When they saw grace, it grated against them. Because they were legalistic, they wanted everyone to be paid in exact proportion to the amount they worked. Legalism has no room for God blessing a person when they don’t “deserve” it.
2. A Legalistic Person Constantly Evaluates Whether They’re Getting a Fair Shake
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 legalistic firstborn—like me).
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 and 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, legalistic 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. Because the older brother was legalistic, it drove him crazy that his brother was getting blessed when he should have been punished.
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.
When we’re legalistic Christians, we weigh our obedience against our blessings and come to the conclusion that our obedience outweighs what we’ve received.
3. A Legalistic Person Constantly Compares Themselves to Others
Jesus told the story of a legalistic Pharisee and a wicked tax collector who came into the temple.
The Pharisee stood loud and proud before God and prayed:
God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get (Lk 18:11–12).
It’s not exactly a prayer as much as a proclamation. The Pharisee looked at the tax collector, felt a cold moral shudder run down his spine, and passionately thanked God that he was not like that godless scumbag.