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Christian Legalism: People-Pleasing and Performance Traps

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Christian legalism is the bane of religion. It’s the persistent nemesis in all of our hearts. Though we usually discuss legalism regarding our salvation, I’m speaking about how it affects our sanctification after being born again. Most Christians I encounter do not struggle with a works salvation mentality. Their real struggle is how they think about their performance after God regenerates them. They fully embrace Ephesians 2:8-9 as the only way to Christ, but there is a temptation to smuggle a “form of legalism” into their Christian experience; it’s Christian legalism, fueled by people-pleasing and performance traps.

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Pass or Fail

According to their most recent behavior, these believers live with an internal grading system of pass or fail according to how they judge themselves. There are two primary reasons they have brought this legalism mindset into their sanctification.

  • Their Adamic nature is legalistic. They were born this way.
  • Their shaping influences taught them to perform for acceptance.

Some of the signs of “sanctification legalism” are self-pity, discouragement, fear, worry, anxiety, people-pleasing, perfectionism, boasting, arrogance, fear of man, materialism, criticalness, and unforgiveness. These attitudes are comparison words—either comparing ourselves against our self-imposed standard or with others. Two of the more common manifestations of this are self-pity and discouragement.

Let me introduce you to Biff, who lives with low levels of self-pity and pessimism. Sometimes you’ll hear him talk about how unworthy he feels. He consistently rehearses some of the bad things he did. These thought patterns generally have two sources:

  • He silently rehearses his latest mistake.
  • He quietly compares himself with others.

Heretical Thinking

During counseling, he said, “I am unworthy: I have done so many horrible things. How could Christ love me?” You’ll hear a similar struggle if you talk to the average believer today who wants to follow God. Whether it’s Biff or any of us, can you hear what they are saying? Perhaps you have not done the bad things that Biff has done, but there is a temptation to fall into the same legalistic traps. Do you see the heresy in this kind of theological thinking? What if I interpreted Biff’s “unworthy statements” through a theological filter:

I am a terrible person. I am so bad that God cannot possibly love me. If I were not a bad person, God would like me. I need to be a better person. I need to make myself more presentable than I am so God will love me.

In this make-believe “self-talk,” I have described Biff’s practical theology, which is what he believes in daily thinking and practice. His intellectual theology says, “For by grace God saved me through faith. And this was not my doing; it was a gift from God, not a result of my works, so that I may not boast,” but that is not how he lives practically. While his Bible knowledge informs him correctly, the freedom he desires is elusive when it comes to trusting God practically. Sometimes, it is hard for people to distinguish between what they know (Bible truth) and the functional realities of their orthopraxy.

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I’m Okay. You’re Okay

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost (1 Timothy 1:15).

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together, they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Romans 3:10-12).

When I talked with my friend Mable, a crack addict, she tried her best to convince me that she was a good person. She said, “I am a good person.” She hoped that I would walk away thinking she was a good person when we ended our conversation. I did not tell her what I was thinking. At that moment, it did not seem appropriate for me to begin teaching her sound theology because she was stoned and not in any frame of mind to receive the testimony of Paul about being the foremost sinner. Mable does not want to wrestle with the realities of her wretchedness.

She wants to think of herself as better than what the testimony of Scripture teaches. Mable hoped to convince me of her excellent qualities so we both would think highly of her. It would double affirm her delusional “I’m okay” fixation. Both Biff and Mable do not want to be unworthy. One is a Christian, and one is not. They are both caught in performance traps. Biff is continuously penalizing himself because he is not meeting his expectations. Mable knows her standards are low; she hopes she can deceive herself and others so she can feel better about herself.

The trap of self-righteousness or what our world calls high self-esteem has captured them. Biff and Mable’s performances are not meeting the elevated expectations they have set for themselves. If they change, they must accept that they are wretchedly unworthy of God’s favor, and there is no way for them to work for the Lord’s unearned, unmerited grace.

Are You Sick?

Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners (Mark 2:17).

The problem with Biff and Mable is they have a high view of themselves (self-righteousness), and it discourages them from thinking they are not as good as they try to deceive themselves into believing. Have you ever expected to get a good grade, only to receive a bad one? In a sense, this is what Biff and Mable are doing. They so badly want to pass, but they keep failing, and their unwillingness to embrace the reality of their inability distresses them. They have detached themselves from the testimony of scriptures while developing a practical theology that holds them at a higher standing than what the Bible does.

They persist in convincing themselves and others that their “higher grade of worthiness” is okay, though the reality of their lives is not cooperating with their delusion. When Mable surveys the landscape of her life, she becomes discouraged. Rather than wallowing in the grips of depression, she turns to crack as a “pick me up,” which helps her escape from her self-judgment. Because Biff is a Christian, he can’t turn to such “ungodly” escapes. So he puts himself through the cycles of self-pity and despair—his drugs of choice.

In the end, both of them are addicts. One is addicted to crack, and the other is “addicted” to self-pity. They need to come to terms with their unworthiness before God. They are putrid through and through. They are the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low. Rather than trying to climb out of their human depravity to feel better about themselves by self-effort, they need to embrace Scripture’s testimony fully.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away (Isaiah 64:6).

And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood (Ezekiel 16:6).

Embracing Unworthiness

Without question, you and I were pitifully guilty. We were standing in God’s courtroom, condemned and awaiting sentencing. There was no doubt we were responsible for the greatest crime ever committed. We sinned against God. The evidence was simply irrefutable. We had to shut our mouths before God as there was nothing we could say to extricate ourselves from what He had accused us of doing. Though we may have wanted to think better about ourselves to feel better about ourselves, there was no argument that we could proffer.

God, the Prosecuting Attorney, made the evidence plain, convincing, and beyond any shadow of a doubt. We were guilty before our Maker, and we were at the mercy of someone other than ourselves to save us. That is when we learned about the most wonderful news ever told. In our despair and unworthiness, the gospel story came into view. We saw Calvary. There is only one answer for unworthy people: the appeal is to embrace the worthiness of another—the sick and helpless cry out to the Great Physician.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:21-24).

Biff is a believer who needs to reacquaint himself with the gospel. He needs to understand what the doctrine of justification means practically. God, the Judge, slammed His gavel down and said, “Not guilty!” That was it. Jesus finished the work of salvation. There is nothing else for Biff to do, and there never will be anything else for him to do. God Almighty declared him not guilty, not because he conjured or contrived merit that won over God. Christ “won the Father over” through His sacrificial death on Biff’s behalf. It was the works of Christ that persuaded the Father to accept Biff.

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Flipping Justification

Mable needs to be acquainted with the gospel. She needs to hear and embrace the good news about the Savior’s atoning death. Mable needs to believe His death was for her, and she can’t be the “good person” that she deceives herself to be. She must find her goodness in the works of Christ rather than herself. Both Biff and Mable have flipped justification and sanctification in their thinking and practice. According to sound theological teaching, justification precedes sanctification and the former is not dependent on the latter. According to Biff and Mable’s practical theology, they believe sanctification precedes justification, and their sanctification (good works) is what makes them right with God.

If they work enough or do the right things, they will be acceptable (or justified). They would say it this way: “I would feel better about myself.” Biff might attempt to argue with you though he understands, to a degree, Ephesians 2:8-9. You will have to carefully walk him through how he functionally practices his theology, contrary to the Bible knowledge in his head. I would appeal to Biff to reorient his thinking back to the Bible. He embraces a form of legalism: a person who feels good about himself because of what he has done. I want him to see three things:

  • His endless self-pity about his badness is the wrong mental posture; it is a stronghold.
  • He must accept his badness to see his need for the One who is perfectly good.
  • Once he repents of his righteousness, he will receive God’s “un-worked-for” mercy.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

Call to Action

Paul did not stop at this badness. Yes, he was the worst of the worst and rotten to the bone, but God showed mercy to him. Jerry Bridges said in one of his books, and I paraphrase, that a diamond is most magnificent when placed against a black, velvet backdrop.

  1. What kind of unworthy are you? The good kind that propels you to Christ or the bad kind, where self-pity motivates you to work harder?
  2. Are you tempted to balance the scales by doing good things after you do bad things? Or, when you do bad things, do you run to the only good person who can make it right?
  3. Did you know your good works do not make you any more saved? And your evil works do not make you any less saved?
  4. The broader the gap between your unworthiness and Christ’s overwhelming goodness will determine the depth, breadth, width, and height of your gratitude for what He has done on your behalf. Are you working to win His favor or rejoicing because of His favor?

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