A recurring theme I have personally encountered, as well as one I have seen growing in our culture, is the naming of too many things as legalism.

We live in a day where name-calling has become the de-facto replacement for reasoned argument from our 5 year-olds all the way to academia and politics. The church has jumped on the bandwagon and has gotten into the habit of labeling almost everything as legalism these days. It is a name-calling tactic for which there is no reasoned response. Calling something legalistic illicits an emotional response in whomever hears it, and if you have had much of any church background you reject it almost instantaneously.

I have seen it done so often lately, that my stomach turns almost every time I hear it. I am not going to say that legalism doesn’t exist. No, it is alive and well today, but we must understand what it is and what it is not.

For our purposes today, we will contrast legalism with obedience, something it is often mistaken for.


Legalism is the act of trying to earn favor, whether salvation or some other kind of right standing with God. Scripture is abundantly clear from start to finish that this is not possible. The gap between what we owe God and our ability to pay it is infinite. We can never do anything to earn our salvation. We cannot do anything to impress God or grow in His favor apart from faith in Him, which is never based upon how well we perform.


Obedience is the act of following instructions. For our purposes, it is the response to Jesus’ commands given to us. Jesus, in John 15, calls on believers to obey His commands. If Jesus is asking for it, we can be sure that it is not legalistic. In fact, obedience in response to Jesus is based upon a realization of just how much we have been forgiven. We cannot obey Jesus unless we acknowledge what He has done for us. Once we realize the great price paid for our freedom, we have no other rational response but to throw ourselves headlong into knowing God and growing in His character. We do this by obeying His commands to the best of our ability.

Why The Confusion?

With those defined, let’s turn our attention to why there is confusion. It arises for the same reason it did in the days of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They believed that if they obeyed the Law of Moses (plus their interpretation of it) perfectly, they would be justified and free of sin. The problem is that the Law was never given to justify, but to expose sin. Faith in God’s goodness to forgive was always mankind’s only justification, even in the Old Testament.

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.

Romans 5:1-2

Hebrews 11 further backs this up, that all the patriarchs did not obtain justification through their actions, but through faith which was backed up by their actions. The actions did not save them, but their faith propelled them to act.

Missing The Point

The Pharisees bent and shaped the Law to meet them at their own lifestyles. They did not obey the Law, as Jesus pointed out multiple times, but they used their interpretation of it to justify themselves. That is the definition of legalism, but it is also the source of our confusion. The Pharisees had convinced themselves that they were simply being obedient.

That is why obedience sounds so much like legalism to us today, but we must reject this notion. Again, Hebrews 11 explains to us that because of faith, the faithful choose to obey. They act upon their faith. That is the opposite of hoping actions will produce faith.

Don’t Throw The Baby Out With the Bathwater

Jesus was not intimidated by the Pharisees, however. He did not react by trying to redefine His will based upon their misunderstanding. In John 15, Jesus specifically tells us that if we “abide in Him,” we will obey His commands.

If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.

John 15:10

That should give us confidence, then, that there is a way to obey Jesus with our whole hearts while not being legalistic. It comes down to why we are obeying. If we are trying to earn grace, we have deceived ourselves into the trap of legalism. If we are responding to the overwhelming joy of knowing we have been redeemed, we do well.

There is no rational, reasoned response to Jesus’ sacrifice and reward to those who believe but whole-hearted, radical devotion to Him. Anything else just doesn’t make sense.

But Wait…

With all that said, there is a sneaky and tragic darkness lurking just below the surface.

The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?

Jeremiah 17:9

Our hearts are so deceitful, and we have very little ability to understand even ourselves, let alone the thoughts and motives of others. What this means is that it is actually easy to fall from obeying Jesus out of love into obeying to earn grace and favor. We humans are so weak and fickle it can happen easily, and we must always be on our guard against such things. That, however, does not take away our grace and dignity to run after God with all our hearts.

If we understand the weakness and wickedness of our selves, we can overcome our flesh through the power of the Holy Spirit. What we cannot do is believe that we cannot obey without falling into legalism, so just not try.

Overcoming Our Guilty Conscience

One very big reason people reject the idea of obedience is because it tugs on their hearts. It is much easier on our consciences if we convince others to be as lukewarm and ineffective as we are. If we tell people to turn off the television, stop looking at porn, give up trying to look like the air-brushed models in magazines and run hard after God through lifestyles of prayer, fasting, devotion to the Word of God and to the body of believers in our area it will cause us discomfort. We will see the things lacking in our own lives.

That deceitful heart that Jeremiah mentioned is at the “heart” of the confusion over legalism. It is much easier to call something legalistic that causes us to confront our own lack of obedience to Jesus than it is to face our sinful pride head-on. We all fall short in our obedience, and we will until the day Jesus returns. The guilt and shame we feel is proof positive that our hearts are wicked and deceitful.

Instead of rejecting obedience for fear of legalism, we should run toward obedience to Jesus knowing that when we fail we are covered by His blood alone. There is no more freeing thing to know that I can obey because I have been redeemed, not because I am good at obeying!

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