Legalism - action or attitude?

Legalism seems to be a hot topic that never cools down.

Paul wrote scathing denunciations of legalizers who tried to convince early converts to be circumcised.

But then he circumcised Timothy in Acts 16:3 - and that same verse explains why he did it.

Which suggests that two people can behave in the exact same way, and yet one can be legalistic in what they’re doing while the other is not.

So would legalism be more of an action or an attitude? Can you think of any examples to consider? Any other Bible passages to bear on the question?


Hello, James. I appreciate you beginning this conversation. So hear are my humble thoughts. Granted, the procedure was identical. It was a circumcision. Timothy was half Jew on his mothers side and half Greek from his fathers side. He had his roots in both. We know that Timothy was a young disciple of Paul’s. Knowing this, I see Timothy as a very intelligent young man, after all the disciple of Paul. He would be going with Paul to participate in a mission to argue for the truth of their Gospel with the Jewish people. Actually, they would likely be facing the arguments of those with a legalistic attitude. Well educated minds that opposed the Gospel were certainly going to be met. I see Timothy as an exciting and intelligent young man who would certainly have known that he would need to be circumcised in order to go along with Paul to the places this mission was going. Without this procedure Timothy would be of no use because the Jewish people would not even entertain the idea that he had any right to be teaching them something. Timothy most certainly would have known this ahead of time. Timothy made his own decision, out from his calling to share the Gospel, to receive the circumcision. Paul simply did the procedure that I believe Timothy likely requested that his teacher do for him. The other example of circumcision, the one Paul admonished, were demanding that the Gentiles be circumcised with an attitude that their “Jewish Christianity” was “the Christianity” and if you wanted to be part of “the” Christianity you must be circumcised. Jesus never taught this message. Paul never taught this message. It was a rule imposed upon another that was not of God. It was legalism and rightfully was admonished. I believe that legalism is an action most often motivated by an attitude. I believe it is the epitome of the heart of the self righteous. Thank you so much again for beginning an interesting conversation and allowing me to join in. I hope to gain new insights. Bless you!


Hello James,

I think an example of such legalistic ideals would be the Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus dealt with. We can see clearly that He felt very strongly about their ways of ministering to the people. In Matthew 23: 23-24 He says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, and dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”

Of course I could go on for quite a while on all the things that Jesus has to say to the Pharisees, but I think this suffices to paint the picture. The people who were supposed to be the guides to the people and the ministers, and teachers were lost in the little rules that made them look good and holy. They were lost in these rules, and their own pride, so deeply that they would not even listen to the truth when it was staring them in the face.

We see this today in the legalistic churches all around the world. So focused on how spiritual they look, rather than how spiritual they truly are. Legalistic churches, those that I have experience with, typically care more about the size of their congregations than the truth of their preaching. You won’t hear about how much of a sinner you are and how desperately you need a savior. You will hear about how nice of a person you are, or how much God loves you, even if you sin. But you will never hear of your sin, or how wretched and filthy you are, and how Christ is your only hope of being presentable to the Father. Because that is unpleasant to hear, and as we see in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

Now this is quite interesting, how it is described in here. The time is coming when people will not ENDURE sound teaching. When someone gets up there in the pulpit and tells you the truth about yourself, as God’s word speaks it, it will not be pleasant to your ears. How can the directions of a holy and perfect God, given to a desperately wicked sinner, sound good? There is a reason that the Bible tells us they loved darkness rather than light(John 3:19). To hear the truth about yourself, you better be sitting down, because if you do not end up on your knees at the end of it, then true repentance is not in you. It should break you’re heart to hear how you have broken the laws of God. Only when you recognize that and accept it, can you recognize your need for the Savior and accept Him truthfully.

So, when it comes to the legalistic ideals, I would say they are both attitude, and as a result of that attitude(which usually starts with pride), then legalistic actions take place. Christ was very clear that He was the only Way, the only Truth, and the only Life(John 14:6). He is the only way to the Father. Now that does not mean that we do not follow the commands of God, quite the contrary. Jesus said, “ Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” If we love Him, then because of that we will fulfill His commands, not perfectly of course, but through the saving grace that He has given to us we will get better every day.

But if our focus becomes more about us than it is about Christ, we are failing to truly follow Him. It is all about the true intentions of the heart. We must constantly evaluate ourselves through His word to ensure that we are truly following His will. If we only care about looking good to others, we will follow all kinds of little rules to make ourselves look better, but we will lose our focus on Christ. Legalism seems to me to be about self, it is a prideful religious practice that causes us to lose focus on the only thing that can save us, Jesus Christ. It is not about how well we measure up, but it is about how Christ already did the measuring up for us, and we can do nothing of ourselves.

Hopefully this helps and thank you for the great question James. If you have anything else to ask, or anything to add, please do. God bless you and thank you.



James, this is definitely worth pondering. And I want to say “amen” to everything said so far. I lived the legalistic lifestyle, as I’m sure you’ve already gathered :wink:, and it is definitely an attitude. Some legalistic mindsets are harsher than others, but they all produce corrupt fruit.

Romans 14 is a great example of teaching about how we should act in faith rather than purely by law, for the sake of consciences. It all has to do with the heart and faith and it took me years to grasp this concept. I couldn’t fathom how we are not to live strictly by black and white rules for everything. And how the two greatest commandments sum up the law and the prophets.

Jesus dealt very harshly with legalism. Here is a great article that explains it perfectly:

Even in the Old Testament God desired our heart rather than our works. One example was addressed by Jesus:
“When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent?
If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭12:2-5, 7-8‬ ‭NIV‬‬

And Saul, in which case the obedience would have come from the heart rather than an act that he arrogantly claimed was intended to to please the Lord but was not in accordance to the Lord’s will, who always desires what comes from the heart:
“But Samuel replied: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.””
‭‭1 Samuel‬ ‭15:22-23‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Often legalism is actually our way of offering “sacrifices” that God did not ask for as opposed to actually obeying Him when he asks for us to believe that we are saved by grace through faith, and not of works. That is exactly the unfortunate thing that went on in our legalistic churches and we couldn’t even understand not gaining favor with God with our works.

Another aspect of legalism sometimes is trying to live a holy life through works rather than trusting the Spirit to guide us. We set up extra rules to prevent us from sinning, like dressing a certain way, not allowing young people to date without a chaperone, eating as healthy a diet as possible, etc. I’ve seen it in many aspects of people’s daily lives. These are all good things to be aware of, but if we are not careful we put our trust in so many restrictions and rely on our own strengths to do what is good and forget that our strength comes from the Spirit. I personally went through this transition of relying on my strength and good works to keep me pure, forgetting where my strength comes from, to leaning on God for my strength. I have heard that the Pharisees set up what are called hedge laws to prevent people from accidentally sinning. These weren’t laws that God gave them though, and that is often what we find ourselves doing when being legalistic.

God’s word addresses legalism all through the Bible. If we open our eyes and see the spirit of what he was trying to do and say, we will be able to see that God wanted our hearts more than our actions.


Hi James Dan again just had to add a comment on this subject.
One of the best books on the subject I ever read was The Pharisees Guide to Holiness. What the book captured was the heart of the Pharisee that motivated them to try and follow The Law. I believe that Jesus really captured this heart when He said in Mat 23:1-4. He did not speak against what the Pharisees said but rather what they were doing.
The problem the Pharisees (and us too)have is that when we set out to please God by following His commands we get lost in the woods and cannot see the forest because of all the trees. That is we raise The Law to point of idolatry and replace God the Giver of the Law in our heart. One of the measures I use is to ask the question: Am I more focused on the don’t(s) than I am on the do(s)? As an evangelist I once heard say: If we are focused on doing the do(s), we will not have time to do the don’t(s).
Bottom Line: I believe legalism is attitude and not action. It is a matter of how we perceive our purpose in doing things. That is there is nothing wrong with doing The Law as long as we understand the purpose of The Law which is to reveal sin in our lives from which we need to repent.
When you read the biographies of the great men and women who have gone before us you find that at the end of their lives they almost discount their sins of commission. They are more interested in their sins of omission. They see their sin of coveting (Ro 7) as less than their sin of not getting up in the morning Praising God for the Day. Coveting is a sin of the flesh, not Praising God is the sin of attitude.

So what do you think

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Well, thank you @DuaneL, @mmingus36, @gchop and @dan0647 for your excellent input. It seems that the consensus of this group is that legalism is at root an attitude that tends to manifest itself in actions. That was pretty much what I suspected - thank you all for helping to confirm it!