Recently, I was discussing with a friend of mine my desire to be obedient to God’s commands in a particular area of my life, even though by being obedient to God it may cost me greatly. His response was that this was very “legalistic” and likened it to the Pharisees of the New Testament.
There seems to be a great deal of confusion among some Christians between obedience to God’s commands and legalism. The two are often confused but are not the same. Being obedient to God’s commands is something required by Jesus Himself “if you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15) whereas legalism is explicitly condemned by the New Testament in Galatians 5:4. The former is necessary for salvation and is required by the Lord, whereas the latter is an attempt to earn favor with God by being obedient to Jewish laws such as circumcision apart form God’s grace. An extension of legalism in today’s age might be an attempt to earn God’s salvation by obeying laws apart from God’s grace, as if one could merit salvation apart from God’s assistance. Such a notion is heretical but should not be confused with being obedience to God’s commands. Obedience is obeying God with the help of God’s grace, whereas legalism is obedience to God’s commands apart from God’s grace in order to attempt to justify oneself before God. Though this explanation is somewhat of an oversimplication of obedience and legalism, it is sufficient for our purposes here.
I fear that many who bear the name of Christ through their Trinitarian baptism will be in for a rude awakening when they stand before God and have to answer for an antinomian lifestyle as a result of confusing obedience with legalism. Though only God is able to determine if one is truly culpable for their confusion of the two, which often results in an antinomian, or lawless life, it is a fearful thing to imagine standing before God and explaining why one wasn’t obedient to God’s commands.
“We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God[a] is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:3-6)