Obedience versus Legalism


Obedience versus Legalism

Obedience Versus Legalism

by Simon Schrock

Don was an elder in his evangelical-type church. He saw much looseness about holiness in his congregation. He loved God and experienced His grace. His conscience called him to a more careful obedience to God and to His Word. Don visited a congregation that practiced some of the New Testament teachings that were missing in his church. This church took a scriptural, careful position on remarriage after divorce, the wearing of jewelry, washing one another’s feet and the wearing of the headship veiling by their sisters.

Don saw the obedience to scriptural teaching, so he raised these issues with his pastor and asked why they are not obeying these scriptures. The pastor’s response was, “That’s legalism! Where is the grace of God in that?”

Incidents like this could be told hundreds of times over. But is it legalism?

Scriptural commands are wiped out under the label of legalism or pharisaism. “It’s pretending to be holy without really being holy”

Expressions and words develop certain meanings at given times in history. “The religious right” is an expression used today in a derogatory manner against certain people. During the reformation period, derogatory terms were hurled at our Anabaptist forefathers. Luther called the Anabaptists ketzer which means “the perfect ones” or “you little perfect ones.” This was said in a belittling way, making light of their obedience to scripture. The term legalism is used in a similar way today. When a believer follows the Word of God, often those who do not measure up, or are lacking, come up with some belittling expression like, “Oh, she’s legalistic” or “He’s pharisaic.” Is obedience to scripture legalism?

Consider Joe (or it could be Sarah). He may be Baptist, Mennonite, Amish or Catholic. He may be of some old orthodox order. He grew up going to church, sat through many morning services and knew he wasn’t right with God. He knew there was a heaven and a hell. His own sinfulness haunted him, especially when he read another friend’s obituary in the newspaper.

So Joe joined a church. He said the right words at baptism. He attended church and kept most of the rules. He gave to the offering, didn’t steal or commit adultery, and never killed anyone (literally, that is). He was an all around good mainstream citizen.

When his conscience doesn’t let him rest with peace and assurance . . . he gives a little more to the offering . . . or attends the evening service . . . or stiffens his modest dress code . . . or some other noble disciplinary act!

He has “done” his duty toward God, and he expects God to admit him to heaven when he dies. . . on the basis of his good works! Is Joe legalistic?

Legalism: What Does It Mean?

Strict, often too strict, and literal adherence to law. Theology: The doctrine of salvation by good works.[1]

“A keeping of the law, particularly in a formal sense, and a regarding of obedience as meritorious, having merit, deserving merit, praise.”[2]

From these definitions, legalism can be good. Good Christians ought to be legalistic enough to obey laws. Legalism can be eternally bad. It is a major cause of missing salvation. Pharisaic legalism is spiritual poison. However, Webster’s definition, “The doctrine of salvation by good works” fits its most common usage in religious circles today.

What then is obedience? “A willingness to obey, submission.”[3]

“Doing that which is commanded according to scripture, obedience will eventually follow from true faith.”[4]

Was Don a pharisaic legalist for carefully obeying scripture?

Were the Anabaptist ketzer acting like they were the perfect ones, even though they said, “the very best you can possibly be-you still need the grace of God.”[5]

Was Joe a legalist?

Jesus has the answer:

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 a week, I give tithes of all I possess (Luke 18:9-12).

Here is a legalist. The Luke 18 Pharisee and Joe were legalists! It’s the person who puts confidence in his own self-righteousness. It could be trusting your ability to keep the right rules or the church’s standard of conduct. It could be comparing yourself with someone less righteous than you. It could be the scale system telling yourself, “I’m 51% good and 49% bad. I’ll make it to heaven.”

Saul of Tarsus was on his way to Damascus to exterminate Christians. The risen Lord met him on the way. Suddenly, at midday, a light from heaven shone around him. Saul lay prostrate on the ground as he heard the Lord say, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” Saul replied, “Who art thou, Lord?” And the Lord said, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.”

Saul, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”

God later used this man to instruct the church with epistles on how to live between Pentecost and Christ’s return. He wrote commands from God that taught: Do not take your brother to law. Do not be conformed to this world. Owe no man anything but to love one another. Be modest in your apparel. Was Saul (now called Paul) a legalist for saying, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” And then conforming to God’s will? Was he a legalist for allowing himself to be used to write scripture with commands to guide the church through the centuries until Jesus comes again? Is someone a legalist today by giving a careful heeding to Paul’s writings? Was Don’s careful obedience to scripture displeasing to God? Did God say, “just trust My grace and don’t get too serious about Paul’s writings with commands”? Don’t worry about modesty-just blend into the culture of jewelry and fashion . . . ? Does God’s Word say that? No!

Walter Beachy contends, “Careful obedience to scripture that issues out of a regenerate heart is not legalism.”[6]

Now, back to legalistic Joe and the Pharisee! Joe is invited to a businessmen’s prayer breakfast. After all, he is a good church man and he must keep a good front, so-he goes along. At the meeting, he hears this testimony:

“I went to church regularly I would sit there and plan my work for the week. I gave to the offering. I sang in the choir-but I was lost! I was like the Pharisee in Luke 18. I needed Christ. I became the publican. I yielded my life to Jesus Christ and received His forgiveness. I now have peace.

This troubled legalistic Joe all week. The next Sunday a visiting minister preached, “You Must Be Born Again.” Joe, like the publican who said, “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” was converted to Christ. He found peace with God. He experienced God’s mercy.

Now he wanted to thank God for His mercy. He wanted to honor God and show appreciation for his salvation. How can he do it?

He reads the scriptures. From the words of Jesus he learns that, “Ye are my friends if you do whatsoever I command you” (John 15:14) and “If you Love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). He reads further, “He that bath 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 manifest myself to him” (John 14:21). Continued study of the scriptures reveals that obedience is the way to know God:

And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, ‘I know him,’ and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him (1 John 2:3-5).

Joe also takes serious note of 2 Thessalonians 1:7, 8:

And to you who are troubled, rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ah! To show God I love Him, I obey Him! To find out what pleases God, I read the scriptures.

Does Joe still go to church? Yes, so much the more as he sees the day of Christ approaching. Does he still give to the offering? Yes, even more than before, and with joy and rejoicing. Does he still obey authority? Yes, with a new depth of appreciation. He is more careful in obedience than ever. Is he legalistic? No! It’s his expression of love for God. It’s his affirmation that his faith is for real. It’s not a dead faith. “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? You see then how that by works a man is justified and not by faith only” (James 2:21, 24).

Doesn’t Jesus condemn legalism and pharisaic religion? Yes, he surely does. But is that the same as Luther’s ketze; or Don’s pastor’s charge of legalism?

From two scriptures we can see a number of legalistic hypocrisies that Jesus condemned:

And as he spake, a certain Pharisee besought him to dine with him: and he went in, and sat down to meat. And when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that he had not first washed before dinner. 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. Woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye love the uppermost seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them” (Luke 11:37-44).

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do: but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi’ (Matt. 23:1-7).

Jesus Condemned Selective Obedience

“But woe to you, Pharisees! For you pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God: but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Luke 11:42, NAS).

“Woe! You pay tithes but omit justice and the love of God. You obey in part, not in full.” He didn’t condemn the good they did. It was what they didn’t do.

Selective obedience and pharisaic religion abound in the church today. Most believers literally observe 1 Corinthians 11:16-34, but ignore the first half of the chapter. Why?

Jesus Condemned Deceptive Obedience

“All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do, but do not ye after their works: for they say and do not” (Matt. 23:3).

The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus that was caught in the act of adultery. Then they asked if the law of Moses didn’t command her to be stoned to death. Jesus stooped down and wrote in the ground with His finger. He also said to them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). Whatever He wrote must have convicted their conscience about their own immorality. They were ready to bring condemnation on this woman while they were guilty themselves. Jesus condemned this deceptive obedience.

Jesus Condemned Outside-Only Obedience

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Matt. 23:25, 26).

Jesus condemns appearing outwardly as a non-worldly Christian, but inwardly having a heart of selfishness and immorality Jesus condemns an outward show without the joy of the Lord within.

I have noticed that many people who have divorced their partners and married another become more vocal with their “testimony” for the Lord and are very involved in the “Lord’s work.” That’s how one woman described her husband and father of their three children: “He divorced me, married another woman. Now he goes to church. I’m confused. Living in adultery and doing good works.” Could this be outside-only obedience? Jesus condemned selective obedience, deceptive obedience and outside-only obedience.


Disregarding Discipline

Joe was a legalist! He followed the rules of the church–but he didn’t have spiritual life. Often when legalists find the news of God’s grace, they think their freedom is in throwing away the rules. That’s reaction, not a love action. “Without conversion, discipline is legalism. Without discipline, conversion is counterfeit.”[7]

For the legalistic Joes that find Christ and His grace, here is a word from Jesus: “These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Matt. 23:23). Throwing off discipline is not the answer to legalism.

Lighthearted Holiness

A nonchalant, lack-of-concern attitude is not Christ’s answer to pharisaic legalism. The casually indifferent, nothing-matters-to-God attitude is not the answer. Many professing Christians live as though obedience doesn’t matter and that God’s grace will cover. That does not overcome legalism. It comes closer to the sin of indifference. Oswald Chambers gives this reminder:

‘You cannot do anything for your salvation, but you must do something to manifest it. . . you must work out what God has worked in. If you are still the same miserable crosspatch, set on your own way, then it is a lie to say that God has saved and sanctified you.”[8]

Indifference Toward Authority

Bro. Sid may be approached by a leader in the Church about a matter in his life. He may reply like this, “I get my orders from God. I’m not bound to a legalistic authority structure.” He reacts, referring to Jesus’ condemnation of the acts of the Pharisees. Sid suggests that his church leaders are like the Pharisees and that Jesus wrote them off.

Actually, Jesus had a different word for Sids with such attitudes: “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you to observe, that observe and do” (Matt. 23:1, 2). Indifference toward authority does not overcome legalism.


Be Certain the Spirit Lives in the Form

Legalism is an outside form without the Spirit of God living inside. If you have an outside form of godliness, but inside the heart is “full of hypocrisy” and iniquity that denies the Spirit the power to overcome sin, then repent. Invite the Spirit into the form and stand with the publican and pray, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Affirm and Testify of Your Hope

One reason for being accused of legalism is being too silent on where your hope really is. Affirm and testify that you are trusting Jesus Christ who shed His blood, died, and rose again for your salvation. I’m reminded of Ed Davis, an egg customer I served years ago. After my knock on the door. Ed opened it and exclaimed to his wife, “Mamma, there’s a saved sinner at the door.” Don’t be bashful to let others know you are a “saved sinner.”

Offer a Sacrifice of Praise

“The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). People who practice disciplined obedience will be observed. May you demonstrate a joyful walk with the Lord.

Those who practice a more careful obedience are often called conservative. An acquaintance once observed, “I didn’t know you could be spiritual and conservative.” For him, it was either/or, but it should be both. A spiritual joyful conservative was unknown to him. “Rejoice in the Lord alway and, again, I say, ‘Rejoice'” (Phil. 4:4).

Practice Obedience as an Act of Love

Obedience is your opportunity to express your love and commitment to God. It is not a burden to endure. When God sees loving obedience, He is pleased and worshiped. That is not legalism. Obedient Joe’s life is now a constant worship of God as he walks through a sinful world. This poem says it well:

I would not work my soul to save For that my Lord has done But I would work like any slave For love of God’s dear Son.[9]

Be Assured–Obedience Is the Key to Knowing Jesus

Jesus said, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine” (John 7:17). Insight into the true teachings of Jesus comes by obedience. “Spiritual darkness comes from something I do not intend to obey.” Faithfulness and obedience in little things is what makes strong Christians in bigger things.[10]

Careful loving obedience from a born-again heart is not legalism. It’s an honor to God.


  1. Webster
    2. Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology
    3. Webster
    4. Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology
    5. Sermon by Walter Beachy.
    6. Sermon by Walter Beachy.
    7. Russel Brown.
    8. Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest.
    9. Source not available.
    10. Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest.

This article is from the September 1997 issue of The Sword and Trumpet.
Address: PO Box 575, Harrisonburg, VA 22801-0575 USA

The above article is found at http://www.bibleviews.com/Obedience-Legalism.html .


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