Am I a Legalist if I Obey Jesus?

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While theologians debate “perfectionism,” believe it or not, most of us aren’t trying to be “perfect” for the sake of being a Pharisee. We love Jesus and want to please Him, to show appreciation for His great sacrifice and love. I don’t know that the woman washing Jesus’ feet was really thinking about being perfect. She loved Jesus and wanted Him to know it. She gave all of herself to Him because He gave all of Himself for her. Judas thought she was fanatical and maybe even legalistic. She wasn’t. She was just in love with Jesus.

Jesus tells us if we love Him to keep His commandments. Is it legalistic to do what Jesus asked? I hear people say, we can’t keep the commandments on our own. Jesus never told us to do it on our own. He promised a Helper.

 “If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:15‭-‬17 NKJV)

I want to keep the commandments because I love Jesus, and not so I can be a self-righteous pharisee, which is why I must die to self and let Jesus live through me. It is not my best plus Christ. My best isn’t worth filthy rags. I must die to self so that it is “not I but Christ.”

“My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20 NLT)

When Judah told Joseph to let him trade places with Benjamin, and he would be his slave, he wasn’t trying to be perfect and get a pat on the back. He loved his father Jacob and did not want to break his heart again by Jacob never seeing Benjamin again. Likewise many are not trying to keep the law to be “perfect,” but because they love Jesus, and He says, “If you love me keep my commandments.” Too many times their hearts have been broken. A broken and contrite heart God will never despise! Psalm 51:17. Many want freedom from addictions caused by sin. They are not proud or legalistic. They just love Jesus with all their hearts. This is why, after proclaiming all men sinners, Paul gave the remedy for sin – so we can stop self-destructive behavior which breaks our hearts and God’s. The remedy is not my best plus Christ’s best. The remedy is Jesus alone!

He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds. Titus 2:14 NLT

Many want freedom from sin, not so they can be self-righteous pharisees, but because they are tired of breaking Jesus’ heart, and the hearts of others they hold dear. These are promised victory!

Still, Paul knew there would always be legalists trying in their own strength to obey the Law of God. It’s a human-nature thing – we want to feel we deserve heaven. This is why Paul made it clear that only Jesus is righteous, and we can have victory only by allowing Him to work in us for God’s glory.

“May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ —for this will bring much glory and praise to God.” Philippians 1:11 NLT

Keeping the commandments and having freedom from sin is not legalistic. Overcoming sin by the Holy Spirit’s power, because we love God and want to glorify Him, is the fruit of the gospel.

Posted in 2017b Feed My Sheep, Feature Tagged , , permalink

About William Earnhardt

William Earnhardt has been a Bible Worker, literature evangelist and lay pastor in Oklahoma and Texas, before coming to the Tampa Bay area, where he has been a Bible instructor and lay pastor for the past 12 years. He has also held revivals and evangelism seminars, as well as soul winning workshops from Peru to Connecticut. You can find William's study guides and devotionals at


Am I a Legalist if I Obey Jesus? — 18 Comments

  1. Keeping God's commandments is not supposed be burdensome. Once we feel the burden to keep them then we are being legalistic. We should keep them first because he has commanded so, second because we obey the command (not forced to) Third because we appreciate the act of love He has done for us.

    • So true Motselisi. John says we love Him because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19

      "It is not the fear of punishment, or the hope of everlasting reward, that leads the disciples of Christ to follow Him. They behold the Saviour’s matchless love, revealed throughout His pilgrimage on earth, from the manger of Bethlehem to Calvary’s cross, and the sight of Him attracts, it softens and subdues the soul. Love awakens in the heart of the beholders. They hear His voice, and they follow Him." -Ellen White, Desire of Ages, Page 480

  2. Thank you. Refreshing. I stopped going to a women's Bible study after the third time I was verbally pounced upon as a legalistic for sharing the reality of victory over sin/obedience through loving surrender to Jesus.

  3. For years I lived in fear because the God I was raised with had my guardian angel following me around to record my sins. God was Not a God of love and all my actions were motivated from fear. I tried to love him because if I didn't i was disobedient. It has taken a lifetime to realize that He is a loving God and I hate to admit that I struggled with this perception. Now I understand how the truth sets you free and I thank God he preserved me through my ignorance, depression, guilt and shame.

    • Your experience is one that is likely shared by many. Because of the way we naturally think, it is hard to believe that God could be so kind and generous as to have our good as his objective.

      That God is a fault-finding judge, keeping track of every sin, and determined to use our every weakness to exclude us from his presence (and heaven) is Satan’s lying misrepresentation of God’s character. That we have to try harder not to sin, and to atone for our sins, is the corollary of this satanic theology. My wife struggles with this, as well, citing the threat of God’s “recording angel” as a prescription for “bad” behaviour. Realizing that Satan is the source of this destructive deception is a revelation of Christ’s spirit that begins our move from darkness into his marvelous saving light.

      Our Heavenly Father sent his Son to this earth to reveal his incredible love for us. It makes no sense that he would pay the terrible ransom of the cross only then to work to exclude us from his presence and his love. It is only by fixing our rapt attention on his Son that we will be truly free from sin and Satan’s deception.

      • You are so right Richard, "It makes no sense that He would pay the terrible ransom of the cross only then to work to exclude us from His presence and His love." It makes no sense at all.

    • How awesome it is that you/when we understand the relationship with Christ is what makes our love for Him burden less. May your love for Him grow daily.

  4. I see my need for God through relating His love to others. When confronted with a person on the street asking for money and when at times I comply, they say "God bless you". If there was just one thing I could say that would change their lives I would. So I say "you too" and go on my way. Recently my brother passed away, he was only 44. I know about his struggles because we were friends most of the time. In the end he couldn't pray for himself, so I prayed with him. I mean in his heat he loved Jesus and He understood fully God's sacrifice and I don't know about his inner prayers and request to God but I do know He wanted more time, more time to serve God and be the man in his heart he wanted to be. It's only been three weeks or so since he died, I find the best comfort for the sadness is spending time in my bible.

  5. When I first became a believer some 35 years ago I knew there were many things I had to fix. I haven\'t fixed much but I have realized that (as I see the Savior more clearly) every particle of me is corrupted. I also see that the law is the perfect mechanism for my protection. I love Thy law but I am in opposition to it (the law has become death to me). It is Messiah alone who can fix me. The harder I try the worse I fail. In my heart I keep the law. Like Paul, in the flesh I fail. Until we properly understand Romans (particularly 7 and 8) we are doomed to chase our tails on this subject.

  6. Chris, I have asked this question before. It has to do with love. It is similar to your comment" I love your law.... How do we truly understand being in love with God for instance? Is this an emotion or a compulsion? Is there any, or very little feeling. From a Pharisee lawyer, Matthew 22:37-40. Do we always have this kind of love and if so how? I have wondered Do we give or apply the type of love that God deserves? Many of our finite minds struggle with these type of issues.

  7. William, the original question can be answered in at least two ways. The first way needs no explanation, if I know and understand what a legalist is. Secondly, and probably the most important, what does obedience to God require? Keeping particular commandments or all the commandments? A hint would be Matthew 22:40. The question may not be as strait forward as was intended, but it may be interesting to see what develops if anything.

    • Another commendent we want to keep is found in a few text back. MATTHEW 22:13. Put on the wedding garment. Not to hard a command to follow, if we love God. But ridiculous to those who choose not to follow Christ. That is why He said "For many are called (invited, summoned), but few are chosen". MATTHEW 22:14. You have to choose Him to be chosen by Him.

  8. A wounderfull article. Explains the good news of Romans. How? Romans, Titus, Philippians, Galitians, John, all support the Good News of the Gospel. Christ came to us, born, lived, died, was resurrected to save us from our sins. We will serve Him because we love Him, He is more than life to us. Yes, we will serve thee because we love thee. You have given life to us. We were nothing before you found us.
    Heartaches broken pieces
    Ruined lives are why you died on Calvary. Your touch was what we longed for. You have given life to us.
    Good Day

  9. Bill P,
    I feel for you with the loss of your brother. My son was 43 who died 2 years ago, and by what I hear from others I think he had reached the stage of not being able to pray for himself too. He loved God, but struggled with 'Jesus'. I know it was Satan's deceit and lies that confused him so much that he gave up on life. My Pastor helped me through this and convinced me to leave my son in God's care, which I can see is the only thing to do. More important in my life is my love and relationship with Jesus my Christ, and reflect on what He did for me and others as said in the bible stories, because He first loved us from the 'foundation of the world'.
    Godbless today, Mrs A Stolz

  10. When we start hating sin, and loathing the separation from God that it brings, we will have very good indicators that we are on the right track.

  11. Thank you William for yet another great post. I too use to struggle with the thought that "I" had to keep the law, all by myself, I was really fearful I wouldn't make it because of not overcoming my sins. Praise God we aren't expected to keep God’s law in our own strength; we would then have something to boast about which in turn would make us ask "What do I need Jesus for?" Thank God, through Jesus Christ, that our only boasting can be in Him.

  12. It is written in Philippians 2:13 For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Our part is to surrender all our will to God and even to do that we need his help, with Christ we cannot do nothing. It is important to know if we are willing and obedient God will perfect our characters to what he wants us to be before his second coming. Christ will not save us in our sins from our sins. May the Lord bless us and help us to surrender all to him.



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