2:5-8, when the man showed genuine repentance, Paul directed the church, “Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” In other words—–the guy repented, so show some grace.

What drives sanctification legalists?

Sanctification legalists are motivated by several things. Some may have had a background in which they personally struggled with bad habits, or were hurt by those who engaged in destructive lifestyles. Now they cannot tolerate those behaviors in any way.  For example, an experience with alcoholism in the past may lead these people to condemn any use of alcohol by Christians, even though the Bible does not teach total abstinence.  Some may have been raised in a group that enforced a code of behavior that may or may not have been scripturally-based.  Others may be very socially conscious and are afraid that any deviation from their standards will bring disgrace on the church.  Still others are just busybodies who enjoy pointing out the flaws of people around them. Often sanctification legalists can be very persuasive and stubborn about imposing their standards on others. Unfortunately, when sanctification legalists are determined to make a stand within a church or Christian group, a showdown is usually inevitable.  When that happens, be sure that you yourself are right about what the Bible teaches on the issue.  And don’t forget to be gracious in your treatment of the legalist. Many times, grace has a way of speaking for itself.

Michael Bogart, EdD