You Cry "Legalism!" Because You Don't Want to Obey

There most certainly exists a sliding scale of obedience within Christendom.  The lines between what actions are right, wrong, and nuetral are blurred, and in some cases obliterated.   Inevitably, when pushing the boundaries of Christian Liberty, there will be those in the church that accuse other “not so free” Christians of being legalistic.  Unfortunately, these accusations are often subjective and based on something other than the clear tenets of scripture properly interpreted.  What is legalism, or what does it mean to be legalistic?  Lets take a look at three kinds.

1.  The first kind of legalism is where the law of God is kept in order to obtain salvation.  This is contrary to scripture, and an affront to Christ and His suffering on the cross.  It is, in fact, heresy.  See Romans 4:5, Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:21, and related passages.  It is theological and practical impossibility to earn, attain, or obtain your own salvation.  Any attempt by others to require you to do so may be classified as legalistic.

2.  The second kind of legalism is where a person tries to keep or maintain his salvation by keeping the law.  This is also a false doctrine.  Our salvation is attained by faith, not our ability to “do good things.” Ephesians 2:8-9  We are justified by faith, not our works.  Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:21, Romans 4:5, Romans 3:10-12  Galatians 3:10 directly opposes this line of thinking.  “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.”  In a nutshell, if a person is trying to maintain his or her own salvation by keeping the law, then he or she better keep the whole law.  Salvation is not kept by any effort of our own.  James 2:10

3.  The last kind of legalism, and the thrust of this article is where a select group of Christians follow certain laws or rules and hold in contempt those who do not measure up to their preconceived holiness.  These “laws” or “rules” are often based on misinterpreted scriptures or based on some other private and subjective revelation outside of scripture.  There is little debate that murder, theft, lying, and the like are wrong.  Whether we as Christians like to admit it or not, there are “debatable” areas.  There are biblically grey or neutral zones in behavior.  We must take great caution in calling others to comply with our own convictions in those areas.  Romans 14:1-12 speaks directly to these issues and how we should handle them.

In any of the three cases above, “legalism” may rightly be applied.  However, the point I wanted to address is when Christians cry “legalism” unjustly because they simply don’t want to obey.  Christians Make Disciples.  It’s not just part of what we do, it’s what we are.  We are to “be” makers of disciples makers.  Jesus said, Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

Jesus commanded many things and part of being a disciple of Jesus is to obey those things.  It is human not to obey.  It is human to want to place many of those commands into the debatable arena, the neutral zone, or the grey area so that we don’t have to obey.  As that zone of permissible activity widens so too do the accusations of legalism get hurled against those who are trying to conscientiously trying to follow Christ.  The next time you hurl the “legalist” accusation at someone, ask yourself if you’re doing so because you simply do not want to obey what Christ has clearly commanded.

A few questions:

Are there many debatable, neutral, or grey actions in being a disciple of Jesus?  What are some examples?

What precautions must we take in exercising our personal Christian liberties?

Can we, and should we, ever accuse anyone of being legalistic?

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0 thoughts on “You Cry "Legalism!" Because You Don't Want to Obey

  1. Much that is legalistic in our thinking about God sounds so good on the surface. We say that” we must obey, the Scripture says so.” And I totally agree once we see what the word obey actually means in the original languages. The word translated obey is Strongs 5219 ὑπακούω [hupakouo /hoop·ak·oo·o/] in the Greek and means TO BE UNDER THE HEARING OF. The Hebrew word translated obey in the Old Testament means the same, to be under the hearing of. What are we to be under the hearing of? Jesus said, ““My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (John 10:27–29, NASB95)

    If you and I will go to the Father and wait on Him we will hear from Him. It might be through Scripture. It might be through circumstances. He might speak to you in your mind or even audibly. The point is when you hear Him you must do what He says, say what He tells you to say to those whom He instructs you to speak. You do not have the place or authority to tell others to obey. Encourage others to seek God for themselves. Help if you are able. Be a support in the search. The Scripture God has given us is not a rule book it is a window into the God life. If is a door into the Kingdom. It tells us what He has accomplished for us. We must never construct rules and Man Made Doctrines from its words. And unfortunately this is what we have often done.

    Lets stop it and Know Jesus. He will see us through!

    • Marc Winter says:

      Robert, Well said!

      The biblical term “obey”, is usually misunderstood, and sometimes mistranslated. Hebrews 13:17 commonly translated as “Obey those who have the rule over you…” the word “obey” in this instance is Strong’s 3982 πείθω peithō. meaning to be “persuaded by”.

      There is a very easy answer for the obedience question. If we love the Truth, and are acquainted with the Truth, we will walk in the Truth, as the Truth Himself reveals His will to us. If we do not love the Truth, there is no Truth in us, and outward signs of obedience are meaningless.

      • Miguel says:

        I think we have to be careful in narrowing down the 52 occurrences of the word “obey” to just one meaning.πείθω

        • Marc Winter says:

          Miguel, I agree, we should not accept any translation at face value, if the text is very important to us. “Obey” would probably be a good word study. I ran across two different instances of the word “obey” today. Guess what, two for two, neither one mean obey.

          Strong’s Number G5293 matches the Greek ὑποτάσσω (hypotassō).This word was a Greek military term meaning “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader”. In non-military use, it was “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating… Hebrews 13:1

  2. David Woods says:

    I agree. People do this constantly.

  3. Kat says:


    I think that maybe if Christ was debatable, neutral, or gray, then he would have said so to his disciples and also to us, his disciples. Is Christ a thing that is debatable, neutral or gray? I must answer no.

    The only precautions we must take in exercising our our freedom in Christ is not to stumble a brother and sister, which is of course, causing them to do something that is not in faith, thus damaging their conscious, and stumbling them in the faith. Jesus’ disciples are mature and some also are young in Spirit, to offend our brother or sister is to make them step out of faith and stumble. Nothing should be done that is not in Faith; what is not in faith is a sin.

    Accusing is the wrong word in regard to being legalistic, I think. If one is living under written law, instead the law of Christ who indwells us and reigns in us, then that is one thing we could perhaps speak in private to a person who is dwelling in the way of death, for we have already died to the law, but now Christ reigns in us. Now, if this person is leading others, the new disciples of Jesus Christ, into death via the demands in written law instead of to Christ who commands them from within, then maybe a warning to the new disciples regarding what following the written law instead of following Christ means, which is death or Life. As Christ Himself lived by the indwelling life of Father, doing and saying as Father was doing in saying in Him, for he always did as Father commanded him, it was Father doing the work in Him and though Him, Jesus always pleases Father. Jesus denied Himself daily. If we are followers of Christ we too will pick up our cross daily and deny ourselves, and live by the Spirit of Life in us. The law of Christ written in our hearts, the law of the Spirit of Truth and Life; the law written in our heart is a Person, the Spirit of Christ in us.

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