How do you define legalism?

Hi friends,

Ken Boa provides this definition of legalism in Conformed to His Image:

Legalism seeks to quantify spirituality into a measurable product. In this way, it produces the complacency of procedures and practices rather than the ever-challenging dynamic of pursuing the person of Christ (p. 227).

As I read this line, it struck my heart! I thought of how often I have measured my spirituality by how consistent I’ve been in keeping to my Bible reading plan, how often I am praying throughout the day, and how regularly I’ve attended church. Or how I’ve avoided various sins.

To pursue Christ is a challenging journey. To be in his loving - but holy - presence is wonderful - and mortifying. It humbles our hearts even as we experience joy.

By contrast, it is convenient and easy to settle for ‘reading the Bible’ or ‘not murdering anyone’ as a measurement of my spirituality.

How have you seen legalism stifle your love for God?


I wonder if it’s ever possible to be wholly free of the deception of legalism? Even as I’m aware of legalism, I find every now and then that it’s happened to have crept into my thinking without me realising. It could be called legalism or moralism, but it’s the same thing: focusing so much on achieving holy living (or how much we are failing) rather than responding to Jesus himself who offers free saving grace.

Michael Reeves, in ‘The Unquenchable Flame’ reflects on this issue that drove many Puritans to speak out for their cause. He says, with this legalism, or inward-looking moralism, that

the result, said Thomas Goodwin, was that in their concern for their spiritual state, ‘the minds of many are so wholly taken up with their own hearts, that…Christ is “scarce in all their thoughts”.’

He also calls this a ‘morbid introspection’,

attempting to see if their own hearts felt good enough, or if there was any faith there that they could trust in (and so trusting, not Christ, but their own faith for their salvation).

Oh that part certainly resonates with me! I have certainly found myself evaluating how much faith I might have in my heart, and whether it’s enough faith, completely forgetting for that moment that faith is a gift, and not of myself, so that I can’t boast in works. As soon as I catch these thoughts, I realise I was trying to use works to grow spiritually. (Ephesians 2:8-10). Works can be measured and quantified, but faith - that given us from God - is measured out to us, but I don’t think we measure it (Romans 12:3). These thought patterns are stifling, because the only possible outcome of them is a sense of inadequacy and failure. It’s a relief when I realise the path my mind has taken, and to take a different turn back to the person of Christ.


Hi @Alison,

Your post is uncomfortably convicting! Thank you though.

It reminds me of this passage in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (for those who haven’t read it, this is the ‘advice’ of a senior demon to a junior demon):

I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “By jove! I’m being humble,” and almost immediately pride— pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.

In the opposite direction, if we are too worried about our misdirections in a sincere pursuit of Christ, and getting caught up in a ‘morbid introspection’, then perhaps it’s best to laugh at the absurdity of it all, go to sleep, and start the next day adoring Christ again.


I’ve recognized legalism in my own life in my tendency to want to earn grace. That is, when the time comes for me to be in need grace, I want people to recognize that I’m worthy of it. :woman_facepalming:

I was even about to write that (ala Boa) I don’t think I quantified my ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’, but, though my obsession may not have been to the exact measure, I still took a general account of whether I felt ‘in the red’ or ‘in the black’. My preoccupation, therefore, was to not be in the red! This led to me pursuing Christ for the blessings he would bring – his gifts-- rather than for his person…who he is. I was using the relationship to get good things (and keep away the bad things), instead of engaging with it and allowing it to transform me.

So, legalism, then is “all about me”. It’s all about my goodness or my badness. God is but an object…a dispenser of either salvation (and blessing) or condemnation (and curse). Once I was able to recognize it for what it was, I was able to see the absurdity of it all!

I’m sure now there are other ways in which my legalism is obscured from my view, as I do wonder along with @alison whether or not we can actually escape it entirely!


Could it be that legalism slowly but surely turns into a cult of one where you are the sole member and arbiter of good and bad?


I’ve enjoyed this conversation so far. Everyone has shared some really insightful ideas.

When I think of legalism, I think it can often come from a good, but disordered desire to please God. What I mean by this is, I think, demonstrated in a couple of instances throughout the Bible. For example, Cain- who brought an offering which was rejected by God. The Pharisees- who did all their righteous deeds and were likewise not accepted before God. The commonality between these seems to be a desire to please God, ignorant of God’s divine essence, and through one’s own strengths (Romans 10:3). Whereas, if God were in need, he would certainly not come to us for anything, since the world is His and all that is in it.

It begs the question, what do you get for someone who has everything!?

David seems to answer this question, while also providing a contrasting example of the offering God accepts. In Psalm 51, David says that he will not bring an offering to God, until God first cleansed him thoroughly, concluding that:

“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

David seems to have understood, God cannot be pleased with the work of men’s hands, because God is the self-existing Creator, and man is the work of His hands. So instead of seeking to please God through his own efforts or strengths, David acknowledges his poverty before God, and asks God to do the work of making David be (not merely do) what God would have him to be. This weakness, this neediness, is what David says God will not turn away from.

I appreciate the quote Carson shared, and agree, that legalism is evidenced in looking at ourselves, rather than “Looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” When we fully depend on Christ, then, I think God is pleased.


Thank you for sharing your reflections, @holly! I especially appreciate that you highlighted the oftentimes motivation of legalism: pleasing God. As I was reading your post – and esp. that phrase – I was struck by the question, I wonder how often ‘pleasing God’ can become ‘appeasing God’?

That is, legalistic tendencies seem to me to stem from a desire to please God in order that he will not be displeased. So the foundational motivation seems to be the fear of his displease rather than the joy of sharing in his pleasure. So, perhaps, that’s what distinguishes a ‘legalistic’ work from a ‘good’ work?

Just some thoughts to throw out there for everyone… :thinking:


Hi @kathleen, I agree with your thought about the desire to please God turning into attempts at appeasing Him. I think that’s a really good point when considering this topic. I do wonder about fear being the basic motivation beneath legalistic tendencies. I think fear must be present in many cases(that is, shameful fear, like Adam and Eve had when they hid from God). But I also think fear is present with genuine, God-honoring faith (not because of shame but because of having received God’s mercy). I actually think that in both of these instances, the person probably wants to share in God’s pleasure. One, thinking they will be accepted if they maintain certain standards of holiness (or even if they place the right amount of trust in God); the other, thinking that God Himself must choose (and continue to choose) to benevolently bestow kindness in receiving them. Based on this, I think that the underpinning motivation depends on a person’s understanding of God.

I’m enjoying this conversation and appreciate the insights everyone has added here. Thank you all!


Absolutely. Legalism is the desire to be seen to be doing good in the eyes of other people, not in the eyes of God. Doing good is the same as ‘works’ . Legalism is about earning your way to Heaven by following rules and traditions. Only reading the KJV (guilty!) Taking Communion every month, prayer at set times each day are all designed to please God. God is perfect and perfectly happy in His own company. He needs nothing. Legalism holds us back in our walk with Jesus Christ. It does nothing to enhance it. We are ‘Saved’ by Grace and through Faith. It is a free gift and doesn’t need earning.


Amen! It seems like you have a deeper journey behind the truth and encouragement you have shared about legalism. Glad you are now experiencing the freedom and grace of God. Thank you for sharing. Blessings!


Very true! In a conversation the other day, @Carson brought up this thought from Dallas Willard:

“Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.”

An attitude of earning keeps one enslaved to/obsessed/preoccupied with correctness. You mentioned the religious action of reading Scripture, taking Communion, and praying – all three good things – but what you also mentioned is that, in the legalistic scenario, there is, furthermore, a correct way (and, therefore, an incorrect way) to do these things. The obsession then becomes doing the correct thing not necessarily because you want to do the correct thing for its own sake; the foundational motivation is a fear of the incorrect thing. Thus, it’s not “I want to do this because I love God”, it’s “I want to do this because I don’t want to upset God. I must keep him on my side.”

Oh how I thank God for his free gift of love!


I wonder if we sometimes confuse the term “legalism” (what we are required to do to stay on the team) with our “response”; (a realization of what just happened, who made it happen, and to whom did it happen) particularly as it relates to God’s “grace” (in the NT charis?)
David de Siva addresses this better than I can:

“Since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us continue to show gratitude” (echōmen charin, Heb 12:28, my translation). One of the more important contributions an awareness of the ethos of grace in the first-century world can make is implanting in our minds the necessary connection between giving and responding, between favor and gratitude in the fullest sense. Because we often think about the grace of God through the lens of sixteenth-century Protestant polemics against “earning salvation by means of pious works,” we have a difficult time hearing the New Testament’s own affirmation of the simple, yet noble and beautiful, circle of grace. God has acted generously, and Jesus has granted great and wonderful gifts. These were not earned, but grace is never earned in the ancient world. Once favor has been shown and gifts conferred and accepted, however, the result must invariably be that the one who has chosen to accept favor will show gratitude, will answer grace with grace. Redemption and discipleship, the indicative and the imperative of the New Testament, are held together by this circle of grace. We must respond generously and fully, for God has given generously and fully. As in asymmetrical relationships between human patrons and clients, those of lower station do not presume that they can match the favors they have received from a much greater and better-resourced patron, but rather devote themselves to making the fullest return that lies within their power (and that, too, supported here by God’s sustaining help).
deSilva, D. A. (2022). Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Second Edition, p. 151). IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press.

deSilva says it best when he parallels “redemption and discipleship” with the “indicative and imperative” of the NT.

Thoughts and comments are always welcome.