I’ve had discussions with some of God’s children who seem to view service to God as burdensome. When we discuss scripture and I mention something that God expects of us, they turn the conversation to how they don’t want to live their life that way, under “bondage”. Often, the word “legalism” is used, the idea being that when someone advocates obedience to the instructions found in God’s word, it is supposedly legalistic. Such is a false notion that can be disproven by looking into the scriptures.
First, in John 14:15, our Lord himself said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” This is the core point I’d like us to consider—obedience to God’s word is the definition of love, not legalism.
What, then, is legalism? Based on what I read in scripture, it’s a concept where people believe that following the law will bring them into good favor with God or make them more righteous. Sometimes it was not about obeying the law but rather appearing to follow it.
And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness. Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also? But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and, behold, all things are clean unto you. But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. (Luke 11:39-42)
Here, we learn that the Pharisees cared so much about appearing to be righteous that they missed what is so critical—being righteous inside first. If we will work on being good within (i.e. having the right attitude from the heart), the outside will often take care of itself.
Watch someone clean a cup; they normally focus on the inside more than the outside. If one cleans the inside of a dish, the outside normally gets cleaned in the process with very little attention paid to it. Jesus teaches us the lesson in the scripture above that God’s children are the same way.
A wise minister once told me that legalists are full of rules for other people. Jesus spoke on that subject, as well.
And he said, Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers. (Luke 11:46)
Are there people who follow God’s word simply from a self-righteous standpoint or who add to God’s word by making up rules for other people to follow? Certainly. But just because bad people do bad things doesn’t mean we can logically conclude that anyone who follows God’s word is always being legalistic.
Shouldn’t we all desire to grow and become mature in our walk with the Lord? The scriptures use the word “perfect” to describe such a state of being complete (lacking nothing from a spiritual standpoint).
But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. (James 1:4)
Some say that such a thing just isn’t possible because we are fallen, but scripture has a more positive outlook. While God’s word does make clear that we are sinners by nature, it also tells us how our Heavenly Father has given us a new nature.
We read in the second chapter of Ephesians how that we “were by nature the children of wrath” and we “were dead in sins”. The key word is “were”. As II Corinthians 5:17 states, “…if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” How did we get “in Christ Jesus”? Scripture tells us that it’s 0% of us and 100% of God.
But of him are ye in Christ Jesus… (I Corinthians 1:30)
It makes sense that it had to be all of God since we were dead in our sins. But after he made us spiritually alive in Jesus Christ, we can now put off the old man and put on the new man.
Romans 6:4 says, “like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” We must enter in at the strait gate and turn from the broad way that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14).
It isn’t an impossible prospect. We read of a husband and wife who did this very thing.
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. (Luke 1:5-6)
Yes, it is impossible to do such a thing on our own. But the God of heaven is with us.
…for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper… (Hebrews 13:5-6)
Not only does our Lord watch over us and guide us by his Spirit, but he has given us his word by which we can be instructed and reach this completeness (perfection) under consideration.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. (II Timothy 3:16-17)
I must say as a point of clarification that I am not advocating that we follow the law in our present day. The law under consideration is the law that God gave to the nation Israel in the Old Testament day. It was given to them, not to Gentiles, and Christ fulfilled that law to a jot and to a tittle.
…ye are not under the law, but under grace. (Romans 6:14)
My point is less about the law and more about the commandments of God—his instructions and doctrine. All of God’s children are under an obligation to follow his word out of love for their Lord and Savior. My dear brothers and sisters, such a thing is not legalism; such a thing is love.
He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. Judas saith unto him, not Iscariot, Lord, how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world? Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me. (John 14:21-24)