Dangers to Holiness: Perfectionism and Legalism

by | Mar 1, 2017

One of the dangers for those of us who seek to live a life that is truly holy is perfectionism. That is, because we take seriously the Bible’s injunction to be perfect and without defect in our relationship with God, we begin to demand of ourselves perfect performance in every area of our lives.

We listen to inspiring speakers and we read biographies of holy people, and we become convinced that they never failed or fell short of their goals (unlike us)….

On the other hand, we look at our own lives and see rather different conditions. We don’t always see God’s will very clearly; and sometimes when we do, it terrifies us and we don’t want to do it. We don’t always want to witness; and when we do, it is not always well-received. We don’t always want to read the Bible and pray.

Our homes are sometimes places of tension and argument. As a result, we live with a sense of condemnation and failure.

What has happened? First of all, we have created an unreachable standard. Few preachers or biographers have set out to create a false picture of their own experiences or of the experience of the one they are writing about. But because we do not see the whole picture, we think the limited picture is the whole picture.

In virtually all cases, it is not the whole picture. There are failures and shortcomings…. To measure our acceptance by God on the basis of absolutely perfect performance in holiness is to condemn ourselves to failure. God is the only one whose performance is absolutely holy. The result is that we live with a constant sense of guilt and condemnation.

Then, because we are afraid of failing again, we begin to stop daring for God. And in this whole process, we become increasingly fixated on ourselves and on our performance as holy people instead of on the Lord Jesus….

Coupled with perfectionism is legalism. How does one measure “perfect love”? How does one evaluate a “perfect heart”? What does “blameless in holiness” look like? Those are all rather intangible, so there is a subtle tendency to attempt to measure them by more concrete matters, such as habits, lifestyles, and religious observances.

How do I know I am holy? See! Because I do not use addictive substances, or because I do not dress in immodest or ostentatious ways, or because I fast and pray a lot, and am often in church.

But even these are general enough to allow a great number of variations. So there has been a tendency to narrow these down sharply in different religious groups. Thus, it is all right in some groups to smoke tobacco, but not in others…. In some groups a man could not have white buttons on his clothing, but could have black ones.

To most of us today in a society where license is the norm, these kinds of things sound ludicrous. Yet there clearly are connections between outer behavior and heart condition… Paul felt it necessary to prescribe what kinds of behavior (including dress and adornment) were acceptable….

So before we too lightly guffaw…we need to grant that there is an important issue here. A person who says that he loves God with all his heart and yet manifestly lives for appearance, pleasure, and pride has a serious problem.

Nevertheless, holiness is first of all a matter of the heart and a matter of relationship. Whenever relationships are put on a legalistic basis, something is awry. If my friend demands that I meet him a certain number of times a day if we are to remain friends, the friendship is in trouble. If my wife demands that I account for every moment of my time when I am away on a trip, our marriage is in trouble….

Holiness is a love relationship, and any attempt to quantify it will change it from the saving, freeing relationship it is intended to be into one of legalities and judgments.

John N. Oswalt is a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of 11 scholarly books. This is a selection from Called to be Holy: A Biblical Perspective, Evangel Publishing House, 1999, pp. 186-188.