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How to Diagnose Subtle Legalism


After the Prodigal Son came home, his father threw a massive party to celebrate his return. A fattened calf was slaughtered, a ring was given, and everyone danced for joy. I like to imagine some karaoke as well.

Everyone was ecstatic except the elder brother (typical first born).

He griped at his dad:

Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him! (Lk 15:29–30)

The older brother was angry because the younger brother didn’t get what he deserved. He got grace. He got mercy. He got a party. He got a happy reception and a calf and a ring, even though he had wasted his entire inheritance on loose women, booze and being the life of the party.

The older, obedient brother had never gotten a party, and that really bugged him. He had always followed his father’s commands to the letter, and yet here was his dad running to celebrate the younger brother.

Something was backward about that.


The weird thing about legalism is that it tends to make us really bad at math.

What do I mean by that?

Legalism turns us into blessing accountants. We see the blessings God has given others, and we feel that an accounting mistake has been made by God. That somehow God has forgotten to give us the wages we deserve. That our obedience has earned a specific amount from God and that God hasn’t delivered on that amount.

We weigh our obedience against our blessings and come to the conclusion that our obedience outweighs what we’ve received.

God! I’ve done the obeying, yet they’ve received the children/ministry/house/spouse/any other blessing! This is patently UNFAIR! Where is my blessing? Where is my reward?

This is the insanity of legalism. It leads me to forget absolutely everything God has done for me and given me and instead obsess over what God has given someone else.

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Stephen is a husband, dad, writer. I drink too much coffee and know too much about Star Wars. I created The Blazing Center. I've also written some books which people seem to like. You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook . facebook: https://www.facebook.com/stephenaltrogge . twitter: https://twitter.com/stephenaltrogge