Legalism Or Obedience

Lessons Learned: Legalism Or Obedience

2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV)

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

Greeting and blessings to you all! Yes, I am behind in sending these out and I ask your pardon. Recently, I have been wrestling with a particular concern and only at the point that I have received some resolution have I been led to share it here.

Recently, I had dinner with a close spiritual sister in Christ at IHOP and while my fare was actually ‘breakfast’, after the joking and light conversation, I got down to the concern at hand. You see, I had been subtly, and through implication, accused of legalism. Now I received some very godly advice which I will share shortly.

The dictionary defines legalism as “strict, literal adherence to the law or to a particular code, as of religion.” Often this is the definition that many in the secular and Christian world have in mind when they think of legalism. However, a slightly different understanding of the word defines legalism as “any attempt to rely on self-effort to either attain or maintain our justification before God.” Amazing how different the two definitions are. The world would have us believe that any time there is a strict adherence to God’s law, there is legalism. [Also, justification is the declaration of a person to be just or righteous.]

The basis for that belief often rests with this portion of scripture, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6b) yet without the verses that precede this section of scripture, we can easily lose context (4-6: “And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”). Obviously God is not teaching us that obeying His laws kills us, nor is He saying that we can be obedient to the letter of the law (which would be blasphemy). God is telling us that “Salvation by trying to keep the law” is futile, and will only bring the judgment of death for failing to keep it faithfully.

We are insufficient, in and of ourselves, to gain or maintain justification before God. In other words, if we depend upon keeping the law (our own righteousness), our failure will condemn us to death, but a dependence upon Christ (and thus His Righteousness), will bring everlasting life. There is no possibility of man standing ‘justified’ before God because no man can keep the “whole” law perfectly, and that is what would be required for anyone to be justified by it. Consider James 2:10, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” (Wow!)

So the next question that may be asked is if self-effort is insufficient, is obedience to God important? Isn’t strict obedience wrong? Consider what is given to us in 1 John 2:3-5: “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.”

Obedience to God’s Word is not legalism but more of an exhortation to obey and follow God. A recent article speaks to the disturbing trend of defining obedience as legalism for the sake of modernism:

The sad reality of modernism is that more and more Churches are using the word “legalism” pejoratively (as criticism) so that keeping God’s commandments is almost seen as a bad thing. That is to say, they are misusing the word so that it might come up in a conversation condemning anything from preaching against homosexuality to preaching against women Pastors. In fact it has become increasingly popular among Ministers and Parishioners alike to accuse Christians of being legalistic whenever they bear witness to anything that the Lord has forbidden.

Typically they will abrogate or make void any testimony against immorality, impropriety, or illegality, by labeling them examples of legalism. Likewise, those who faithfully witness that we should remain obedient, are called Pharisaic. And both these terms are usually used by those who don’t really understand what either of them really mean. Many of these have fallen so far from the faith of our fathers that they no longer recognize the difference between legalism, and the righteous exhorting the Church to adhere to God’s laws.

Scripture also reminds us, Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end. [Hebrews 3:12-14 (NKJV)]

Now is a good time to ask yourself if you have been “hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” for the sake of modernism. Now as for the advice given me by my sister in Christ, I was reminded that anytime we are inclined to believe that God’s word is outdated, has not kept up with the times or is in need of a more current revision, refer to Psalm 119:89 (NIV): Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.

A more direct translation of the same verse is seen here in The Message Bible: What you say goes, God, and stays, as permanent as the heavens. Your truth never goes out of fashion; it’s as up-to-date as the earth when the sun comes up. Your Word and truth are dependable as ever.

So I offer to each person that reads this message to exhort obedience to God’s Word, not only to yourselves but to others as well. Do not let the deceitfulness of sin cloud your minds and harden your hearts. God’s Word is simple and pure yet we can make it confusing when we operate by feelings or anything that is contrary to the Word of God.

Yes, legalism is wrong but obedience to God’s Word is never wrong. Our own efforts do not make us righteous, only the righteousness of Christ Jesus has made us worthy of salvation. Remember that the friendship of the world (or modernism, in order to blend in) is enmity with God. There will be some that feel that pursuing obedience to God’s Word is legalism but I hope that some confusion has been removed here. Not all will embrace these words. Some may experience persecution for their obedience but know this, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” (2 Timothy 3:12). If the world despises you because of your obedience, take comfort; Jesus said, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18)

I pray God’s favor upon each person that receives this message. And as always, be blessed and be a blessing.


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