Is Obedience Legalism?

Last fall Charisma magazine published a letter to the editor from a gay reader who objected to an earlier article lumping homosexual behavior together with other sins like adultery, fornication, and infanticide.  

The reader was incensed, claiming the article in essence “rebound [him] by a spirit of legalism”. He scolded the author for forgetting that “Jesus and His cross replaced that law for me.  And I doubt that He would consider my God-given sexuality as a sin since it does not violate God’s law of love for self and others.”  He then referenced Matthew 22:36-40.

My TV fare is pretty boring: movies, an occasional sporting event, and reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond.  In last night’s episode, Ray’s police brother Robert toyed with arresting him and his father for gambling.  The two had been playing poker with some of Frank’s cronies.  Not wanting to seem led by his father who warned him against playing too aggressively, Ray bet big and lost $2300 to his dad.  What he couldn’t understand was Robert’s dismay at the fact that they were gambling.  “Nobody got hurt!”  To which Rob replied, “Oh, so if no one got hurt, it’s not against the law?”
Increasingly that is what people without a religious framework think: no harm, no foul.  However God identifies sin not just as something that hurts another, but something that offends his glory.  Worshiping other gods doesn’t “harm” in the sense we usually think, but it is the most grievous of all sins, the first one God gets to in the 10 commandments. 

Furthermore, no professing Christian can sweep aside God’s self-revealing 66 books–or even 39 of them–and replace it with a bite-sized Bible called “Christ’s law of love”.  First, this so-called law contains no specifics.  What one person decides is love will undoubtedly be disputed by numerous others.  Who decides?  Me?  Based on what?  A word from God?  A subjective inner voice that overrules the Word from God He’s already given?  
And then there’s the legalism piece.  Many Christians would rather be called “scum” than a “legalist”.  It’s the scarlet “A” in the church, even worse than being called a fundamentalist.  Seems like nowadays you’re a legalist if you call for righteous obedience to God’s law.”  Really?  Au contraire, there is no legalism in obedience.  
A common use of legalism is to describe mandates and no-no’s that groups and churches require of their people which cannot be found in God’s revelation: such as forbidding women to use makeup or wear shorts.  But legalism is actually banking on my words and deeds (doing good ones and avoiding bad ones) to save me. Over against that, biblical obedience is the glorious and thankful response of believer who has been saved. 
The same Jesus the letter-writer pointed to for his defense is also the one who wondered, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord, but do not do what I say?'” (Luke 6:46).  The Word of the Lord insists that homosexual behavior is sin that is part of the old life–not the new (Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).  Like my pride, my lies, my cursing, it is something to repent of–not rejoice in.  
I agree with Chuck Colson that when we teach grace we make it so free it is dangerous; dangerous in that a hearer might misunderstand and abuse grace.  Yes, that’s the independently operating nature of God’s grace.  But today’s licentious, antinomian [people who are “anti-law” or anti code] environment requires that we be just as forthright that obedience is not simply optional for the Christian. Jesus died so that those who by faith receive the benefits of His work on the cross, might be a cause for praise to their heavenly Father for the “…obedience that accompanies [their] profession of the gospel…” (2 Corinthians 9:13). 

2 thoughts on “Is Obedience Legalism?”

  1. Excellent post. I grew up with a bit of legalism. My mother spoke of it and I am supposing she learned it in church. I was told a christian should not wear make=up, sleeveless dresses, should not go barelegged. My mom still carried some of those beliefs late in life. It is terrible to live under those man made rules.

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  2. Those who feel oppressed by legalistic attitudes need to seek God’s word. I think legalistic structures start out God praising and then somewhere get self righteous because of sin. So if we can consistently repent we can get clear perspective on why we are doing certain things or why we refrain from them. If our conclusion is that we are sinful and nothing but Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection can get us to God, we have no fear of legalism. We become obedient because we love Christ. It brings joy and security. God is protecting us and we are honoring Him.

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