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When Does Obedience Become Legalism?
FRIDAY, JULY 23, 2010
Posted by: Westminster Presbyterian Church | more..
1,850+ views | 430+ clicks
It’s clear by the lively interaction this past Lord’s Day, July 18, in our Adult class that the issue of holiness in the life of every believer is a topic worthy of further exploration. We will be delving more deeply into the specific issue of “obedience” on August 1 but, for now, allow me to add a few thoughts to our Sunday discussion (and my thanks to Kevin for his teaching and facilitation on this issue – you can view his further remarks at the end of my article).

It should be clear to even a young Christian that God calls His people to pursue a consistently biblical lifestyle in heart, mind and body but that doesn’t come overnight. Nor does it mean we will reach a point of sinless perfection this side of glory but neither does it mean we excuse our sin because “nobody’s perfect.” It’s also important to remember that we are all “in process.” I don’t expect someone who just came to saving faith in Christ to have the consistency, maturity and godliness of a person who has been walking with the Lord for forty years. Thus, a growing church with new believers is going to be a messy place --- just like our own lives as we grow in grace. Thus, obedience is a matter of maturation and will reflect highs and lows over the course of one’s life. Even the Apostle Paul said in Romans 7, “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God's law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God-- through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” The key point in that passage is the focus our Christ as our daily liberator in the ongoing struggle against our old nature, the demonic world and the culture around us.

So, there is a constant battle between our sinful nature (the doctrine of the depravity of man) and the new nature we were given at conversion which enables us to “walk in the Spirit.” In the matter of obedience one businessman said, “Like so many areas in our walk with God, obedience requires a daily, if not moment-by-moment, surrender.” The problem with so many professing Christians, at least in our culture, is that “surrender” to God’s will according to God’s Word isn’t even on their radar screen. Lifestyles are often determined by whatever seems right or reasonable to the individual regardless of what scripture says. However, most of us know that when we pursue “whatever feels good” to us at the moment we are usually racing down the road of rebellion against God. This is anything but the “highway of holiness” and our churches and nation reflect this sad reality.

But the New Testament has much to say about obedience to the Lord as revealed in the pages of holy writ. One “Insight” box of the Follow Him notebook says this, “In both the Old and New Testaments, the words translated obey are related to the idea of hearing. Obedience is a positive, active response to listening to the Word of God. Jesus said, ‘Blessed…are those who hear the word of God and keep it’ (Luke 11:28).” In John 14 we find Jesus saying, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” (John 14:21, 23-24) Of course, the classic passage on this issue is found a few verses earlier in John 14:15, “ESVIf you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Our obedience will never enable us to enter the kingdom of heaven but it is a sure-fire barometer of our true love of Christ. His love for us never changes because it’s perfect and pure but our love for Him waxes and wanes due to our submission to the sinful nature, our consistency in His Word and prayer, circumstances of life (often it’s during good times that we forget the Lord as Israel did in the eras of their prosperity), and a host of other issues. Often we are partially obedient, which is simply disobedience thinly disguised. Sometimes we are outright rebellious and flagrant in our defiance. But God has called His people to “walk in the Spirit…” so that we might not “…fulfill the lusts of the flesh.” I know – easier quoted than practiced but it is God’s standard nevertheless. It is the goal of our lifelong pursuit of experiential holiness, which will never be realized apart from a deep commitment to obey the revealed will of God in both the principles and the precepts of His Word.

For a Christian family the process of training begins at a young age. The rules we establish for our children are necessary for their spiritual, emotional, intellectual and spiritual well-being. They become the guardrails along the road of adolescent development. Of course, they should be appropriate to the needs of the child (some need more overt correction than others as you probably already know) but never capricious or inconsistent (either will provoke our children which God forbids in Ephesians 6:4). Proper do’s and don’ts is not legalism but part of “training a child in the way he should go.” Some of the items listed on the chalk board Sunday were appropriate “rules of the house” for the safeguarding of one’s children. The problem comes when we unwittingly train our offspring to believe that the approval and even love of mom and dad only comes when the behavior conforms to parental standards. Most of us learn early on that we’re on “the performance page” with just about everyone we have ever known regardless of their protests to the contrary. But for the Christian, our acceptance to God isn’t based on our performance (if so we are in eternal deep weeds) but on Christ’s obedience on our behalf. This is where grace steps into the picture. I cannot “measure up” but Jesus did. Our righteousness is permanently “borrowed” and Jesus is both my sin-bearer and my obedience-provider and thus He is the sole reason for my acceptance to the Father. Thus, the goal for parents is to set the appropriate boundaries, biblically discipline when those boundaries are breached and unconditionally love the child through it all. Then we will mimic the way in which our God graciously treats us.

In regard to sanctification, legalism is the mindset that says, “I’m saved by grace but I’m kept by my efforts based on my standards.” And because God sets the bar of holiness at the level of perfection in thought, word and deed, we choose to substitute our own list as the definition of a holy life. In so doing, I am able to feel good about myself and think myself acceptable to the Father by lowering the bar of true piety while mentally checking off what I have established as “passing grades” with God. And all too often I muddy the water further by actually thinking that God’s love for me vacillates based upon whether I’ve been a “good” boy or not. Of course, my definition of a “good boy” is based on my self-imposed catalog of rules rather than the totality of God’s Word. Thus, I will not dance but I have no problem with verbally abusing members of my family. I won’t go to a movie but I have no such restrictions upon what I will rent from the video store (even the same movie that was in the theatre a week ago). Legalism is substituting my “list” for God’s Word thereby effectively doing away with my need of Jesus and the power of His Spirit in the process of sanctification. It is a system built upon pride and arrogance and we most all believers are tempted to buy into this delusion.

Finally, let me speak to the issue of motive. Why do we at least seek to obey God’s commands as revealed in God’s Word? Is it because I want to or because I have to do so? The answer is a simple, “Yes.” There is both “duty” and “devotion” in our walk with Christ down this “highway of holiness.” We do not always “feel” like obeying. Sometimes our hearts, minds and emotions are screaming at us to disobey the Lord. At that moment, we might really “want” to do the opposite of what we know God would have us to do or say (Paul’s account of the struggle in Romans 7:7-25). We don’t feel any over- whelming love for Jesus at that instant. We just want what we want. Well, it’s precisely at that point that a sense of “duty” should kick in as we run to Jesus telling him all about it and crying out for His grace to overcome my “wanter.” Does not God tell us to “discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness?” (1 Tim. 4:7) It would be wonderful if we were emotionally enraptured by the love of Christ every waking moment but that’s just not the way it is (it will be in our glorified state but we are not there yet). If we were at that point then “devotion” would overrule just about any temptation that came our way and holiness would be a piece of cake. For most of us, the problem is not that we don’t know what God would have us to do or say but rather we so often don’t have the “desire” to submit to what we do know to be His will.

God would have us strike a biblical balance between the two extremes of legalism and licentiousness. We must not add to or subtract from the revealed will of the Lord. Like Jesus, our desire must be to “do the Father’s will.” Grace alone is essential because apart from Jesus I can do nothing. The branch must abide in the vine. (see John 15) This is why theologians rightly tell us that our sanctification is just as much a matter of God’s grace as is our justification. By and through His Spirit, Christ alone can give to me both the desire and the power to live obediently for His glory. None of this comes naturally to us. It is a fight to the finish. It is that “good fight of faith” that Paul speaks of to his disciple Timothy (2 Tim. 4:7). My greatest concern is not the fight per se but to make sure we’re really in the battle. Dead fish float downstream but spawning salmon fight in their in their efforts to swim upstream. The difference between us and salmon is that they do so by instinct but we fight to move upstream by the enablement and power of Christ within us and He alone is our hope of glory.

(Dr. Kevin Smith’s further remarks…)

-- My goal in undertaking the exercise of a "don't do this list" was neither to promote the notion that such lists are the path to holiness nor to dismiss the importance of obedience. Especially when children are small, they need simple lists of rules. And obedience to God does not end with adolescence. Many of the behaviors that were listed are good to avoid, but the key issue is our heart attitude. We are much more inclined to think "don't drink alcohol or watch R-rated movies" than "don't be selfish or angry or slothful." The list in the “Follow Him” notebook, keyed to Bible verses, is helpful not in providing a pathway to righteousness on its own, but in giving us a broader sense of what behaviors of our own we may be turning a blind eye to while we judge others' sins. As we remember that our deeds are a response to our salvation, not the path to earn it, we go forth on a quest for obedience that can only be empowered by God's grace. Thus, we rejoice in our glorious God. --

Please take another few minutes to read Rev. Al Baker’s latest article that we’ve included below. It’s entitled Why Do You Still Battle Sin and What Should You Do About It?

-Gary Cox


FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS, volume 9, number 29, July 22, 2010

Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lusts, James 1:14.

Why Do You Still Battle Sin and What Should You Do About It?

Darryl Strawberry signed his first professional baseball contract in 1980, after graduating from high school. By 1983 he was in the Majors and helped the New York Mets win the World Series in 1986. One day early in his rookie year with the Mets a teammate offered him cocaine saying, “Welcome to the Big Leagues!” Soon he was hooked on cocaine, amphetamines, and alcohol. He was divorced three times, had countless women, and was arrested for illegal drug possession and domestic abuse. He says that he became a Christian in 1991 and there were times of progress in his Christian life, followed by serious falls back into sinful living. Finally, he was sentenced in 2002 to eighteen months in prison after his sixth parole violation. Since that time, however, Strawberry has lived in gospel holiness, traveling around the country, telling people of Jesus. He was recently in Connecticut and spoke powerfully of God’s work of grace in saving him and keeping him from his former addictions. Let’s assume that Strawberry was truly converted in 1991. If so, then why the constant failure to overcome his sinful patterns, and why has he been able the last several years to have victory over these sins? And what about you—why do you still battle sin, often falling grievously, going back to your former sinful ways? Why do you still battle sin and what should you do about it? What is God’s means of sanctification?1

I mentioned last week2 that until you come to grips with your own culpability and quit blaming God or someone else for your sinful behavior, you will not progress in gospel holiness. This is absolutely fundamental. Okay, let’s assume you are there, that you admit your sin is your own fault, then what’s next? We are given three vivid metaphors in James 1:14-15 that speak powerfully to the issue. First, he says that we are carried away by our own lust. This alludes to a predator taking away its prey, like a lion hauling off a young antelope that wandered too far from the herd. Second, he says that we are enticed by our own lust. The Greek word for enticed has the idea of a fishing lure. Think largemouth bass which sees something silver “swimming by” and goes after it, eventually latching onto a silver spoon with treble hooks, resulting in its capture, eventually ending up in a frying pan. And third, James alludes to the seduction, act, and horrific consequences of fornication—“. . . and when lust is conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.”

What goes on in the life of the believer who falls into grievous sin? Why do you still battle the same sins? Why do you find yourself succumbing time and again to the same temptation, bringing great hardship on you and your family? You need to understand the root of your problem is indwelling sin, sometimes called the flesh (Romans 7:18-20, Galatians 5:19ff). Even as a believer you have a depraved desire, a lurid longing, a powerful propensity to sin. You cannot help it. It is simply there! This root of sin is growing in the soil of lust. The Greek word is sometimes used positively in the New Testament (Jesus “lusted” to eat the Passover with His disciples, Luke 22:15), but generally it is pejorative (among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, Ephesians 2:3). This inward lust is a deformed desire, a dominant dalliance, a perverted passion. It’s on the inside. Why does a man, who was just intimate with his wife, when seeing another woman, immediately want to be with her? Indwelling sin, rooted in the soil of lust! But the tree trunk is temptation, and this comes from the outside. Jesus, as a man, was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11, Hebrews 4:15), but He did not battle indwelling sin like us, for He is God incarnate. Temptation comes in multitudinous ways, very often in things for which we long, our idols. And the fruit from the tree, that which comes from the root of indwelling sin, in the soil of our lusts, gaining strength in the tree trunk of temptation are actual sins. Darryl Strawberry’s fall back into sin as a believer was due to indwelling sin, rooted in the lust of sordid, inordinate desire, fueled by the sight of cocaine or another woman. And James tells us that the result of sin is death—not simply physical death (Deuteronomy 30:19ff, Romans 6:21-23), but also eternal death (Revelation 20:13-15), what Jesus calls the second death. This physical death also reveals itself in the death of potential, the destruction of families. The recent fall of University of Georgia Athletic Director Damon Evans is another sad example of the devastation of lust, indwelling sin, and temptation.

What then are we to do? Allow me to make this as simple as possible. Let’s number these four components. Number one is the new heart you have in Jesus (Ezekiel 36:26, John 3:5-7, 1 Peter 1:3), the ability you now have to hate your sin and to love and obey God. Number two is the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:2). You are indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus if you are a Christian (Ezekiel 36:27, Isaiah 44:3, Acts 2:38, Romans 8:2-11). To apply this Holy Spirit power, however, you must be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), you must not grieve or quench the Spirit (Ephesians 4:30, 1 Thessalonians 5:17). You must abide in Christ (John 15:1-5). Number three is indwelling sin, living in a body of lust (Romans 6:12-13). And number four is temptation from the world and the devil (Ephesians 6:10-12). So why do you fall into sin? Number three and four will overpower number one every time! Simply put—your new heart of regeneration, as glorious as it is, is no match for indwelling sin and temptation. That’s why mere accountability groups will not keep you from sin. That’s why sheer discipline will not work. That’s why the fear of getting caught, of suffering the consequences of sinful behavior, will not always work. That’s why thinking with gratitude on all God has done for you in Christ will not always stand up against indwelling sin, lust, and temptation. I am not saying accountability groups, discipline, fearing the consequences of sin, or dwelling on God’s goodness are not helpful. By all means you should practice these regularly. I am saying, however, that these will not work all the time. They are insufficient. Thankfully, you have a greater, more glorious power available to you. Numbers one and two—the new heart and the holiness of Jesus indwelling you by the Spirit—will overcome numbers three and four every time. As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord (by faith), so walk (live in gospel holiness) in Him (Colossians 2:6). I know I sound like a broken record, but you must run to Jesus for His holiness. Here’s what I do—when faced with the real power of lust, indwelling sin, and specific temptation, I cry out to Jesus saying, “Jesus, I cannot stand in my own will and self-discipline against this. I need, this very moment, your holiness (1 Corinthians 1:30) for You alone are my wisdom from God, my righteousness, my sanctification, and my redemption.” When you cry out to God, when you abide in Jesus, when you keep your bucket submerged under the river of living water, filled with the blood of Jesus, then you will stand against sin and temptation. Without this you will surely fail. So, run daily to Jesus, actually crying out to Him, asking Him for His holiness, and He promises to give it to you.


1 The best thing written, in my estimation, on the topic is John Owen’s classic, “Temptation and Sin”, volume 6, The Works of John Owen, published by Banner of Truth.

2 See my devotional entitled “Are You Really Responsible?” July 15, 2010, archived at <>

Gary R. Cox Gary R. Cox

Category:  From Dr. Gary R. Cox

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