Obedience or legalism?

I’ve been wanting to preach on the subject of legalism for a long time. I’ve had some thoughts about this subject, but hadn’t done the studying necessary to bring it all together. Today, a dear sister in Christ shared with me a link to a blog post titled, “When did obedience become legalism?” by Mike Adkins. (See http://www.mikeadkins.com/article/when-did-obedience-become-legalism.) That title was a perfect match for the thoughts I’d had on the subject, and it really got the wheels of my mind turning. I’m going to use this post on my blog to expand on the thoughts I’ve had, and along the way I’ll probably share some thoughts from Brother Adkins. There are multiple thoughts in his post which I don’t believe harmonize with scripture, but at the same time there is an abundance of good thoughts from which to glean. Let’s get started.

Among some of my dear brothers and sisters, I’ve heard the words “legalism” and “legalistic” more often than I would like. Modern use of the terms “legalist” and “legalism” are contrary to what I believe the scripture teaches on this subject. Modern thinking among some seems to be that obedience to God’s word somehow equals legalism. There are those in this world who want to serve God according to their own ideas and/or they want to be friends with the world; this causes them to have resentment for those who’ve chosen to live a stricter life in obedience to God’s book. It causes them to point fingers and call them “legalists”.
Let’s look at the scriptures to see what we can learn on this subject.
The biblical teaching on the subject of legalism is quite different. Scripture teaches us that we shouldn’t think that keeping the law makes us righteous before God. The whole point of Paul’s letter to the Galatian brethren was to address this very subject. He told them, “if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain,” (Galatians 2:21). Earlier, in verse 16, he told them that, “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”


Obviously, we are justified before God by the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ, period. To think that we can keep the law and thereby make ourselves righteous before God is biblical legalism.

From studying scriptures such as Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, we see that biblical warnings against legalism are not warnings against obeying the word of God and keeping His commandments. Rather, they are warnings against the mindset that doing so will somehow make you righteous in His sight. Isaiah 64:6 says that, “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags”. But just because our works don’t make us justified in His sight is no reason to cease from good works or to condemn those who do them.

Paul told the Galatians, “use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another,” (Galatians 5:13). In other words, just because we have liberty in Christ Jesus and the knowledge that we have been eternally saved by His grace, that doesn’t give us license to sin all we want. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid,” (Romans 6:1-2). We should be keeping God’s commandments, but we should do so with our heart in the right place. Why then are some of God’s children called legalists when they are simply trying to follow God completely in their lives? Can we go too far in keeping God’s commandments? Can we go too far in making aggressive changes to our lives to conform ourselves more to His image? I don’t believe so.

And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? (Luke 6:46)

A sister in Christ who blogs under the name “Mrs. Lindblom” (http://generationfour.blogspot.com/2009/12/legalism.html) wrote:

I’m not entirely sure how, but somehow people who homeschool their children, are cautious about what entertainment they partake in, who align on the more reformed side of theology and generally take an interest in deep, personal Bible study and application without a seminary degree hanging on their wall have the tendency to get grouped into this catagory called “legalists”.

Some of us in our current day want to be Christians on Sunday morning and then live however we want to live the rest of the week. When some are corrected using biblical teachings or simply reproved by observing the godly behavior of others, they shout, “Legalist!” They want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to have one foot in the world and one foot in church, and they have deep-seated resentment for those who are trying to conform themselves more to the image of Christ. Why? Perhaps it’s because they aren’t taking such steps themselves and the Holy Spirit is convicting them. But rather than forsaking all and following Christ, they chose to be lukewarm.

Am I on my righteous high horse? Not at all. We should be living in obedience to God, but we should have charity and compassion for those who aren’t doing so, realizing that without God we ourselves would be worse than any other sinner. Jesus clearly taught against the elitist attitude forcefully and often. One of my favorite places in scripture where Jesus did so is a passage that my former pastor, Elder George Johnson, mentioned many times during his preaching:

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14)

Even the Apostle Paul—who wrote the majority of the books in the New Testament—said, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do,” (Romans 7:18-19). And, “when I would do good, evil is present with me,” (Romans 7:21).
I certainly don’t live my life as I should on a daily basis—no one does; but the point is, I am trying. Is this about me? No! As Paul said, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 3:14). This should be the cry of all Christians!

For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; (Titus 2:11-12)

Why would some sit on the sidelines and cry “Legalist!” at those who are making real changes in their lives? Our sinful attitudes sometimes cause us to focus our attention on others and how they’re living rather than focusing our attention on our Savior. On one hand, we can err like a Pharisee who says, “All of you people need to live more like me!” On the other hand, we can err by saying, “That person is such a Pharisee. They think they’re better than everyone else.” Either approach looks at the righteousness of others rather than looking within to see how we can serve the Lord better in our own lives.

Brother Adkins further writes in his blog, “Did you ever give it thought that if obedience is legalism that Jesus was the biggest legalist of all time? He kept every commandment, never sinned once. […] He was the only one that ever kept the law of God perfectly, obedient in every detail.” Brother Adkins points out, “Jesus never condemned the Pharisees for keeping the law, not once. He condemned them for hypocrisy, for not keeping the law, for making commandments and adding them to God’s word and making them of equal force with God’s word binding them on men.”
As an example, in Matthew 23:23, Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees that they had, “omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” Notice how Jesus told them that they ought to have done the weightier matters of the law and not to leave the other undone. In other words, do both!

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous. (I John 5:2-3)

As Brother Adkins states in his blog, “Love means obedience; and obedience, despite the cry to the contrary, is not legalism.”

The more we read God’s word and hear the preaching of the gospel, the more we learn about Him. We learn what is good in His sight and what is evil in His sight. There are those who have studied the bible in depth and have made real changes in their lives to conform themselves more to the image of Christ. These changes are not done because they are trying to make themselves righteous before God but because they want to truly serve God from their heart. This can cause resentment on the part of those who cannot give up the pleasures of this world to follow after Christ with their whole heart.

Another quote from Brother Adkins’ blog: “I believe the cry ‘legalism’ against the teaching of obedience is in reality a smoke screen to cover up and make an excuse for a life lived for self…” Jesus told us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Him.

Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. (II Corinthians 6:17-18)

The only way to truly serve the Lord Jesus Christ in this life is to deny ourselves of the pleasures of the flesh that we desire and to get busy doing the things we should be doing. We should not try to keep one foot in the world and one foot in the church. We cannot have our cake and eat it, too!

Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. (James 4:4)

To quote Brother Adkins again, “Do you want to be like Jesus? If so start condemning sin and be obedient. You will not be working your way to heaven in doing so. You will simply be an obedient Christian, not a disobedient one.”

People may call you a legalist when they begin to notice changes in your life. But as Brother Adkins states, “There are far worse things that can happen to a man than to be called a legalist by one who does not want to obey.”

What did Jesus have to say about this?

Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets. (Luke 6:26)

Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets. (Luke 6:22-23)

And again, as we begin to be more obedient to Christ and live our lives in submission to Him, we should be careful of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. We should not take on a self-righteous attitude. Just as we do not want others calling us “legalists” for making godly decisions in our life, we do not want to look down our noses and feel that we are more righteous than others, for we are all sinners in the sight of God. Our focus should be upon our dear Savior, the Lamb of God who gave Himself to redeem and rescue vile sinners.

If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. (Colossians 3:1-2)

Our service should be from a pure heart with our eyes on our King of kings and Lord of lords. As Sister Lindblom states, “I strive to obey because I love my Savior and have a desire to obey Him because of the great love He first showed me.”
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