How to Be Obedient Without Being Legalistic

By Pastor Doug Batchelor

An Amazing Fact: The Arabian is the oldest known breed of horse, dating as far back as 2500 BC. Bred by the Bedouins, nomads who made the vast, bleak desert their home, Arabian horses were highly valued as the primary mode of transportation in war and peace. One Bedouin even commented that a man’s horse was his life. As such, the horses had to be meticulously trained to endure and, ultimately, survive in the harsh environment. It is said that Bedouins disciplined their horses to such a degree that even after several days without water, their Arabians could be led to a river’s edge and still refrain from drinking until their master had signaled permission.

To the Bedouins and their horses, obedience was a determining factor as to whether they lived or died. To this day, the Arabian horse is lauded for its devoted affection to its master and its intelligence in heeding him. 

Interestingly enough, it seems quite the opposite within the Christian faith. The mere mention of obedience drums up accusations of legalism in opposition to grace, the cross, and love. You’ve heard it before: “We’re under grace, not the law”; “the Ten Commandments were nailed to the cross”; “God doesn’t care on which day we go to church.”

So let’s study this out. Does obedience have any role at all in the plan of salvation? Is teaching about obedience to God and keeping His commandments unnecessary—or worse, a denial of the faith?

The Basics

We’ll start with some basics. The fact of the matter is that we, the human race, need to be rescued. We’re slated to die the worst kind of death, eternal death, the penalty for sin—and we’ve “all sinned” (Romans 5:12). According to the Bible, “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). In other words, sin is breaking the law.

Which law? Read James 2:8–11. “You commit sin” (v. 9) when you break the Ten Commandments (v. 11). The Ten Commandments are God’s special “covenant” (Deuteronomy 4:13), or, according to one biblical lexicon, God’s “divine constitution.” So sin is disobeying the constitution, or law, of God. The whole reason we’re “waiting on death row” is because of our disobedience to God. That’s interesting. So since disobedience brings eternal death, does obedience bring eternal life? Disobedience is the problem, so does that make obedience the solution? Let’s find out.

Amazingly, God did not leave us to our ill fate. He provided a rescue mission in the form of the plan of salvation: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). So Christ’s purpose on this earth was to save us from eternal death and to give us eternal life instead (John 5:24; 10:28; 11:25, 26). Christ is our Savior: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). The Bible cannot be plainer: We are saved by God’s grace, not because we follow a set of rules. We are saved because of what Jesus Christ does, not because of anything we do. This is salvation by grace versus salvation by works.

Counterfeit Obedience

Have you ever accidentally bitten into a piece of artificial fruit? Nowadays, stores are selling wax fruit and silk flowers that look so real—except when you get up close and personal. They may look good, but they aren’t good.

That’s salvation by works. That’s legalism. A legalist believes that his own works earn him eternal life. There are examples of legalists in the Bible, whom Jesus simply called “hypocrites” (Matthew 23:13–15, 23, 25, 27, 29). He went on to explain: “For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. … You also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (vv. 27, 28). In other words, legalists appear as though they are obeying God, but they are not; they are like wax fruit. They’re a counterfeit of true obedience. Thus, they are lawbreakers; and as we know, those who break the law receive eternal death. Jesus said,

Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” (7:21–23).

Notice, however, that Christ also tells us who will be saved: Those who are obedient to God will be saved. See what just happened? Contrary to what many believe, the Bible makes a clear distinction between legalism and obedience.

But wait a minute. Did the Bible just contradict itself? We’re saved by grace, so what does obedience have to do with it? In order to understand, we need to look further into what Christ does to save us.

The Love of God

First, we know that Christ paid the penalty for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3). This is not, however, all Christ did for us: Christ “Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). “He [God the Father] made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

“Righteousness,” dikaiosúne in the original Greek, means “God’s judicial approval”; it means what God deems right in a legal connotation. Obviously, that would be God’s own law, the Ten Commandments. Righteousness, therefore, is obedience to God’s law. The purpose of God’s plan of salvation is to bring us into complete compliance with His law. How does God do that? How do we “become the righteousness of God in Him”?

Imagine you lived in an impoverished, war-torn country on the brink of self-destruction. But you had a friend who had immigrated to America; now he was risking life and limb to get you out too. Finally, he gets all the documentation you need plus a ticket on the last boat out of the country before it collapses. He’s traveled there himself to bring you back. He shows up on your doorstep, bruised, bloodied, and broken, having maneuvered past enemy troops, landmines, bombings—you name it. In his hand, he clutches those precious documents and that golden ticket. And when you open the door, he presents to you those papers for which he bled and suffered and sacrificed. You hug him and thank him—but then you turn him out and go back to watching your favorite television program.

Would that make any sense? Have you escaped certain annihilation at that point? How have you treated your friend who went through so much to save you?

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

“In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9, 10).

How does a person respond once he is made aware that Christ saved him because He loves him? The apostle John puts it simply: “We love Him [God] because He first loved us” (v. 19). And what happens when you love God?

“If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word” (John 14:23).

“For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3).

“This is love, that we walk according to His commandments” (2 John 1:6).

Put simply, the essence of true salvation is to obey God because we love Him. Legalism is obeying God in an attempt to earn salvation.

The Sequence of Salvation

The story of the Exodus gives us valuable insights into this relationship between love and obedience. The children of Israel were not saved from Egypt because they kept the Ten Commandments. Their journey to freedom began with the Passover sacrifice. Then, after God delivered them from Egypt, they did not go immediately north to the Promised Land; instead, they went to Mount Sinai—where He delivered to them His law. God intended that they should obey Him from love, because He had first shown His love for them when He saved them from slavery.

In the same way, Jesus invites us to come to Him just the way we are, with our weakness and sin, trusting in His sacrifice. Then we want to obey Him because we love Him. We love Him because He first loved us. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This principle can be seen in the prelude to the Ten Commandments, in which God reminds the children of Israel that He had saved them from the bondage of Egypt: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). The implication is that God is saying, “I have shown you My love in saving you; if you love Me, keep My commandments.” While they were not saved because they kept the law, they could not enter the Promised Land without obeying it. In the wilderness, they needed to learn to love, trust, and obey the Lord.

The Image of God

The fact of the matter is that even if we love God with all our heart and mind, we will never be able to keep God’s commandments in our own power. As David pled, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). To any sinner who does the same, our Savior responds: “I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10). 

We’re talking about a change of character. You are “transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2). “Beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, [you] are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). “You put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24), “the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Colossians 3:10). The Holy Spirit recreates you in “the image of,” in the character of, Jesus.

And Jesus never sinned (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15)—that is, He never broke the law. The Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Christ summed up the Ten Commandments in two statements: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37), and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 39). The law of God is simply the character of God in written form. In fact, Christ is literally referred to as the Word of God (John 1:1), God’s law manifested in the “flesh” (v. 14). Don’t miss this: God’s law is love; obedience to God is love.

The Savior’s life is set forth as perfect proof that we—through Him—are also able to completely obey God: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who committed no sin’” (1 Peter 2:21, 22). By this “we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2). “God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17, 18).

The End-Time Focus

The book of Revelation gives us an extraordinary window into the last days before Christ’s return. Students of Bible prophecy will notice its several series of seven—seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets. Careful study further reveals that these sevens correspond to chronological time periods of Earth’s history, with the seventh and last in the series representing our day and age.

Now, look at the passage describing the seventh trumpet. It points to the crucial focus of these last days. The final verse states:

Then the temple of God was opened in heaven, and the ark of His covenant was seen in His temple (Revelation 11:19).

The ark of the covenant contained the Ten Commandments (Exodus 31:18; 40:20).

Further on, in Revelation’s next chapter, a time prophecy known as the 1,260-year prophecy again places us squarely in the end times. The Bible prophesies that in this time, “the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17). “The dragon” is a symbol for the devil (v. 9). In these last days, the devil is targeting those who are obedient to God’s law.

Revelation then sounds the alarm against the mark of the beast, which will be established in these last days in opposition to the seal of God. A study of these symbols reveals an explosive final battle between the devil’s spurious mandate and one particular commandment in God’s law. And finally, the three angels’ messages, God’s last warning against the beast’s mark, exhort all believers: “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (14:12). Further, Revelation closes with this promise: “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14).  (If you haven’t studied these final events, our newest sharing magazine Earth’s Final Warning: The Three Angels of Revelation is a good place to start.)

The Bible is pulling no punches. God wants you to know unmistakably that obedience to His law is center stage in these last days.

The Litmus Test

Do you know what true obedience to God is? It’s love. It’s the external outpouring of what is already in your heart. True obedience matches the inside to the outside. When God gives you a new heart and puts a new spirit in you, He causes you to walk in His statutes; you will keep His judgments (Ezekiel 36:26, 27). This is how you become the righteousness of God “in” Christ. As the Bible states:

“If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).

“If a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die” (Ezekiel 18:21).

“He [Jesus] became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9).

Obedience to God isn’t the means of our salvation; it is the litmus test of our salvation. It distinguishes the saved from the lost. We are not saved because we obey God; we obey God because we are saved.

This is the full and inseparable plan of salvation, “for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13). You cannot pick and choose which parts you like best. You are saved through not only Christ’s death but also His life, by what God did on the cross and what He does in your heart. Obedience to God’s law is not legalism; it’s the indispensable step that so many are missing in their understanding of God’s grace.

It’s like a drug-addicted teenager whose parents find her overdosing on the bathroom floor. The parents rush the kid to the emergency room, where, after several agonizing days, she miraculously awakens from her coma. The teen is so grateful for this second lease on life and so horrified by what she has become. She goes to her parents to plead forgiveness, to beg for help to get clean and sober—and in response they say, “Oh, don’t worry about it, honey. You just keep on using and abusing. The next time you overdose, we’ll just run you to the hospital again.”

Is that a solution to the problem? Of course not. The solution is for the child to never use drugs again. There needs to be a permanent change, an actual, tangible transformation of behavior that stems from a sincere and ardent desire within the child. That’s what the plan of salvation is for us. God is our heavenly Father who wants to completely cut out the sin that has brought us to the brink of certain death. That’s why Christ died, so “that we might become” righteous (emphasis added). That word “might” denotes choice. The cross of Christ gave you a choice to be saved. Your response—either obedience or disobedience—is your decision.

A Battle to Obey

Of course, obedience typically is not an easy thing. It involves a battle against self. Even in Gethsemane, Jesus struggled with self to the point of perspiring blood—ultimately praying, “Not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).  The Bible describes the battle between self and sin as a war, a fight, a wrestling match, and a race (Ephesians 6:12; 1 Corinthians 9:7; 1 Timothy 6:12; Hebrews 12:1). The secret is that God’s power will come to assist our human effort to do His will.

The Bible is clear: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22); “for as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). “He [Christ] condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:3, 4).

Obeying God out of love for Him is proof positive that you’ve accepted God’s gift of salvation by grace. It is the highest demonstration of your love for God. And it matters in these last days more than ever.


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