Over the last few months I have written a number of posts (e.g., here and here) dealing with a tendency I have observed in some Reformed circles to downplay the moral commands of Scripture. The motivating factor behind this tendency is often positive, namely a desire to make sure that people remember that salvation is by grace alone and not by works. In other words, the downplaying of moral commands is designed to preserve the integrity of the gospel.
However, such attempts to preserve the gospel (while well-intended) can have negative side effects. One such side effect is that those who pursue serious obedience to God’s law are sometimes viewed with suspicion. Perhaps they are hiding their real sins. Or perhaps they don’t understand grace. Or perhaps they are…legalists. In such instances, the “L” word gets thrown around rather loosely and often prematurely. Law-keeping, in some circles, has sadly become the litmus test for legalism.
But, is law-keeping, in and of itself, grounds for an accusation of legalism? Certainly not. But, legalism and obedience are all too often being confused with one another. On this score, I appreciate the recent post by Fred Zaspel, Legalism or Obedience? It is worth repeating here:
Yet, find a Christian who is careful to obey God in everything, and we won’t have to look far to find another Christian to call him a legalist…But we must be careful not to confuse legalism with obedience. Obedience is not legalism. Obedience is obedience. God commands us to obey his Word, and when pressed with those commands we must not cry foul — “legalism!” No, disobedience is sin, and obedience is not legalism.
On the contrary, any violation of God’s commands is sin, and there are no exceptions allowed. No custom, no family tradition, no “We’ve always done that!” will cover it. Scripture insists that violation of God’s law is sin.
Simply put, we needn’t fear that we may obey our Lord too much. Jesus said that if we love him, we will obey him.
Happily, God has promised in the New Covenant to give us a heart to obey him. And every true Christian has found that obedience to God is not a burdensome thing. This is the work of his Spirit within us to bring us to obey him — not legalistically but faithfully.
We may be more thankful still that God has provided remedy for our sinful disobedience in laying our punishment instead on his Son, in whom we trust.
Let us pray that God will make us increasingly faithful, increasingly obedient to his holy Word, to his glory.
Mike Gantt says
Our lack of obedience is our biggest problem today. Nor is it that our faith is strong while our obedience is weak. On the contrary, our obedience is lacking because faith is lacking. Because our obedience is so weak, the name of God is blasphemed by those who do not believe.
We must repent and live with wide open hearts toward God.
Mike Jones says
Good thought. I am reminded of the definition I heard once and have used to define “faith.” Faith is confident obedience in God’s Word. Maybe this fits here in the correlation between faith and obedience.
Matthew Tringali says
I agree. I have always contended that legalism is solely a heart issue and cannot be determined by a mere observance of one’s actions.
Jim Luke says
To disobey is sin for sure. But if a believer is in fact sincere then they would be sincerely open to an honest question of legalism. A person who wants to obey, sincerely needs loving critique about what is going on in their heart.
What I am trying to say is that there seems to be a divide between two types of Christians that can be harmful. We need both. The kingdom needs people who call us to obedience, and it needs people who call us to repent of legalism, (which ironically is a form of disobedience.) Christians need to be called to obedience. But there is an external form of obedience that is “disobedient.” And Christians need to be called to repent of that type of obedience.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Jim. Appreciate the comments. I largely agree with your point. Indeed, when people commit the sin of legalism they need to be called to repent of that legalism. And certainly we should willing to ask hard questions about the state of our heart and whether it has legalistic tendencies. But, as my article was arguing, I don’t think the mere existence of obedience in someone’s life is grounds for suspicion of legalism (and I am sure you would agree). Such a person may be obeying to earn God’s favor (legalism), but they also might be obeying out of love for God and a desire to keep his Word.
Fostering obedience means teaching obedience & the Scriptures are clear on that…As I understand it, turning from sin is as much a daily & lifelong process which involves repentance. It is in a way, small beginnings…
There are times when I think… am I keeping in step or in tune with God, what are the marks I should look for. Bible reading, Worship, Acts of service, Meeting with other Christians etc.
But just doing these things is not enough if my heart is not in it, it has to be more. But to somehow suggest that it is a happy thing & not a battle is a bit too simplistic for me & denies our sinful nature.
Overplaying the moral hand can send the wrong message & create the wrong impression. Obedience & Legalism can look the same at times.
“Why should we do good as Christians” would be my starting point.
Bill Crawford says
First, thank you for your service in the kingdom.
Second, I followed the link to read about “The Righteous Man” which raised a question I hope you won’t mind my addressing here. Towards the end of his ministry / life, the apostle Paul described himself as”the chief of sinners.” But I imagine we would also want to say he was a righteous man. How would you understand Paul to be accurately described in these seemingly contradictory ways?
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Bill. Appreciate your comments and question. To understand Paul’s statement, I think it is critical to make a distinction between (a) a believer’s actual growth in holiness, and (b) a believer’s perception of their own sin. I think these two things can actually increase together. In other words, a believer can actually grow in holiness and become more conformed to Christ and, at the same time, have a great and deeper appreciation of their own sin. Thus, a person may feel more sinful even though they are in fact more holy than before.
No doubt this is the situation with Paul. Certainly Paul would have advanced in his holiness, but also would have advanced in his understanding of his own sinfulness. Thus, he could call himself the “chief of sinners” at the end of his life. Anyone who draws that close to God, will certainly see their own sin more clearly. Indeed, I would argue that real advances in holiness normally result in a deeper awareness of one’s own sinfulness. It’s ironic, I know. But, I think the biblical witness bears this out.