Keeping Commandments & Legalism?

John 14:15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”

The one thing conservative followers of the Bible dread is being labeled a “legalist.” Legalism is a term that is often misunderstood and used by those who want freedom from following the Bible. Associated with legalism is the picture of a person who is narrow minded, judgmental, always pointing out what is wrong and, worst of all, a modern day Pharisee. To be called a legalist is not a compliment. It is a prejudicial term that shuts down discussions, closes doors and is considered a strict and dying sect that no one on the outside wants anything to do with.

I have heard of folks walking away from churches and their parting shot is “they are legalists.” Most times, these folks dance merrily off to places where the Bible isn’t followed closely at all and just about anything and everything is allowed. They rejoice in their new found freedom never realizing that they are drinking the poison of error and are setting a new course apart from God.

Our verse today is not a call for legalism. Jesus wants us to obey Him. Over and over the New Testament states this. John wrote, “And the one who keeps His commandments abides in Him and He in Him” (1 John 3:24). He writes in the second letter, “Any one who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son” (2 Jn 9). In Hebrews, “and having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation” (Heb 5:9). The apostles were instructed to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).

God wants us to obey Him. There is no getting around that. To believe that it doesn’t matter what we do, is simply ignoring what the Bible specifically teaches. A church that is just wanting to do what the Bible teaches and nothing else and nothing more, is not legalistic. It’s Bible based. The proper word is “Biblical.”

Can I obey Jesus without being a legalist? Can I do what He wants me to do? Can I hope and pray that everyone else also just obeys Jesus? What a great world we would live in today if everyone just obeyed Jesus. Wanting what God desires is not legalism. Obedience is not legalism. Those that drop that term so often do not understand the word that they are using, nor do they understand the desires of God, and worse, by their very misuse of that word, they are law-less. They are doing things without the permission or the authority of God. Jesus was asked “by what authority are you doing these things and who gave you that authority?” That was a fair question. Whose in charge? Who is making up the rules? If not God, then who?

We need to obey Christ. That is how our faith and love to Him is expressed. “If we walk in the light, as He is in the light…” is how John began his statements about fellowship. Following Christ is not a bad thing. One should never have to apologize for doing what God tells them to do.

Jesus did not rebuke the Pharisees for obeying God. He rebuked them for being hypocrites and
for putting their traditions above the law. Their traditions, were just that, theirs. It wasn’t from Heaven. It’s how they saw things. They made up rules, laws and ways folks had to do things. If those weren’t followed, then they judged others as being wrong. After amazing miracles in the synagogues, instead of praising God and blessing Jesus, the Pharisees criticized Jesus because He broke their Sabbath traditions. The bent over woman, the man with the withered hand-just a couple of examples of Pharisees complaining to Jesus about what day of the week He was healing people on. That was the problem in the N.T. It wasn’t because folks were obeying God. The Pharisees were hypocrites. They expected others to do what they weren’t doing themselves. Hypocrisy and man’s traditions can trip us. They can get in the way of obeying God. Traditions change. Traditions come and go. Traditions do not fit everyone, nor in every situation. God’s word does. There is a major difference between traditions and obedience to Christ. I am not a legalist because I obey Jesus. He wants me to.

The opposite of perceived legalism, is bending the rules to fit our needs. In such cases, lying might be ok. If it avoids getting a speeding ticket, in trouble with your wife, or boss, a little lying is ok. Really? Who decided this? Yet, if a person declares, you should never, ever lie, that person is called a legalist. God said we should not lie. Does obeying God make a person a legalist?

The Bible doesn’t specifically say anything about the church using it’s money to send kids to camp or to do some social things, as long as the results are good, we shouldn’t be too fussy about being so strict about things. That’s the counter to obeying God. For someone to say, where does the Bible show us that we can use our collected money to send kids to camp, immediately someone will shout, “legalist.” Wanting to stick with God and the Bible is not legalism. The proper word is “obedience.” The word is “Biblical.”

When folks flee from obedience for fear of being labeled a legalist, then the barn doors are opened and anything and everything happens. Who ever is in charge makes the rules. They will do what they want. I’ve seen it go so far as allowing women to preach, claiming folks do not have to be baptized to be saved, to the church running car washes and looking and acting just like every other modern church today. They smile because “we are not legalists.”

I simply want to obey Christ. He knows what I am like and what I need. He is the one who will save me. He is the one who my hope is in. He was obedient to His Father in all things. He pleased His Father. I want to be like that. I will be labeled a legalist by those who want to be lawless. They will misuse that word because they do not understand that word. They will call me narrow and strict. Yet, didn’t our Lord first use those words when He said the way was narrow that leads to life? Truth tends to be narrow. One and one is two. That’s narrow. If I am not narrow, then what am I? Open to any and every idea? Happy to do things that God never said to do? On the broad and wide path that leads to destruction?

I think to soothe the conscience of some, it is easier to point the finger at obedient people and call them legalists. Our faith, our relationship and our fellowship with God is all defined by our connection to His word. I cannot be right with God and wrong with the Bible. How can I say I love God, yet I disobey what He says? Follow Christ. Be imitators of Christ. Imitate God’s love. Forgive just as God has forgiven us in Christ. Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loves the church. Over and over the New Testament teaches us to follow Christ. Do what Christ did. Have this attitude or mind in you as Christ did. It never speaks of doing things differently than Christ. It never calls upon us to be unique or different. It never calls obedience legalism.

I simply want to obey Christ. Don’t you?