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How to spot a legalist

Picture of Greg Stier
Greg Stier

Legalists are tricky creatures. They slither in the side doors of churches, sign up to lead Bible studies and fill the minds of once joyous believers with rules and requirements of what it “really means” to become a Christian. Ask them how a person is saved and they’ll say, “By grace of course” and then they’ll roll out a scroll across the floor full of checklists to prove your salvation and prerequisites you must abide by in order to receive this “free gift” of grace.

The Apostle Paul had strong words for the legalists of his time. These legalistic Judaizers wanted the Gentiles to accept God’s grace through faith but be required to get circumcised and to keep the law of Moses as well. Paul bluntly wrote about them in Galatians 5:12, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!”


Today nobody (as far as I know) is seeking to add circumcision to the free gift of God’s grace as a requirement for salvation. No, currently, a far more subtle and sinister movement is creeping into the church. 21st Century Pharisees have replaced circumcision and keeping of the law with a more accepted evangelicalized list of do’s and don’ts. These pious sounding party poopers are getting Christians to doubt their salvation, get discouraged in their salvation and trying to prove, keep and/or earn their salvation. They are robbing believers of the joy that was once theirs in Christ and replacing it with the heavy yoke of legalism (Acts 15:5-11.)

With this in mind here are 10 ways to spot a legalist in your church:

1) They cheapen grace by focusing on what we must do rather than on what Christ has done.

2) They’ll say non-sensical things like, “Salvation is free but it will cost you everything you have.”

3) They are “fruit inspectors” and hypothesize how much spiritual fruit a person must produce in order to truly be saved.

4) They focus on things like turning, trying and crying instead of faith alone in Christ alone for salvation.

5) Their “gospel” could never be falsely accused of being a license to sin (like Paul’s was in Romans 3:8!)

6) They scare others with assertions that, if you preach too much grace, people will run amok.

7) They conveniently avoid or mis-exegete large portions of gospel-centric New Testament books like Galatians, Romans and John.

8) They blend justification passages with sanctification passages and then try to get us to drink a heresy smoothie.

9) They bake the same works-based righteousness cake that Mormons and Muslims do but cover it with evangelical frosting.

10) They use the phrase, “You mean to tell me…” a lot. Then they create worst case salvation scenarios of those who claim to be Christians but abuse the grace of God. “You mean to tell me that someone can be saved and still….?”

But grace that cannot be abused is no grace at all. Grace that is not free is no grace at all. Grace that is not received by simple faith is no grace at all.

I like the way Paul put it in Romans 11:6, “And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” It’s either by grace or by works. It can’t be by both.

But here’s the crazy thing about grace, once you receive it through faith it begins to transform you. Jesus changes your “wanter” and you become a new creation. Sure we can abuse it and, if we’re honest, often do. But when we let grace do it’s work it “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12.) God’s grace is not a license to sin but a reason to serve Jesus with reckless abandon…not because we have to, but because we get to.

If we resist, he persists.

If we fail, he forgives.

If we lose our faith, he remains faithful (2 Timothy 2:13.)

That makes me want to serve Him all the more. Sorry legalists, but grace is a better fuel. As for you agitators, I wish you would go the whole way and…cut it out.

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