Perfectionism and Legalism: 'The Lock and Key of Bondage'

Legalism and Perfectionism

Perfectionism and Legalism

Perfectionism is the state of soul of a person bound by legalism. The perpetual striving to perfectly live up to “principles from the Bible,” not only empowers legalism, but also  spills over into how a person engages the universe and others. It is a relationally destructive power. The legalist is in some ways a perfectionist, and deliverance from perfectionism is often an element of freedom from legalism.

Individuals manifest different behaviors as they pursue the Christian ideal of being conformed to the image of Christ. One person’s ideal version of Christ may bear no resemblance to another’s. We will reflect our understanding of the image of God through our temperaments.   Redemptively,   this   becomes   the   diverse   manifestation   of   the multifaceted character and nature of Christ on earth. Christ is incarnated again through His diverse Body. On the downside, if uncrucified or unsanctified, the God-given personality or temperament can become the manifestation of some very perfectionistic and legalistic behavior.

In M. Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie, he summarizes some qualities of a perfectionist:

A perfectionist is someone who has an intense desire to appear good, without moral or social fault at all costs, and to be accepted by others as a result of their perfection or performance. Perfectionists acknowledge the need for spiritual growth, but have psychological aversion to the pain associated with acknowledgment of personal weakness and shortcoming. They unceasingly engage in trying to maintain the appearance of moral or spiritual uprightness and social acceptability. This requires great amounts of emotional, spiritual, and physical energy frequently rendering the perfectionist physiologically fatigued. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what other people may think. They often have a strong desire to be affirmed, apart from whether or not the facts and circumstances warrant affirmation for a task or job done. They resist scrutiny and measurement from others, especially authority figures, even Christ. Their worst fear is to be found wanting or lacking in someone else’s eyes or estimation. They would rather flee from the flawed and imperfect self they understand themselves to be, than to deal with deficiency or lack. They are often compulsive in their behaviors and hard on themselves and others because self-interest requires a pretense of wholeness. Their self-interest requires that everything be “just right” out of the fear that if it is not, their whole universe will break down in some degree or another.

In the same book, M. Scott Peck also describes the essence of evil in terms that fit the perfectionist (legalist) quite well:

Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. They worry about this a great deal. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others might think of them . . . they intensely desire to appear good. Their “goodness” is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie . . . They cannot or will not tolerate the pain of self-reproach. The decorum with which they lead their lives is maintained as a mirror in which they can see themselves righteously reflected . . . Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad . . . they are men and women of obviously strong will, determined to have their own way. There is remarkable power in the manner in which they attempt to control others.

As severe as this description may seem, these attributes are very common in people within the body of Christ who are bound with legalism. The things that inwardly motivate a perfectionist are the same psychological pressures that motivate a legalist. Legalistic behaviors are merely the religious-spiritual manifestation of perfectionistic psychology.


In rural prairie Canada in the 1960s, my grandparents still had an outhouse and a hand pump in the yard. Imagine if the pump was tapped into a contaminated well. You could work the handle for hours, and all you are going to get is bad water. You could memorize the pump manual, practice pumping, and spend all day at it. You are not going to get what you want because the source is contaminated. If you want to get better water, the pump has to be relocated to a new source. Once tapped into a clear source, there would be no problem getting good water.

Grandpa’s pump is like humanity’s condition.  The problem is that the source in Adam is utterly contaminated. It will never produce God’s holiness. Legalism would have Christians live their lives trying hard, frantically pumping on a contaminated source, thinking that by much activity and effort they can produce the obedience God requires. It is a futile endeavor. Humanity needs a source change.

The only way an observer could tell if the pump was bringing good water or not would be to taste it. If the source was contaminated, it might take hours, days, months, or years to manifest a medical problem, depending on the nature of the contaminate.

This is what makes legalism and performance-based religion so subtle. You cannot tell by observation who is a genuine believer and who is not. The outward exertion looks the same. New Covenant obedience is a source matter not an effort matter—change the source, get the life.

Once we are tapped into the new source, obedient life results. The new birth has inherent power to manifest itself in holiness. I do not believe in powerless, creedal, confessional conversions. A converted life is an empowered life. I am not endorsing instantaneous freedom from every sin and besetting weaknesses. But I am advocating for a great God who would not require of His new creation that which He has not supplied resource to accomplish.


The life we have been given in Him is like an artesian well. We do not have to flail the Adamic pump handle in a legalism frenzy, trying to make Christianity happen. It cannot be coerced to manifest through the application of biblical principles. If yielded to through the process of experiential death and resurrection, it flows.

The problem is, Adam would rather flail than die. Professional pump-men earn the respect and admiration of others in the Christian community: “Look at how hard Brother Pumps-a-Lot is working for Jesus. Look at his earnestness! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone was as devoted as Brother Pumps-a- Lot?” There is just a small problem. Brother Pumps-a-Lot may not even be born again. You cannot tell by his activity what kind of water he is bringing up. Religious activity in the name of Jesus is not the same as having a life source change. Adam in a tuxedo with clean fingernails or Adam in begrimed rags is still Adam.

No sir, Adam would prefer to pump in the noonday sun until the sweat is rolling off his nose like water over Victoria Falls than to embrace the death sentence  in Christ, yield to the Spirit of Christ within, experience unspeakable deaths, and be brought up again in His life. Adam will always choose the pump handle over the grave. Perfectionism and legalism pamper and reinforce Adam that he is doing a good thing for Jesus.


Oswald Chambers speaks of the need to rescue obedience from the mire of servant and master thinking to Father-Son thinking. Successful Kingdom living, will not result from diligent hand pumping and scrupulous, legal living but through the manifested realization of our new union with Christ and relationship to the Father. The glorious New Covenant, the promise made long ago to Jeremiah, is that Yahweh will establish a new relationship with His people: not a covenant made upon rules, regulations, and adherence to them, but a covenant akin to marriage. Yahweh Himself will take His bride by the hand and lead her into experiential knowledge with Him. The indwelling life of Christ is our new life source. It has it’s own energy and it does not need our perfectionism to improve it, and it does not need our legalism to sustain it.


This blog is an excerpt from our title: The Silent Killers of Faith: Overcoming Legalism and Performance-based Religion  It is available in all formats at

Overcoming Legalism

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3 comments on “Perfectionism and Legalism: 'The Lock and Key of Bondage'

  1. Wow, Steve – those quotes by M. Scott Peck are hard-hitting. Describes what I was like to a T and still comes up in me at times.

    Question – In your experience, how do you handle someone who almost always responds to confrontation or input in the manner from the quote. “They resist scrutiny and measurement from others, especially authority figures, even Christ. Their worst fear is to be found wanting or lacking in someone else’s eyes or estimation.” Do you assume they might not be born-again, and focus on the life-source issue? Or, do you go into areas where they might not be healed or whole and can’t believe they are loved and accepted regardless of their performance?

    • Chad, the nature of my relationship with the person, the realistic hope of ongoing future relationship, would determine my approach. I would have to “hear” specifically for each individual. Only He knows the hearts, the history, and the hurt.

  2. I have been in the faith 30 years and when I did the sinner’s prayer so I don’t go to hell I started going to church but I dealt with a severe depression anxiety and fear of man and even death on and off for years so I’ve never been able to really determine if I’m saved I still have problems with doubt and a deep sense in my soul of purposelessness no I haven’t given up after 30 years of trying to know that I am truly saved I have come to a point where I am exhausted also 3 years ago I committed adultery and I have been striving to save my marriage I need help. I desire to be saved or I am saved just alot of hang ups and some say just believe ,even spurgeon would say that.

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