How to Understand the Difference Between Legalism and Obedience

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Legalism and Obedience

We’ve all been accused of, or cautioned against, being legalistic, especially if you write posts or comments in blogs or participate in social media. You can count on it, sometime during an online discussion, we step over an unseen line and someone “lovingly” says “Hey, now you don’t want to be legalistic!” or “Now, we don’t want to take this into an area of legalism!”

Legalism – the Buzzword of the Christian Blogosphere

Believe me, I’ve been there. Even recently, when I re-posted my article “Should a New Testament Christian Celebrate Christmas and Easter??,” the terms “legalistic” and “legalism” were used quite liberally, both in the comments section and in emails that I received from people.

When you think about it, in our modern language, being “legalistic” is quite a relative term. In our understanding, what may be OK to one christian may not be OK to another christian. Each person has this imaginary “line” in their thinking, where one side is legalistic and the other side is obedience.

Concluding his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote:

2 Corinthians 13:11
Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.

Be of one mind… Wow! Can we say that about the church today? Or can we say the following?

Judges 21:25
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

The misuse and abuse of the words “legalism” and “legalistic” has caused a great deal of turbulence and misunderstanding in the Body, clandestinely working against true unity, rather than creating the “one mind” that Paul (and Jesus) desired.

I pray that as you read through the following steps, you will conquer both “legalism” and the confusion associated with it.

Please approach this with an open mind and toss aside your preconceived ideas. While understanding and overcoming legalism is really quite simple, our western thinking and religious conditioning will always tend to complicate matters.

Step 1 – Know Your Enemy – Have a Correct Understanding of Legalism

Legalism (and by extension “being legalistic”) can be defined a couple of different ways. One definition applies to the believer… and one does not. Where we run into trouble is when BOTH definitions are lumped together and applied to BOTH believer and nonbeliever (which happens more than most christians care to admit).

Legalism – the Correct Definition

The most accurate and down-to-earth definition of legalism that I have found is “the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works” or basically, trying to earn your salvation.

Notice this is a “PRE-salvation dynamic.” Most of the time, mainstream christians have NO problem with this definition… and neither do I.

If you are trying to make an unsaved person DO something to earn their salvation, whether it be baptism, circumcision or saying the sinner’s prayer, you’re being legalistic.

Ephesians 2:8-9
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

We ARE saved by grace … don’t try to tell me any different … I won’t be convinced. I love the truth that we are saved by grace, and I don’t ever take this truth for granted, because I really, really, really, really, REALLY don’t deserve it.

At 5 years old, I said “the sinner’s prayer,” and was baptized in the Holy Spirit at the age of 12. But from the ages of 15 to 20, I turned my back on God and went the opposite way … with a vengeance! The truth is, I basically spit in His face and lived the life of a heathen.

If it weren’t for God’s wonderful grace (and a praying mother), I would be dead. So please, don’t question my appreciation for His grace. I say that because of what follows.

Legalism – the Wrong Definition

Where people go wrong is when the term “legalism” is applied to believers/christians who desire to OBEY all the commandments of God. At this point, salvation has already been obtained by the accused, so “legalism” is a moot issue.

From the point of salvation onward, a disciple is expected to follow the Master. Jesus told His disciples:

Luke 6:40
A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher.

And even Paul says:

1 Corinthians 11:1
Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.

After salvation, we are to continuously work toward being “perfectly trained,” acting like (and obeying) our Messiah at every opportunity. Does this mean that we will be perfect? Of course not, but our path should be brighter and brighter with each passing day.

Proverbs 4:18
But the path of the just is like the shining sun, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day.

2 Corinthians 3:18
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.

It’s when we start to make excuses for our sin, carelessly tossing around words like “legalism” or “grace” in an attempt soothe our guilty consciences that things go awry.

Legalism and the Value of Exhortation

The writer of Hebrews said:

Hebrews 3:13
…but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.

People, we never want to be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin! We have to exhort each other all the time! If we don’t exhort one another daily, we WILL continue to make excuses for, and gradually accept, sin as just a “normal” part of life.

Look around you, church! This has happened on a GRAND SCALE! Don’t let it happen to you and the ones you love!

How do we “exhort” people? Well … how did Peter “exhort” people?

Act 2:40
And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.”

I’m ashamed to say it, but this kind of exhortation is NOT accepted in the church today. If Peter spoke this message today, he would be dismissed as being a legalist.

Listen to me, people: sin is sin.

1 John 3:4
Everyone who sins is breaking God’s law, for all sin is contrary to the law of God.

Is it legalism to want to obey God? Is it legalism to want to see others obey God? Our answer should be a resounding “NO!”

Is it legalistic to exhort each other to stay away from sin? No, it is not.

If it is, then Jesus, Peter and Paul were all legalistic.

Step 2- Legalism – Put it In it’s Proper Place

The way to overcome legalism in your life, once you are saved, is to come to the realization that “legalism” (as it pertains to your walk with God) DOES NOT EXIST!

If you feel like you have to do stuff to earn your salvation, once you are already saved, your relationship with the Father is not where it should be. Receive the grace that you have been freely given, and learn from it!

What can you learn from grace? Let’s take a look!

Titus 2:11-15
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, (1) denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, (2) we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, (3) looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, (4) who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you.

So we see here that this “grace” – that is so freely givenwill teach us something!

What does it teach us?

  1. Deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.
  2. Live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age.
  3. Look for the blessed hope and glorious appearing.
  4. Live out your purpose as one who is redeemed from every lawless (Torah-less – look it up) deed, purified for Him, zealous for good works.

Don’t let anyone despise you for this! (v15) Speak it out! Rebuke! Exhort! All who want to pin a “legalism” accusation on you are in gross error.

Step 3 – Understand Your Freedom – Imitate Jesus!

life-lawlessness-legalismIf we are to mature as believers, we must learn to imitate Jesus, the “pure and spotless lamb.”

1 John 3:5-6
And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin. Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.

Hebrews 7:26
For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens.

Jesus walked in complete freedom from sin, which (as we can see from 1 John 3:4) is “the transgression of the law.”

The majority of the western church defines “freedom” as being able to do what they want to … to choose what commandments to obey (or not to obey) … to define their relationship with the Most High according to their own terms and understanding.

That is not how the Messiah defines “freedom.”

John 8:34-36
Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

We see that you are a slave of sin when you commit sin. What is sin? Look at 1 John 3:4 again.

According to Jesus, when He sets you free from sin and its consequences, you are now free to obey the Father’s commands!

David (the “man after God’s own heart”Acts 13:22) knew this freedom.

Psalm 119:44-48
“So shall I keep thy law (Torah) continually for ever and ever.
And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts.
I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed.
And I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved.
My hands also will I lift up unto thy commandments, which I have loved; and I will meditate in thy statutes.”

Wow! I’ll bet David and Paul could get into a good debate, huh? No … not really. They actually agreed, in their doctrine. We just misunderstand Paul. (2 Peter 3:14-17) Paul actually knew of this freedom, too!

Romans 6:16-17
Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.

If sin is the “transgression of the law,” what do you think righteousness is? It’s the result of your obedience – not just “obedience,” but “obedience from the heart!” That IS the New Covenant.

Jeremiah 31:33
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

God writes His law in our minds and on our hearts … not so we can continue to disobey it, but so that we can obey it!

Honestly, I don’t understand people who claim to follow the New Covenant, and then turn around and teach that His Law is done away with. We really need to get a clearer understanding of what Paul meant when he said:

Romans 3:31
Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.

Legalism – the Conclusion of the Matter

If you are a believer in the Messiah, if you are confident that you are a blood-bought son (or daughter) of the Most High, you should never be concerned with legalism in your personal walk with Him.

Understand this: Your love for Him (and others) is DEFINED by your obedience to His Commandments. If you REALLY love Him (and others), it won’t even be an inconvenience!

The reverse is true as well.

Your lack of love for Him (and others) is DEFINED by your disobedience to His Commandments. If you do NOT REALLY love Him (and others), His commandments will be perceived as an inconvenience and a burden.

1 John 5:2-3
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 burdensome.

It doesn’t get any simpler than that!

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15 Comments

  1. Thanks again, Kevin! More good work dispelling misconceptions, misinterpretations, deception and lies!!!!While I’ve come a long way with the Lord, He faithfully opened my eyes through your articles on Righteousness to a particular lie I had been taught in the organized church. So timely! The Lord brought me and my husband out of the world in church over a decade ago and even the false signs and wonders movement! Thank God. Your articles have been so helpful and confirming for me, as well as for the many brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I’ve shared your material. We’re all very grateful. God bless you!!! Keep hearing from the Holy Spirit and share it with us. It’s so good!

  2. Dear Kevin,
    Your message is a breath of fresh air. I left organized religion a while ago due to disgust toward cheap grace, lack of honoring His commandments, and blatant disobedience to The Word. It has been a lonely journey, but Yahweh has led me to a few like minded folks and is opening my eyes to the fact that I really am not alone in my search for Truth and desire to walk in His ways. It is a narrow road, this walk to eternity…thank you so much for being a willing vessel for His Breath to move through you…Shalom

  3. I have come across teaching in ‘Hebrew Roots’ that seemed to be making Torah obedience a pre-requisite to ‘salvation’. Thanks for this article, it has clarified for me how wrong that view point is šŸ™‚

    1. Even HR groups put the cart before the horse. Yahweh doesn’t show His children how to become citizens of the Kingdom until they decide to cross over. He shows them grace BEFORE they make the decision by giving them the OPPORTUNITY to go from “Enemy of the Cross” to “Friend of God.”

  4. Hi Kevin, thank you for the wonderful teachings. I want to ask a question in relation to legalism or self righteousness. In many churches in Africa, including my church, wearing make up, jewelry, women wearing trousers and hair extensions is condemned. If you are such a person, you are not regarded as born again at all. My church is not growing, and new people come and go because we are called religious. What does the bible say concerning the above mentioned and whats your view about this matter? I am passionate about serving in any ministry and I want to open a women’s ministry, as I plan to involve women from different denominations, I wouldn’t want this to be an issue. Thanks.

    1. Hi Dorcas,

      I feel that people take 1 Peter 3:1-6 way out of context. The subject is that of wives winning over their unsaved husbands to YHWH. Peter is not saying that women shouldn’t wear make-up or make themselves look “better”. He’s saying that outward beauty is NOT going to contribute to the salvation of their unbelieving husbands. It is the meek and quiet spirit, as well as submission to their husbands that will win them over.

      From a practical standpoint, I’m not against women making themselves look good outwardly as long as they are not going out of their way to be sexual about it. If you feel like you need to ban makeup and other forms of outward adornment because the women are struggling in the area of purity, I have no problem with that… but technically that is not in the Word, so you shouldn’t make a doctrine out of it.

      Lastly, I want to stress that you shouldn’t look for growth in numbers… numbers do not automatically mean that God favors what you are doing. If numbers equate with God’s favor, then Joel Osteen and the other false teachers/prophets are doing the right thing. He said the Way is narrow… and holiness is never popular. You make it your focus to follow the Word (all of it) and let YHWH worry about the numbers.

      I hope this helps.

      1. Thank you Kevin. I appreciate your views on this matter. I have indeed gained clarity on this matter.

  5. Good article. In addition to your two definitions, I would say that many Christians I know believe legalism is “the belief that we can fall out of favor – or even lose our salvation – by failing to maintain certain behaviors like ________________ and _________________. ” Or to put it briefly, “You’re not a good Christian if you do / don’t __________ disputed behavior.” For instance, some would say, “you’re not a good Christian if you celebrate Easter and Christmas and ignore the biblical festivals.”

    That may not be disputed for you and me, but for most who call themselves Christians, this is far from a settled issue. For my dad, growing up, the disputed areas that defined who was a good Christian were not dancing, not going to movies, or ladies not wearing makeup. Those who insisted on these were called legalists by the Christians who didn’t.

    What are your thoughts on us exhorting Christians to do things (or avoid things) that we are convinced are clear from Scripture, but they consider optional? I like you’re rules/relationship continuum and may draw that out on a napkin while having discussions with people. But if they really don’t believe something is biblical, then my exhortation for them to obey just appears to them like brow-beating.

    1. It’s important that we make the distinction here between man-made rules/regs like “ladies don’t where make up,” “don’t go to movies or dance” etc. and rules that are in the Word, ie:

      Deuteronomy 12:30
      Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.

      We have a responsibility to exhort one another daily, which means to not just encourage each other to live holy, but to rebuke when necessary. Each 1×1 communication requires discernment, for example you don’t want to come on strong to someone who is downtrodden and barely holding on… but if someone has been “in the Way” for awhile (pun intended), they should be able to take rebuke/correction. I know, I know, most people can’t handle rebuke/correction, but oftentimes that’s there problem. Hope this helps.

      1. It does help. Thanks for the distinction between man-made and God-made expectations. I like how you emphasize the importance of not snuffing out smoldering wicks, too. “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”. BTW I didn’t see the other comments when I posted mine, which covered some similar territory.

        Specifically, I have trouble getting very far with traditional evangelicals when we discuss Sabbath worship, or keeping the biblical festivals rather than the traditional American holidays. Almost universally their sense is that I must think I am better Christian since I do X and they do only Y. The words legalistic and condemning comes up a lot, even when I’m gentle (which is most all the time).

        They don’t see Sabbath or the festivals as biblical, mostly due to a misinterpretation of Paul’s teachings. If they did, I might exhort them on biblical grounds. But we’re not agreeing on the grounds, you know? Should I get a little aggressive? It’s not my style, but if I thought it might be more convincing I’d give it a try!

        1. I would say follow the Spirit’s leading. Most of these pastors don’t “get it” because they don’t want to “get it.” They’ve been “in the Way” for a very long time and they only support scripture as long as it lines up with their understanding, which (like you said) usually comes from a misunderstanding of Paul’s scriptures. I hope that you can convince some, but keep in mind, He said the path that leads to life is narrow and few there be that find it, so don’t be surprised if few (or none) listen to you.

          All the best… Kevin

  6. Thanks for the article! I printed it out! But…I am so confused over some things in my life that I was reminded of in your article. You mentioned your own testimony, of how you prayed the prayer, and was baptized in the Holy Spirit, and then lived your life away from Christ for a while. So please accept my questions as I intend them. I just need some answers to things? I may or may not take what you say, but I just need to start asking the questions instead of being shamed into silence.

    Two Questions: What is this Baptism of the Holy Spirit? I have heard the argument before, but I don’t understand it. Do you believe it is necessary for salvation, and what do you mean by it?

    Secondly, In that time you were away from Christ, do you believe you were still saved. Did your lack of good works take away your salvation?

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