Obedience ≠ Legalism

Hi friends, brothers and sisters. I have really wanted to address this for a couple of months since the Lord first put it on my heart, but I also wanted to get more revelation from Him so that I would not just be giving my opinion. I have had a couple of opportunities to talk about it with some friends and brothers as it pertains to their circumstances (I hope they have received and heeded G-d’s Word), but just in the last couple of days have I heard the Spirit letting me know now is the time to expound upon it.

G-d Himself gave me the words for the title of this particular post. As you can see, it is clear and concise. I will admit that we have to understand what “legalism” means in the correct sense for us to comprehend and apply this admonition to our lives. As the root implies, “legal” has to do with G-d’s laws, statutes, precepts and commands. G-d is the Judge of the whole universe and all authority comes from Him. Scripture is full of examples and words where obedience brings blessing, while disobedience brings about consequences, discipline, judgment or even eternal torment (these depend on factors such as the person’s heart, their saved or unsaved condition, attitude and mindset, among other things).

Legalism can be expressed as an over-attachment or dependence upon the letter of the law rather than the spirit (intent) behind it, as a means either of salvation or as a manner of living out one’s life and faith before Almighty G-d. The problem lies not at all in the obedience but when one views his salvation as hinging upon it, or as a means of control over others to ensure it. Yes, we must believe (trust) and have faith, but it is entirely the grace of the Father (the free gift) that makes this possible. Another problem associated with, produced by or arising out of such a mindset is a hard and calloused heart. In other words, a hard and stony heart can cause it, and it can cause a hard heart. Neither is preferable. And the issue with this is that it leads to a limited understanding of, and relationship to, Almighty G-d, and with others as a result.

For many of us, it can be reinforced by our upbringing. Mom and Dad tend to reward us for our good behavior (obedience) and discipline us for our bad and unacceptable behavior (disobedience). Our parents or guardians are our first line of authority to whom we must submit, and we know that all authority comes from G-d (see Romans 13:1, 1 Peter 2:13-25). I was telling my wife this morning that I am somewhat sympathetic to the original, prevailing attitudes of the Pharisees because they were the religious leaders- teachers of the Law- and that for hundreds of years the somewhat cold awareness of sin and the need for cleansing was simply something that needed to be observed and kept. They often referred to Moses’ writings to validate themselves. But, as the Lord spoke to me years ago on the highway at night on a long drive to do prison ministry, “Are you doing this only to obey Me or is it also because you love and have compassion for them, and desire their salvation?”

Obedience is good and pleasing to our Creator, it is necessary and is a great place to start, but the relationship is the aim; they go hand-in-hand. We must always bear in mind that Almighty G-d is our Authority. It is to Him we must submit, as He is Lord. And obedience is the key that keeps the relationship going. In fact, if we look to the beginning in Genesis, we observe that our disobedience is what caused our original separation from G-d (and it has only grown) and created the need for a restoration process to come into play. This is the reason our Lord Jesus came to the earth and died an excruciating and substitutionary death for the sins of all humanity.

There is a casualness among many, if not all, believers towards G-d (myself included). We have gotten accustomed to His abundant mercy, steadfast love, continual grace, His unexpected and unsurpassed generosity and provision. This is a common thread in us, His disciples, and it creeps up on us. It is rarely intentional. It is quite human; we gravitate towards the good, easy and comfortable. We avoid tribulation, adversity, confrontation and affliction- almost at all costs. Thus the often heard phrase, “the path of least resistance” has become an unspoken mantra or motto for us, especially the Gentiles. They, the unsaved world, know or care little for the things of G-d and His righteousness, so they have not only a casualness towards their Creator, but a full-blown apathy or outright rejection. How worse the disease for them. They even deny their condition.

So having defined legalism and discussed casualness, let’s now talk about how we must find and live out (be hearers AND doers) the aim of obedience in the way that is pleasing and honoring to G-d Almighty.

The Spirit of the Lord gave me this simple and scriptural four-word phrase, “BE CAREFUL TO DO,” concerning what we are learning right now. For expediency, I searched it in Bible Gateway in the ESV Bible that I study, teach and preach from. The results came to over thirty scriptures, not including other words and phrases that had this same principle in different terminology. It would do each of you well to look up each one of them individually to “see” these jewels, and for their frequency and repetition to cement their importance in your mind, heart and Christian life- all as it pertains to loving your Savior! (It may be helpful to note that mostly all of the following references are found in Deuteronomy, the Book of the Law. Does the Lord give instructions or laws in vain or for them to be kept? You know the answer to that.)

“BE CAREFUL TO DO” … Exodus 23:22, Deuteronomy 5:1, 5:32, 6:3, 6:25, 7:11, 8:1, 11:22, 11:32, 12:1, 12:28, 12:32, 15:5, 17:10, 24:8, 26:16, 28:1, 28:13, 28:15, 31:12, 32:46, Joshua 1:7, 1:8, 22:3, 2 Kings 17:37, 21:8, 1 Chronicles 22:13, 28:10, 2 Chronicles 33:8, Ezekiel 18:19.

Would you characterize G-d as legalistic, overly concerned with strict obedience to His laws and commands for no particular reason (vanity)? Or would you say there are reasons for adherence to our Perfect Lawgiver? Many people view Him only as someone who is strict, cold, aloof towards us, authoritative, domineering, rule-centered, dictatorial, distant or other. Those who are tempted to think this way do not know the Father and, therefore, do not know Jesus Christ either (see John 8:19, 14:7, 16:3…). If He were concerned with us keeping the whole law only, He would not tell us that He wishes that no one would perish (2 Peter3:9), or tell us that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23) or that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). It is the lack of knowledge and hard-heartedness of man who loves his sin (see John 3:16-19, especially the latter verse) and rejects G-d, who sees Him as a threat to their so-called, wrongly-perceived “freedom.”

In the Book of Exodus, there are two particular commandments which are close to my heart. One, because the Lord put it there a few years ago. I do not struggle with obeying it personally (only due to the grace of G-d!) but I strive with enforcing it with and in others. It is the third commandment which says, “Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.” In today’s culture, this is most frequently heard when people, even many Christians, exclaim “Oh my G–!” This is totally in vain as they are not talking to Him or about Him. It is futile. This is extremely abominable to our Holy, Perfect heavenly Father! He even warns us in the very next breath of this same verse that “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” Given the massive overabundance of the OMG phrase echoed today, there are innumerable souls walking around guilty of that offense alone!

Second is the commandment- not suggestion- found in verses eight through eleven. It stresses the importance to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath (rest, abstinence from work) to the Lord your G-d. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made Heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

Just so you know that I do what I explain and speak to others (see Romans 2:21), my wife and I decided a few days ago to put our particular routine under this command as well. We will “BE CAREFUL TO DO” our laundry on the other six days. There is plenty of time the rest of the week, we just need to make it a priority so we can be careful to do as the Lord has instructed us. And if you are tempted to think about using the machines to do the work (washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, etc.), human work is still involved in the loading and unloading, the applying of cleaning liquid and/ or softener, the folding, the putting away. And you must liken these machines (doers of our labor), to the admonition in verses 10-11 which refer to “your son, your daughter, your male servant, your female servant, your livestock, or the sojourner…” Those of you who own your own businesses should not be open on Sunday or to allow your employees to work either. Whether they are Christian or not, the Lord’s perfect ways are for us all. You will be accountable even if you are off, while forcing your laborers to violate the Sabbath.

As the title of this post states, this is not legalism; it is obedience. The Lord gives us many freedoms in differing situations in His Word, but these commandments are just that, “rules given by God to be observed and kept.” Going back to Genesis 2:16-17, “and the Lord commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” We know what transpired. Whether they thought and reasoned, whether they were lied to and deceived, whether they wrongly assumed authority in the devil that only belongs to G-d, the bottom line is that they disobeyed. They sinned. I’m quite sure Eve did not view G-d as being legalistic, not would she have dared to do that.

Turn with me in your Bibles, please, to a true case-in-point found in 1 Samuel 15:1-35. Please take the time to read it for yourself right now before going any further and keep it opened. I won’t re-post it here, but let’s summarize it to see how correct, full obedience (“be careful to do”) is of great value and importance to our Lord Jesus Christ, and how anything less just won’t do. I urge you again to read it first before just reading over the synopsis here, or the effect and practical understanding for your life will be lacking.

The passage begins as Saul has been anointed and appointed King over Israel by the prophet Samuel. The Lord tells Saul to “devote to destruction” every Amalekite- “man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey”- because they had opposed Israel (G-d’s chosen people) while they came up out of Egypt. G-d tells Saul in verse three, “Do not spare them.” In other words, kill them all. (He is very zealous towards His sons and daughters, just as we are.) Verse eight tells us that Saul begins to veer from G-d’s command by saying, “And he (Saul) took Agag King of the Amalekites alive.” Verse nine relates further deviance in this way, “But Saul spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good (remember, when Eve disobeyed she thought that the fruit was good), AND WOULD NOT UTTERLY DESTROY THEM. All that was despised and worthless [only] they devoted to destruction.” Is this what the Lord’s commandments were? To spare the King and to keep the spotless animals? Saul obeyed in part. He was not “careful to do.”

Beginning in the next verse and going forward, the Lord tells Samuel- Saul’s personal prophet and the Lord’s unmistakable mouthpiece- that He regretted making Saul King because he turned back and did not perform His commandments. This disobedience even angered the prophet. A couple of verses later Saul greets Samuel saying, “I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” Samuel refutes Saul’s claim of obedience by asking him, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of oxen that I hear?” In other words, since G-d told you to kill everything, why is Agag still alive, along with the sheep and the other animals? If you did as the Lord commanded, I would not see the Amalekite King and there would be silence instead of animal noises. Their voices are the evidence of your disobedience!

Saul tried to explain away his guilt by saying the people had spared the best of the animals to sacrifice to G-d; maybe this was true, maybe it wasn’t. Skip ahead to the lesson our Father wants to clearly communicate to all of us today in the words of G-d spoken through His prophet directly to His servant (Saul, you and me), in verses 22-23, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, TO OBEY IS BETTER than sacrifice, AND TO LISTEN than the fat of rams. For rebellion (disobedience) is as the SIN of divination, and presumption is as INIQUITY and idolatry. Because you have rejected (chosen to dismiss, deemed worthless by disobedience) the Word of the Lord, He has also rejected you (seen you as unfit and unuseful) from being King.”

Obedience is not legalism. Obedience is loving your heavenly Father. Obedience is not pausing to think, consider or reason, but simply to hear and to do. As hard as it may be to want to make sense of His commands at times (His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts), they often times may not. Obedience is the proper response in acknowledgment of God’s authority, sovereignty and kingship over our lives. Isaiah expresses this well in chapter 45, verse 9, “Woe to him who strives with Him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to Him who forms it, ‘What are You making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?”

G-d saved us while we were still sinners, horribly incapable of saving ourselves and, therefore, destined to death, and eternity in the lake of fire. This is how Jesus showed His love. Daniel addresses His Creator this way in chapter nine and verse four, “O Lord, the great and awesome G-d, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love Him and keep His commandments.” 1 Corinthians 7:19 says, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of G-d.” Solomon, the wisest man who has ever lived, teaches us quite succinctly in Ecclesiastes 12:13, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. FEAR G-D AND KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS, FOR THIS IS THE WHOLE DUTY OF MAN.”

G-d bless you with the grace you need. (Hebrews 4:16!!!)


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    1. Wow! What a wonderful thing to say. But I’ve gotta give credit where it is due…to the Father! We can do nothing without Him, right? That means the we (the branches) must remain in Him (our Vine).


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