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Legalism and Obedience: What’s the Difference?

Woman standing in front of sanctuary facing altar
Legalism is a very real danger in the Christian life. But unfortunately, too many think of legalism as any strong desire for obedience.

Maybe it happened after a week at church camp or after that week at a Christian conference. You had a great time and returned to your normal life with renewed energy and commitment to live out your Christian faith. As a result, you gave up a few bad habits and renewed some good ones, and then it happened. You shared your experience with someone, and he dumped a bucket of cold water on your excitement: “Don’t be so legalistic!”

Legalism is a very real danger in the Christian life and one Christians should carefully avoid. But unfortunately, too many think of legalism as any strong desire for obedience. “Yes, work out your faith, but don’t try too hard or you might find yourself on that slippery slope to legalism.” The all-encompassing way legalism is applied to situations today shows that we don’t really understand it the way we should.

True legalism is the belief that following specific rules is the way Christians get saved and grow in Christ. It boils the Christian faith down to a specific list of dos and don’ts. Christians should do certain things, and they shouldn’t do certain things. Historically, Christians have been legalistic about lots of things (alcohol, tobacco, dancing, movies, etc). We establish a particular conviction for ourselves and then attempt to universalize it, expecting everyone else to follow the same conviction as well. Our conviction may be based on biblical principles and even something God is leading us in, but we shouldn’t necessarily expect other believers to share it. As Paul wrote to the church in Rome:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Romans 14:1-4).

Paul taught the church in Rome not to expect others to join them in their particular convictions and judge those who don’t. Instead, he reminds that all believers are accountable to Jesus and should strive to live out their own convictions without passing judgment on those who don’t share them. For example, some Christians may have a conviction not to drink alcohol and others may have a conviction that it is OK in moderation. Biblical principles may inform both of these convictions, but we must recognize there is no specific, biblical command. Therefore, this is an issue of conviction, and while we may discuss it with other Christians, we shouldn’t expect them to comply.

However, this takes discernment. Christians are called to live obedient lives, and there are times when we all need to be confronted for sin. There are specific things the Bible plainly commands, which should be obeyed by all. Jesus himself taught His disciples how to confront fellow Christians when they have sinned against them (Matthew 18:15-17). So there are times to confront, and there are times not to confront. It boils down to whether it’s an issue of conviction or command.

Another important distinction between obedience and legalism is the motive of the heart. Legalism is often motivated by a desire to earn our salvation or somehow pay God back. Legalism adds our own works to the saving work of Christ. Obedience, however, is never a type of payment, but rather an act of love. As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Obedience is a loving desire to obey Christ and serve Him. Again, legalism is the belief good works will save someone, and obedience is thinking Christ alone will save with the result being good works. As our love grows, so does our obedience. Obedience is always the result of Christ’s saving work, not part of that saving work.

Legalism also twists the way Christians grow in obedience. It boils growth down to a formulaic set of rituals and disciplines. Legalism says that specific disciplines or behaviors alone will cause someone to grow. It makes growth a mechanical process, “If you read your Bible and pray, you will grow.” We’ve all heard this before, but it ignores the real engine of growth. The Christian’s obedience is consistently described as a work of God. In the same way God has provided for our salvation, God also provides our growth in obedience. Consider Leviticus 22:16, “I am the LORD who sanctifies them.” Likewise, Peter regarded growth as the “sanctification of the Spirit” (1 Peter 1:2).

The Christian has a role to play in growth, but it’s the role of allowing the transforming power of God to work in them. Growing Christians agree and cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work in them. Jesus used the illustration of a vine and its branches to make this point (John 15:1-11). Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. As we abide in Christ, growth-producing sap flows into our lives. That is a key distinction between legalism and obedience. Legalism says if I perform spiritual disciplines, I get growth. Obedience says if I abide in Christ — through those same disciplines — the power of God brings growth into my life. It may seem a small distinction, but it is an essential one.

As believers in Christ, we should grow in obedience to Christ’s commands, motivated by love. There will be times to lovingly confront our brothers and sisters who have sinned, and there will also be times to lovingly accept our brothers and sisters who do not share our particular convictions. But above all, we should seek to love God and love each other. In Christ’s kingdom, love drives everything we do.

Perhaps the Apostle Paul put it best:

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Philippians 1:9-11).


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About the Author

Andrew Hess

Andrew Hess is a Sr. Communications Specialist at Compassion International. He formally served as the director of content at the White Horse Inn and editor of His writing has also been featured on the Gospel Coalition. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife Jen and their young son. Andrew and Jen met at the very first Boundless Pursuit conference at Focus on the Family in 2014.

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