1. Legalists always settle for a fixation on outward appearances only. Jesus said it best, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27) The legalist will fixate on externals only, with no thought or care of the heart or spiritual growth. Church becomes the building, not the people. Attending church becomes about being seen instead of seeking to be part of the body of Christ and bearing others burdens.
2. Legalists always compel others to adopt their pet peeves. In Galatians, the legalist wanted the church to embrace circumcision. Circumcision was a sign of the old covenant, Jesus had not established the new. We have the same problem today, many legalists push unnecessary pet peeves like using only the King James Version of the Bible (which I love, but we don’t talk that way anymore). Or, to them you don’t smoke, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls that do! Christianity is much more than staying away from things that annoy others!
3. Legalists always maintain a safe distance from grace. Because of their misunderstanding of God’s grace, that is his unmerited favor upon us. A legalist will always seek to contribute to salvation in some form or another. Paul says it this way, “so that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” (Galatians 6:12) The legalist wants God and everyone to know that God is lucky to have them on his team.
4. Legalists are hypocrites. In Galatians 6:13, Paul says, “even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law…” The legalist will keep a list of things they don’t struggle with staying away from and expect others to keep that standard. I remember a legalistic televangelist who railed ageist drinking beer, but three weeks later he was caught with a prostitute.
5. Legalists seek notches on their belt. Paul also nailed the legalist for bragging about convening others to follow their nonsense he says, “they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.” They don’t see the church as Christ does, but merely as a scoreboard of people who they can convert to their line of thinking, instead of Christ’s example.