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Author: Ron Graham

Sin and Legalism

Four Kinds of Sin
—Sins of Attitude, Action, Neglect, and Intent

Having seen how serious sin is, we begin now to build ourselves a better understanding of sin, that we might avoid the confusion of legalistic thinking. In this lesson we note four categories of sin: attitude, action, neglect, and intent.

1 Sins of Attitude

Sins of attitude include false pride, unjust anger, bitter envy, malicious hatred, and that sort of thing. The legalist makes a picnic of confusing various normal and perfectly justified feelings with these sins of attitude.

For example you might dislike somebody, or wish you were in someone else's shoes, or feel indignation at something someone said, or want people to notice and compliment you on something you've achieved. None of those attitudes are "sins". Of course such feelings uncontrolled might develop into sins of attitude. But don't confuse those feelings with sins.

2 Sins of Action

Sins of action are simply things we might do to displease God, such as getting drunk, committing adultery, stealing, blaspheming..

The legalist will stretch words like "drunkard" or "fornicator" beyond the sensible use of language.

For example a man might touch a woman friend tenderly when he greets her, or a girl might wear a dress that does not entirely cover her pretty legs. A man might have a glass of beer with his mates, or say "Blast it!" when his tyre goes flat.

The legalist will link these acts with fornication, drunkeness, and blasphemy. But that is unfounded.

The examples above are not "sins". They are normal behaviour. They may not be the best behaviour, and one may prefer not to do them. One may not recommend or approve of such things. They might conceivably even lead to sin if one were careless.

Furthermore, One might refrain from such behaviour so as not to set a misleading example to weaker persons in one’s company, or so as not to offend people who have scruples about such things.

But it is abhorrent to characterise such things as "sins" or matters for guilt. It is legalism to add prohibitions of such things to God's law. It is not legalism, of course, but perfectly right and often very sensible and necessary to make a prohibition for oneself.

3 Sins of Neglect

Sins of neglect consist of failure to do things we know God has commanded us to do (James 4:17). Missing the Lord's Supper when you should have been there, or letting a needy person go hungry whom you ought to have fed —that is the sort of thing we mean by "sins of neglect".

The legalist will confuse such sins with the ordinary oversights, inadequacies, and choices that are part of our everyday behaviour.

There will be days when we are too tired or preoccupied to pray. There will be moments when we forget our manners. There will be days when we choose to prune our roses, not carry them to the sick and sorrowful.

Omissions of that sort are not "sins". We must necessarily forgo a great many opportunities to do good, if we are to lead a balanced and bearable life. God is happy and willing for you to do many things, but God's will is not that you should do them all.

The legalist will labour amongst the things you leave undone, and find "sins of neglect" to spoil your satisfaction in the good you chose to do. Isn't that stupid!

4 Sins of Intent

A sin of intent is simply a sin committed in wish but not in reality. For example the adultery committed in a man's heart which Jesus described in Matthew 5:28. The man does not commit adultery, but would, if he could. He is not guilty of adultery. But he is guilty of the intention to commit it.

By distorting this principle, the legalist conjures some dark and terrible "sins".

Staying with our example, we all know that men, when they are not half asleep, or in a hurry, or on their death bed, will occasionally feel, shall we say "charmed", by the voice, hair, eyes, legs, smile, smell, or other attribute of a woman in proximity.

Here the legalist has the makings of a guilt trap. Simply lead a man to think that his normal and harmless feeling is fornication in heart. Never mind that the poor devil never entertains the slightest wish for even a brief flirtation, let alone an affair. Just convince him that his feeling is lust, and gotcha!


Sin is a serious matter. Let's take it very seriously indeed. But let us never confuse real sin with the imagined sins manufactured out of normal human nature .

You aren't taking sin seriously when you turn the wholesome doctrine of overcoming sin into something ridiculous or cultish. You are replacing sanctity with insanity, and love of truth with legalism.

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