1. Excels only in the visible aspects of righteousness
Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.
If you are a legalist, you care mostly about how others people perceive you. Legalists are concerned about what their neighbors, their mom and dad, people at church, and their friends see more than what God sees. In fact, their self-perception is determined by the mirror they help create. The legalist may not know it, but most of what they do is for show. They send their kids to homeschool because it looks better. They show up at church early and stay late because people will see how committed they are. They bow their heads at restaurants so that others can see them. They give your money to the poor but always find a way to let this secret out.
2. Focuses on the easier commands of God
Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin.
The Pharisees, when it came to giving the tithe, went so far as to give a tenth of their salt and pepper. There was not anything wrong with this. But these things were simple. The legalist not only finds the visible things, but the things that are easy (at least for them).
The legalist doesn’t curse, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t sleep around, doesn’t miss church, has never taken drugs, takes a shower every day, and does their devotional every morning. All of these things can be important things that we do. However, comparatively speaking, these things are easy. The legalist will intensify acts that come easy in their life, thinking that their discipline in these small areas are more than enough to make their back straight before God.
Pelagius, a fourth-century ascetic monk, was a pretty good chap (at least from his perspective). Doing good came easy. He hung around the right friends, was never tempted to escape life with alcohol, and had a pretty stable personality. These are all great gifts, don’t get me wrong. But normally the things that come easy for us become the paradigm around which we create our view of righteousness and our standard by which we judge others. Pelagius ended up fighting against St. Augustine, being enraged by Augustine’s claim that God has to supernaturally give us the power to do what he commands. Pelagius thought we could do it, pretty much, on our own.
This viewpoint can only come when we focus on the things that come easy in our lives and make this the guide to universal spirituality. And this, the legalist does. Read more of this post