Obedience, Grace, and Legalism

We throw the term legalism around somewhat casually – especially when looking at the Scribes and the Pharisees. In fact, many of us would be considered legalists by members of other congregations. However, legalism is not necessarily solely defined by one’s concern with adhering to God’s word. Rather, it is in the attitude toward that obedience that might determine legalistic tendencies.

What Legalism Is Not

Legalism is not merely believing in a set of laws. In Romans 3:27, Paul speaks of a law of faith, and I Corinthians 9:20-21 claims that we are still under the law of Christ even outside the law of Moses. The author of Hebrews, in 8:10, says God’s law should be in our hearts, and James 2:12 claims we will be judged by a law of liberty. The apostles all feel that adhering to a law is important, and that law is Christ’s – still applicable today.

Along with this, Matthew 7:21 admonishes us to do the will of God the Father. We must not only believe God has a law, but we must be willing to submit to it. Hebrews 5:8 and James 1:25 both emphasize doing what is written in the law. It is not simply legalistic to adhere to God’s will. That is just being a faithful Christian.

If we believe that God has a law that He expects to be followed, then we must be willing to accept that disregarding that will separates us from God. John 12:48 records Jesus saying that His word judges he who rejects Christ. II John 9 warns us that living outside Christ’s doctrine sets us outside a relationship with God. Finally, II Thessalonians 1:7 begins a frightening description of that judgment. These are all simple Bible principles, and they are not indicative of legalism in the Pharisaical sense.

The Trap of Legalism

Simply, legalism is believing that we are saved by our adherence to God’s law separate and apart from God’s grace. Remember the Pharisees claiming their lineage from Abraham set them above falling from grace? Likewise, we may create a false sense of confidence or assurance that relies primarily upon self rather than God’s grace. Ephesians 2:1-8 and Romans 3:24 emphasize the role of grace and mercy in our salvation. We ourselves are incapable of saving ourselves, of atoning for sins of ourselves. We need God’s intervention. We need the ransom Jesus paid on our behalf.

If I am legalistic, I feel that I deserve my salvation. However, Romans 5:7-10 makes it clear that salvation was provided while we were still separated from God, even labeling ourselves as enemies. My own life cannot draw me back to God. It is Christ’s sacrifice. Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 3:4-5 again remind us that salvation is not something we can have merited or rightly deserve – it is a gift given of love and grace.


Man cannot earn salvation. While we must adhere to God’s will, we can’t, for a moment, think that being faithful earns us God’s grace. We obey God out of love, service, and honor. Paul, Romans 3:26-27, makes it clear that we earn no glory by following the law of faith, and Jesus, in Luke 17:10, says this.

So likewise, when you have done all those things which are commanded you, say, “We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”

God has expectation of us as His children and as His servants, but, at the end of the day, we can do no more than we are expected to do. Our obedience brings us closer to God, but our salvation hinges on God’s grace, on Jesus’ sacrifice, and we should be careful to avoid the trap described in Luke 18:9-14. We need God’s intervention for our souls, and nothing we can do replaces the role He has in our lives.

lesson by Tim Smelser