You want to know how to really spot a legalist? Just look for pride.
Anyone can be a legalist. You don’t have to be some white-bread, shirt-tucked, glasses-wearing, bible-thumping, goodie-two-shoes, homeschooler to be a legalist. At the root of legalism is thinking that your way is best, i.e., thinking that you have a monopoly on how to live life. You can be a Mohawked, spiked belted, drinking, smoking, swearing, cursing, non-church-going party-animal and be a legalist. Either way, both people, the homeschooler and the party animal, are in the same boat.
The Christian life isn’t primarily about how you live, its about what you believe. Both sides of the parties are judging each other, the party-animal and the homeschool. Everyone thinks they know how life is supposed to be lived and how everyone else has it wrong.
The fact is, we all have it wrong. That’s why we need Jesus. We’re all a bunch of self-loving, self-exalting, arrogant, prideful, God-haters. Before God, we’re all legalists, following our own set of rules that we think “approves” us before God. Just because you don’t follow the ten commandments doesn’t mean you’re not a legalist. Your Law might actually be that you don’t attempt to follow any law. And if you follow that law you think that’s what makes God accept you. When you break that law and end up doing something like stopping smoking, then you get all bent out of shape because you broke your own man-made law.
In front of Christ, we have nothing. Instead of sitting back like a pack of passive emo-kids, act like a man and be strong. Go up to those legalists yourself and confront them on their own grounds – start loving them. Jesus went over to the legalists houses. Check out the story of Simon, or how about Nicodemus. Of course Jesus confronts their legalism but he still went out of his way to meet the legalist at their own house. Jesus still confronts your legalism too. Do you follow your own set of rules or do you follow Christ? What’s at the center of your theology, Jesus or Yourself?
Legalism isn’t even wrong. God doesn’t hate legalists, God hates hypocrites. God hates people who think they’re really living in obedience to him but are really living in rebellion against him. The kind of legalists that God loves are those who follow the Law of Christ. God doesn’t love you because you follow the Law of Christ. You follow the Law of Christ because God loves you. And at the very heart of the law of Christ is loving God and loving your neighbor. God loves when Christians do everything in their power to follow that law. Not because they think God accepts them because of it, but because they already know that God accepts them because of Jesus and nothing is more important that living in obedience to that Law.
God loves it when the homeschooler reaches his hand out to the party-animal and invites him over for dinner and helps him out however he can. And God loves it when the party-animal reaches his hand out to the homeschooler and invites him over for dinner and helps him out however he can.
How do you really spot a legalist? Just look and see who they are following.