For those of you who may not know, I’m Nigerian and I grew up there. Nigeria is forever home to me and I love it with all my heart. One of the reasons I love my country is because of our culture. There are over 300 different tribes, and each tribe is very proud of their culture. However, one of the biggest problems we have in Nigeria is that we don’t know where culture ends and religion begins. We often tend to confuse the two, and I was guilty of this when I was younger. I grew up not knowing the difference between culture and religion. My culture was my religion. I mean, yeah I called myself a Christian, but I defined my faith based on my culture and the things I did or didn’t do. For example, if I forgot to use my right hand to give or receive an object from an elder (as it’s wrong to use your left hand in Nigeria), I wasn’t a good Christian girl.
So what is legalism exactly?
“Legalism is the excessive and improper use of the law.” (1)
“Legalism is an attempt to gain favour with God or to impress our fellow man by doing certain things, without regards to the condition of our hearts before God.” (2)
“Legalism is not simply the pursuit of the law. It is pursuing the law in the wrong way - with some other engine than faith. The law of God should be pursued. We should seek to fulfill the law - by the Spirit.” (3)
I was taught different do’s and don’t’s of the church that I had to obey or else I wasn’t a good Christian. Just to give you some real-life examples of the things I believed:
As a guy, wearing a hat in church is a sin.
As a girl, not covering your hair in church is a sin.
Wearing jeans (or for girls, any type of trousers) to church is a sin.
Putting objects on your bible is sinful. Nothing should be on your bible.
This is just what I could think of off the top of my head, and as extreme as some of these may seem, I genuinely believed every single one of them at some point or another. Then there are other misconceptions that don’t seem as crazy, but are lies nonetheless, such as “tattoos are bad” and “getting multiple piercings is wrong”.
When I got saved, I had to examine every belief I had, and ask myself why I believed those things and if they were accurate. I told myself that never will I believe a law again that isn’t biblically accurate. Sola scriptura. Scripture alone. If your beliefs are not based on the word of God, I don’t want it.
This isn’t to say that we should disregard culture. For example, when I go to Nigeria, I respect the culture that says using your left hand to give or receive something from an elder is wrong. I respect my culture, whether or not I agree with it. But when it comes to mixing culture with religion? I’m putting my foot down.
And even when we’re saved, it’s sometimes easy to find ourselves slipping into legalism, because our human brains find it difficult to fathom the idea of grace. So in this post we’re going to explore 8 signs that imply you’re legalistic:
1. You focus more on your outward appearance
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy - full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.”
- Matthew 23:25-26 NLT
Legalism leads you to focus on looking good from the outside, meanwhile your heart is still wicked and prideful. And the dangerous part is that sometimes we deceive not just others, but we also deceive ourselves. We start to believe that we are righteous because of what we do. It may be very subtle, but we believe that because we dress decently, wear a scarf to church, etc., we are right by God. Meanwhile there are traces of jealousy, gossip, anger and unforgiveness that God needs to deal with in us.
Growing up in Nigeria, I was taught heavily on modesty, but I never understood why. I was modest because I was told it’s the right thing to do (or so I won’t attract the wrong kind of guy). Legalism led adults in church being more concerned that I’m doing what they want me to do, than whether I even know Jesus. Getting good grades, dressing modestly and not having sex was synonymous to being a good Christian girl. The outward appearance mattered the most.
2. You look for loopholes in the law
We end up looking for loopholes and ways to do the bare minimum. For example, “how far can I go with my boyfriend without sinning?” When we have only head knowledge of pre-marital sex being a sin, without having the love of Christ that leads us to want to abstain and honour Him, we end up abstaining from sex but doing every other sexual act. We go around saying “I’m waiting till marriage before I have sex”, yet our partners are touching us in inappropriate places and we’re doing everything BUT the actual sexual intercourse, thinking we’re right by God because, I mean, we’re not actually having sex right? (However, the bible does talk about fleeing from sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18), which includes more than just having sex. Also, even looking at someone lustfully is adultery in God’s eyes (Matthew 5:28)).
3. You take the focus off Jesus and place it on yourself
“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honour in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called, ‘Rabbi.'”
- Matthew 23:5-7 NLT
Legalistic Christians focus more on converting people to be more like them, rather than desiring for people to be more like Jesus, and pointing them to Him. When we’re legalistic we seek to glorify ourselves, instead of glorifying Jesus.
4. You haven’t experienced a heart change
With legalism, there is no true repentance. You’re doing all the “right” things and living a good life - but not a godly life. A godly life requires a heart change. Legalism results in a behavioural change only. True Christianity is when the Holy Spirit transforms your heart, which then results in a change in your behaviour.
Without a heart change, you obey God’s law without His love. Some children grow up not liking the idea of Christianity, because they are taught only about rules and hardly about the love of Jesus Christ. Not to say we shouldn’t have rules, but we need to remember that we obey the rules because we love God. If there’s no love for God as we obey the law, we might as well do whatever we want.
Also, the problem with relying on rules and good deeds to save you is that you have to then worry about obeying them all.
“For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”
- James 2:10 ESV
If you rely on grace, grace saves you. If you rely on works, you’re fighting a lost battle because it’s impossible for you not to fall, as you can never not sin.
5. You’re leading others into sin
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!”
- Matthew 23:15 NLT
This is done subconsciously, but with legalism not only do you sin, but you lead others into sin as well. You lead others to a false belief of Jesus Christ, and you become responsible for them hardening their hearts towards the Gospel. Because that’s what legalism does to you. You’re convinced that God is some hard-hearted monster who punishes you when you don’t follow the rules, and you want no part in Christianity.
6. You don’t rely on the God’s grace to obey Him
Growing up, I knew nothing about grace. I had no idea that I’m made right with God through my faith in Him alone, not through me obeying the law (Romans 3:28, Romans 4:5). I wasn’t aware that my good deeds alone meant nothing.
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’”
- Galatians 3:10 ESV
“I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.”
- Galatians 2:21 NLT
7. You feel burdened by God’s law
“This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”
- 1 John 5:3 ESV
You can only find God’s commandments burdensome if you don’t obey from a place of love. We love Him, then we keep His commandments.
8. You are prideful
We end up thinking we’re better than others who don’t follow the rules. Legalism has led us in Nigeria to believe we’re a religious country with high morals, meanwhile so many of us are far from Christ. We look down on people who don’t obey the rules as perfectly as we do, and we feel as if we’ve earned our right standing with God. We think we know God because we wear dresses to church instead of jeans. We are prideful because we start to think we deserve God’s grace and mercy by the things we do, and we forget about the whole message of the Gospel in the first place, and what Jesus actually came to do. Our mouths declare Jesus, but our hearts are far from Him.
It’s funny because growing up in Nigeria, I was fed the lie that “Westerners have no home training and no morals”; meanwhile, I’ve experienced God’s love more in the UK than I ever did in my 16 years in Nigeria.
“These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.”
- Matthew 15:8-9 NLT
I also love the TPT version of this verse:
“These people honour me only with their words, for their hearts are so very distant from me. They pretend to worship me, but their worship is nothing more than empty traditions of men.”
So we need to be intentional about seeking God and accepting His grace for what it is. And know God’s word and develop an intimate relationship with Him for yourself, so you’re not led by what other people say is right or wrong. Remember: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fides.