How To Overcome Christian Legalism
Skip to content

Viral Believer is reader-supported. We may earn a small fee from products we recommend at no charge to you. Read Our Affiliate Disclosure

How To Overcome Christian Legalism

Confessions Of A Former Legalist

Hello. My name is Duke and I am a former legalist.

I use the opening line that is used in most 12 step programs for a reason. Christian legalism can be just as destructive to your life and the lives of those around you as alcoholism, drug addiction, porn addiction, etc.

In fact, the root of legalism is what empowers many of these destructive lifestyles and I was a legalist.

Many Christians, like myself at one time, know their Bible, attend church, even serve in ministry as I did yet they struggle to know or understand the core of the gospel message.

They can quote the promises of God and even act like they are standing in faith yet when it comes to having faith in God’s love and grace for them personally, they fall far short and operate with a heart attitude that feels that His love must be earned and that their efforts still fall short.

Because of this, they feel inadequate, unworthy, and separated from Him instead.

Even though they say they know and can quote that Jesus died on the cross for their sins so that they are not judged according to their works, they operate from a performance mentality. They suffer from Christian legalism.

They are living under the spirit of the law rather than in faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. They are still slaves to performance-based religion.

The Apostle Paul warned the Galatian Christians of this when he wrote this.

Galatians 5:4

For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.

So how do you know if you have fallen into this trap of performance-based religion? How do you know you are practicing legalistic Christianity?

Here are 7 symptoms that people show when they are operating with a legalistic heart attitude rather than placing their faith in Christ’s work alone.

7 Symptoms Of A Person Suffering From Christian Legalism

#1. Lack of Joy

Jesus didn’t come so we could have drudgery. He came that we might have joy.

1 Peter 1:8

8 You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy.

I have been a Christian for 35 years now. Over that time I have seen hundreds if not thousands of Christians going through life as if they were attending a funeral. It is like they eat a steady diet of sour grapes!

I don’t know how many times I have heard people talk about all their problems and all the problems of the world and give little if any glory to God.

Why are they this way? Because legalism kills joy. When someone has a true encounter with the living God and receives His mercy, they are overflowing with gratitude and joy.

When they are looking for payment for the works they have done, they are ungrateful and demanding payment.

The Apostle Paul told us that life in the kingdom of God is filled with righteousness, joy, and peace IN the Holy Spirit. You cannot have a true expression of Christianity without joy.

#2. No Lasting Victory Over Sin

Every single Christian is tempted to sin. If you think you are above this then we need to cast a lying spirit out of you!

The problem is not that we are tempted. The problem is where we are looking for strength to overcome sin.

A legalistic person will look to their performance and own will to overcome sin. This is a recipe for failure. They are operating from their own strength.

When you are trying to perform in order to attain the love of God then you will never believe that God loves you enough to walk with you to overcome the sin that is plaguing you.

You will never ask Him into the situation. You will try to hide it from Him just as Adam and Eve did in the garden of Eden.

You cannot overcome sin by your own strength. If that was possible then God would have never sent His only begotten Son whom He loved to pay the consequences of sin and break its power. It would have been unnecessary.

The way to lasting victory over sin is to humble ourselves and admit that we cannot overcome it by ourselves. We must invite Jesus to come into the situation and give us the power to overcome. We must admit our weaknesses and invite His Holy Spirit to give us power beyond ourselves to live a life set apart unto Him.

It is the indwelling Spirit of Christ who gives us victory—not our straining and sweating.

#3. A Performance Mentality

20 years into my Christian journey I had an experience that changed my life. Up until that time I had always tried to do my best to “please” God. I had a performance mentality. It stemmed from my own dysfunctional childhood and living with a broken but human dad.

How many times or how many sermons have you heard a statement similar to this. “If you want to please God then you must do __________.”

Now think about your own children. How many of you want your children to feel that in order for you to love them, accept them, or forgive them then they must do something to make you happy?

Matthew 7:11

So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.

If God our heavenly Father is a better parent than we are and that attitude is so wrong concerning our own heart’s desire concerning our children then how much more does that attitude break the heart of God?

That was the experience that changed my life. I realized that trying to please God in order to get God to love me broke His heart. God is a loving Father, and He wants us to lavish us with His affirmation and encouragement.

God wants to spend time with you but not because you feel obligated or duty-bound to do so. He wants you to spend time with Him because He loves you just as you want your children to spend time with you because you love them.

So stop trying to appease the proverbial volcano god with a sacrifice and start spending time with your loving Father who just enjoys being with you.

#4. A Harsh Attitude Towards Others

Jesus said that the things that we have freely received, we should freely give. (Matt. 10:8) The problem is that if we have not freely received then we cannot give it freely.

People who are operating with a performance-driven mentality in their Christian faith cannot give what they have not received for themselves. They end up doing 2 things that make them have a harsh attitude towards others.

They compare their performance with others and they cannot believe that God would want anything to do with others since they are not performing up to the standards they themselves are not living up to.

The comparison mentality stems from a heart of pride. Instead of making yourself of no reputation as Jesus did, you are comparing your performance with others. You are wanting to look better than they do.

When you find someone who is not performing as well as you think you are then you feel better about your performance and end up being harsh about theirs since you perceive that they could do better.

This is why many Christians are so harsh towards Homosexuals, Muslims, Atheists and whatever pet sin they may have.

Whenever you experience the grace and mercy of God for yourself, then you are much more capable of extending that grace and mercy to others.

You may not have the sin of homosexuality that was forgiven but I can guarantee you that whatever sins you do have or had, they were just as black and just as heinous as any sin somebody else you see doing.

You become merciful and loving when you have received the love and grace of God. You do not become harsh and intolerant.

#5. Obsessive Focus On Outward Appearances

The heart of legalism wants to show how well they are performing to earn the love of God. This leads to an obsessive focus on outward appearances than upon the heart.

When looking for a king to replace King Saul, God told the prophet Samuel not to look on outward appearances.

1 Samuel 16:7

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

God has always been concerned with heart issues. Many churches and denominations focus on outward appearances. Usually, they focus on the outward appearances of women putting 10 restrictions upon women for every 1 restriction placed upon men.

When you allow the Spirit of God to change you from the inside out, then outward things take care of themselves. God has always focused on changing the heart of a man because when that happens then it changes everything about the man.

Pride wants to look good. Humility wants to be like Jesus.

#6 Our Way Or The Highway

The legalistic person who is trying to earn God’s favor cannot see that God might do things differently than they are doing them because then it would devalue their performance.

A couple of symptoms of this is religious tradition and exclusivity.

Many churches and denominations started with God doing wonderful things in their midst. However, as they wandered from relationship with Jesus to moralism and performance the methods became synonymous with God himself.

Doing it the way we have always done it has become part of doing it “God’s way.”

This is true in churches that are hundreds of years old and only a few years old. The method has become God.

Another way this happens is when people believe they are the only right church. When they are performing then they have to be “right.” They have the corner on God’s truth.

They cannot see or imagine that God would actually extend His love and favor on someone who is “not right” in their eyes.

Some even go as far as teaching that only members of their sect will go to heaven. Many others teach that the others might go to heaven but only by the skin of their teeth.

All of this breaks the heart of a Father who wants to spend time with His kids based on what Jesus did not what man does.

#7. Fear Of Backsliding

People who are practicing performance-driven Christianity fear to backslide. They have no assurance of salvation.

Because they are placing their trust in their obedience to God rather than on the finished work of Christ on the cross, they have no assurance that they will maintain their salvation to the end.

When you have experienced receiving the grace of God personally in your life then your spirit cries out “Abba Father”. (Romans 8:15) You know that you have been adopted. You know you are God’s kid.

You know that nothing can change that. He will never leave you or forsake you. You are written on the palm of His hand.

When you know that your salvation is through Jesus alone. When you know that Jesus is the author and the finisher of your faith.

When you place your trust in those realities alone, then you do not need to fear backsliding. You know He will get you from where you are to where you are going every step of the way.

How To Overcome A Legalistic Practices

#1 Understand Legalism Originates With You

If you are struggling with legalism then the first thing you need to do is admit your guilt, pride, and self-reliance. That is where legalism stems from.

You are trying to be a Christian on your own strength, to feed your own pride, and placing your faith in yourself. Own that and repent.

#2 Place Your Trust In God’s Methods

God’s method is not performance but a relationship. Paul wrote to the Galatians

Galatians 3:5

5 I ask you again, does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard about Christ.

God’s method is to change you from the inside out by having a relationship with you and giving you the Spirit of Christ. He does it in His way, by His timing, and through His means.

Stop trying to act like a Christian and just allow God to form you into the image of Christ. If you will do that, then you will truly be a Christian.

#3 Receive The Grace Of God

Finally, if you can see that you have the symptoms of Christian legalism in your life, then it is time to receive the grace of God.

Christian legalism featured image

If you are having a hard time seeing how legalism is so wrong then consider this. God said a man could not live up to His standards. He needed to send Jesus to pay the cost.

Christian legalism says that Jesus is not good enough. We have to do our part to add to what Jesus did.

Now, do you understand why Christian legalism breaks the heart of God? I know when I realized this, it changed my life. It will change yours too!

Pastor Duke Taber
Pastor Duke Taber

Pastor Duke Taber

All articles have been written or reviewed by Pastor Duke Taber.
Pastor Duke Taber is an alumnus of Life Pacific University and Multnomah Biblical Seminary.
He has been in pastoral ministry since 1988.
Today he is the owner and managing editor of 3 successful Christian websites that support missionaries around the world.
He is currently starting a brand new church in Mesquite NV called Mesquite Worship Center, a Non-Denominational Spirit Filled Christian church in Mesquite Nevada.