What is the Difference between Legalism and Obedience?–Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

Posted: August 18, 2010 in Church Discipline, Church History, doctrine, General Discussion, life, Scripture, Theology
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We are going to look at the difference between what it means to be legalistic, and what it means to be obedient. There is a wide gulf between the two. But it seems many people have fallen short of what both of these mean.

There is an argument in the 21sth century church that goes like this: Jesus came to fulfill the Law, thus, we do not need to keep the Law. The idea continues as such: And we do not need to keep the Law because we are under the grace of Christ; we cannot earn salvation for ourselves in any way, so the Old Testament is invalid for rules of life and practice. As a matter of fact, there are many people who would throw out the Sermon on the Mount because Jesus expounds on the Law in that instance. They would place everything which alluded to or stated the Law in any way, out with the garbage. They do not give a satisfactory answer why God, in His providence, allowed the Old Testament to be included in our Bible since it deals with the Law. They are adamant that they do not need it, but cannot give a good answer to “why”. These people feel that observance to the Law, in any way, is an act of Legalism. And they do not want to become the church of Galatia again. So they have flown to grace, and thrown away the Law.

To define Legalism in a Biblical way would be to say “any person who takes the Law and uses it in a way which would merit salvation“. Legalism is an attempt at salvation. Yet, we often hear the term used like this, “Oh, those people are Legalists.” The Puritans were often stereotyped in this way. They were so forceful in bringing forth the meaning of the Law, that they were deemed legalists, and then subtitled puritanical. But if we really understand the definition above, then we find that people who follow the Law of God in a way which does not see it adding to the meritorious work of Jesus Christ and His cross are not Legalists. Legalists, by definition, would be saying that the Law helps us to gain salvation. This was the problem with the Judiaizers. They thought that by keeping the Law, plus believing in the work of Christ, made a person saved. In Galatians 5:3, Paul says, “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by Law; you have fallen from grace.” There were some who thought that being circumcised helped in salvation. But Paul says that the moment you add anything to the work of Christ, then you have fallen from grace. Christ’s work alone justifies the ungodly (Gal. 2:16; 3:11-13, 24; 6:13-14). (Sola Christus-Christ alone.)

Legalists are wrong. You cannot use the Law to be saved. You cannot keep the commandments as a means to justification because no one always does what is right and never sins (Eccl. 7:20). And those who stumble at one point are guilty of the whole Law (James 2:10). The Law shows us our sin, but it cannot save us. It only makes us aware of our need (Rom. 7:7).

Being a Legalist is not biblical. It is not an option for the Christian. So what do we say then? Are those who throw away the Law right? If Christ issues grace to us, and we cannot keep the Law, then why use it? What good is the Law? Should we be a “New Testament Church?”

It is true that Legalism is wrong and will send a person to hell for believing that keeping the law in and of itself will save them in their own works. Galatians 1:8 states, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” But throwing away the Law will also send you to hell as well. Rev. 22:14 states, “Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.” The book of Revelation makes it clear that those who shall enter the New Jerusalem and spend eternity with God are those who “do His commandments.” The word “commandments” is plural. That means God requires we keep more than one commandment. And often people will tell us to keep the greatest commandment and that is all. But Christ wants us to keep all His commandments.

Rev. 22:18-19 also helps to show that God does not want anyone to subtract from His Word in any way, “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” No one is to take away or add to God’s Word. Does that mean we have to keep the Ceremonial Law too since it is part of God’s Word? And do we have to sacrifice animals again because the Ceremonial Law shows us this in the Old Testament? These are good questions, and the answers to these and similar questions are answered in a balanced knowledge of the work of Christ.

Christ has come and completed the Law. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says He has come to “fulfill the Law”. The word fulfill is plhro,w, {play-ro’-o}. It means “to make full, to fill up; to make complete in every particular, to render perfect; to carry through to the end, to accomplish, carry out, (some undertaking); to fulfill, i.e. to cause God’s will (as made known in the Law) to be obeyed as it should be, and God’s promises (given through the prophets) to receive fulfillment.” Jesus came to fill up the Law and complete it in our stead. This does not mean He has done away with it, or made it void. That is not the meaning of the word used. In Matthew 5:18, one verse later, He states, “For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the Law, till all be fulfilled.” Not only does Jesus not nullify the Law for us, but rather He does just the opposite: that in view of His work to fulfill it, not one jot or tittle shall be removed. Jesus has given Christians the ability in salvation, because of His work as the sinless Savior, to make moral choices once again on behalf of the Law. He kept the Law so we could keep it as well. Jesus’ work enables us to run the race in a way worthy to win the prize. He does not invalidate the Law, but places it before us knowing that He will be working through us to keep it. And though we stumble in keeping it, He is ever working in us to overcome the stumbling blocks.

The Legalistic notion here is dispelled. For we do not keep the Law to be saved. But rather, in keeping the Law we show ourselves to already have gained salvation through the cross of Christ. In light of the cross of Christ and the liberation from the power of sin we receive from Christ’s work, we are now free to keep the Law (Gal. 4:31).

Christ requires obedience. We are not to become Antinomians. And those who say we must rid ourselves of the Law are nothing but heretical Antinomians. An Antinomian is someone who is “anti”, “against” or “instead of”, the “nomos” or “law”. He says that a person can be saved and never have to worry about living a life of obedience because we are under the grace of Christ. But Paul so quickly dispels this notion in Romans when he says, “What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the Law, but under grace? God forbid (6:15). We are not given liberty to sin, but we are given liberty not to sin. And how shall we not sin unless we know what sin is? And how shall we know what sin is unless we follow the Law? “Is the Law sin, God forbid.” (Rom. 7:7) God has given us His commandments that we may become obedient to His commands. And we are able to be obedient through the blood-sacrifice of His Son on the cross for us. Without a thorough washing in the blood of Christ, no man is able to follow the Law in any capacity. No, we are not Legalists, and we are not Antinomians. We are Christians who wish to do the will of the Father. We are those who can say along with Paul, “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, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17).” The Antinomians cannot say this. The Legalist cannot say this. Only those who are liberated by Christ to keep the Law can say this, for he finds all of the Word of God profitable. Why? To be equipped for every good work.  Jesus says that those who are “anti-law” go to hell, no matter if they even preached in His name, or did miracles, or even cast out demons.  Jesus says in Matthew 7:23, “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'”  What is someone who is “lawless?”  It is someone that lives their life without the Law of God.  It is someone “law-less”. 

We are not Legalists when we keep the Law, because we do not look to the Law for life. Rather the Law shows us we have true life in our hearts. We keep the Law to be obedient to Christ and show Him how much we love Him for rescuing us from the damning influences of trying to keep the Law to gain eternal life. Obedience is a far cry from Legalism.

“What is obedience?” would be the next question to answer. Obedience is expressing the love of Christ to Christ in keeping the Law. Christ works in us the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25). The Spirit works through us the love of Christ for good works; for this is what we were created to do. God created us for good works (Eph. 2:10). Christ’s love in us motions us to good works as we study and observe the Law. In our enjoyment of this labor before God, God is pleased, and He is glorified. When we enjoy following all God’s commands He is pleased. Shall we not be obedient when God, in numerous passages, commands obedience from us as stewards of His Word? (Num. 27:20; Isaiah 1:19; Acts 6:7; Rom. 6:16; 16:19; 16:26; 2 Cor. 7:15; 9:13; Phil 1:21; 1 Peter 1:2) God requires us to be obedient in every circumstance, and those who would say otherwise are evil wolves disguised in sheep’s clothing to deceive the people of God. And it is interesting to see that in Matthew 7:15 Jesus calls those who would hurt the sheep “ravenous wolves”. He said this at the end of the Sermon on the Mount which is an exposition of the Ten Commandments and of Kingdom living. This is no coincidence. God does not want false prophets coming into the church telling her that she does not need to keep the Law. That is nothing but blasphemy and heresy against the Word of God. We must endeavor to keep the Law in a holy manner through Christ.

So we see that there is a large gulf between what it means to be Legalistic (keeping the Law for salvation) and obedient (keeping the Law because we have been saved). We need the Law to show us our sin. We need the Law to direct us into righteousness. We need the commands of Christ which are laid all through the Scriptures to further our sanctification and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). Salvation does not depend on keeping the Law, but rather, our salvation is seen in us when we do keep the Law.

Walk into any 21st Century church this Sunday and inquire about what it means to keep the Sabbath holy? How does a person follow the 4th commandment? The people would look at you perplexed. They would see you as a Legalist. And if you had not raised the question, it would have never entered their mind at all. Even as they sit through the Sunday School lesson, the singing of a psalm or two, and the hearing of the sermon, they await the final benediction during Sunday Church and never realize what the Sabbath is even about. That is a travesty; it is sin.

May we become people of the Word, the whole Word and nothing but the Word. May we throw away the heresy of Legalism, and embrace obedience to Christ. For unless we obey Christ, we have no part in Him. For He says, “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say? (Luke 6:46, from the Sermon on the plain).” It is not that we are Legalists when we obey Christ, rather, we are Christians when we obey Him.

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