Diagnosing Legalism


Several years ago I preached through Matthew. Here are some diagnostic questions from Matthew 23 on whether or not you are a Pharisee. I understand that legalism has numerous ways of showing itself. And I realize that there are technical definitions of legalism. But throughout my pastoral ministry these are questions that will help expose what is happening in our hearts. Legalism is not first about rules and regulations. It is about our hearts and where they are directed. 

Are you a different person in private than you are in public? I don’t mean do you eat ice cream in your pajamas at home and don t’in public. I mean do you pretend to be more holy in public than you are in private?  Is your public impression a true one or a false one? Would a person be surprised by how you talk if they secretly recorded you at home? Do you say things you don’t mean? 

Do you worry more about how others treat you than how you treat others? Do you worry more about people giving you respect than you respecting others? Do you worry more about people sinning against you than about your sins against them? I have found that many legalists spend a lot of energy thinking about what others are doing and little time evaluating their own actions. Legalists tend to nit-pick other people’s sins, but ignore their own. 

Are you embarrassed to admit fault, sin, or weakness? Pharisees will admit they are sinners, but rarely admit to specific faults. When was the last time you asked forgiveness of someone for a serious offense, not for spilling milk or forgetting to pick up your shoes?

Do you worry more about how you look or how you are? Is looking righteous more important to you than actually being righteous? Do you evaluate your righteousness by a public opinion poll of your friends?  My friends think I am holy so I am. 

Do you hammer minor points, but ignore major ones, spending a lot of time on secondary matters of faith and practice, but little time on primary matters of the faith? Do you bring home a good paycheck, but refuse to sacrifice for your wife when you get home? Do you get great grades in math, but dishonor your parents? Are more worried about the finer points of modesty than you are about mercy? Do you have perfectly balanced budget, but refuse to submit to your husband?  Have you studied a lot of theology, but hold those less knowledgeable in contempt?

Do you brag about your righteous deeds or hope people notice your righteous deeds?  A legalist stores up their good deeds like a savings account so they can bring them out at some point. Good deeds done this way become a way of manipulating others instead of blessing them. They are also a way of glorifying self instead the Father. 

Do you worry about your inner life, as much as your outer life? Do you ask yourself what is happening in your heart? Am I angry, bitter, filled with malice, covetous, etc? Or do you primarily worry about what is happening on the outside, what other people can see? One sign of a Pharisee is a refusal to examine their heart. They focus entirely on what they do, not why they do it. 

There are some Christians who spend too much time examining their hearts and too little time focusing on the glory of Christ’s blood and the forgiveness of their sins. But I have found this is not as common as we are brought to believe. There are tender consciences that need to be reassured that they are accepted in the Beloved (Eph. 1:6). But there are also Christians whose words honor Christ, but their hearts are from Him.