Is obedience legalism?

This is the first part of a two blog post on the topic of obedience and license (also known as “freedom in Christ” or a brand new word I had never heard before….antinomianism, which by the way was very exciting to discover)  

Part 1- Obedience

We are going over the book of Deuteronomy at church. We just finished up the 10 commandments and our scripture reading for the day was Deuteronomy 6:1-6.

“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.

Every week, before the pastor dives into each of the commandments, there was a rereading of chapter 5 verse 6 that states

“‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

For application purposes, it was not only extremely helpful and strengthening to wrestle with how’s and why’s of obeying each of the commands, but the rereading of chapter 5 verse 6 powerfully drove home the simple isolating fact that before God gave the people his commands, before God expected them to obey them, before the people had the motivation to know the commands, much less obey them…..before it all…..God had already brought them out of slavery. God saved his people first….then gave them commands, rules and statues. 

God’s work and God’s work alone is what saved them. 

I need reminders of this almost daily so I welcomed the reminder with an open mind and an open heart. 

But look at the above scripture and notice the strong directives

……now this is the commandment, statutes and rules that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you….that you may do them..

….that you may fear the LORD your God ….by keeping all of his statutes and his commandments which I command you, all the days of your life…

 ….be careful to do them, that it may go well with you

Notice the repeated directives “to keep” and “do”. Basically God is telling his people to obey Him. 
To keep the commands. 
To do the commands, statutes and rules. 

Obedience is what He is after.

I wrestle with the topic of obedience. I typically err on the side of “legalistic” tendencies because by nature I am a “do-er”. 

However, don’t ask me about my inward sins which are the deep crevices of sin that gush forth in a perfect storm and becomes evident in my interactions with people or certain situations I find myself in. You know…the sins of pride, envy, self righteousness, greed, idolatry, boastfulness, anxiety….etc. The stuff that people can’t see easily…..but are still very present. 

The sin I don’t struggle with as much is outward sin. The stuff on the outside. The stuff that people can see. And…..since I have less of a problem with outward sin, I tend to struggle with showing people grace towards those that do struggle with outward sin….specifically those that are professing Christians. (I’m quite sure this sounds pretty boastful and self righteous and the fact that it’s no longer just in my heart since I’m now sharing this admission with the world, I guess this inward sin just got moved over to the outward sin category) Sigh! 

Let me clarify and try to explain. 
When it pertains to the outward sin that I used to be enslaved to, I no longer am.

When God saved me a little over 10 years ago…there are no words to explain what He did to me. Almost immediately, on the outside, everything changed. Unless you knew me prior to conversion, you would not know the drastic-ness of it all. It was as if God created an entirely new person in my old body. New desires. New wants. New needs. New goals. New everything. Literally everything on the outside changed for me. 

Let me share a few examples. 

Nobody told me to stop drinking alcohol. I just didn’t want to be “relaxed” superficially anymore so I stopped drinking. Where I once drank socially every single Thursday,  Friday, and Saturday, I no longer could stomach the smell of it and was actually repulsed by it. 

Nobody told me to stop living in sexual sin. I just no longer wanted to engage in behavior that did not honor God with not only my outward social behavior but my entire body as well…so I stopped blatant outward sexual sin. 

Nobody told me to stop using foul language to communicate my thoughts or ideas. Where previously I cussed “worse than a sailor” and would use gross language to communicate, I no longer wanted to reflect someone who had absolutely no discernment in spoken words. 

Nobody told me to to stop dressing in a way that was inappropriate. God gave me a new heart and I was able to have discernment on how detrimental it was, not only to myself, but how it affected others as well. So I stopped dressing inappropriately. 

Nobody told me to stop listening to secular music. I just felt convicted that J-Lo (who was hugely popular at the time of my conversion) and the rest of the hip hop music I used to listen to did nothing…absolutely nothing… to edify my heart and mind….so I just stopped listening to secular music and have not missed it one bit.

I could keep going….but the overall point is….no body told me to stop doing anything. No church. No pastor. No Christian friend. 

I had been going to a charismatic church for several months so I knew some of those issues, like sexual sin, dress, and speech were mentioned in the Bible but I had absolutely no motivation, desire or even the “know how” to stop or change any of it. 

Where I once had no motivation or conviction to change anything about my outward stuff…..after God revealed himself to me by emotionally, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually leading me to Jesus and the cross….I was radically motivated and strongly convicted to change everything about my outward stuff. 

Outward sins that used to enslave me, no longer had power over my life.  

With that said…let me add that I am in no way saying that drinking alcohol is a sin. Nor am I saying that cussing is a sin either. I also know that the topic of modesty in women’s dress in the church building is hugely controversial and many don’t know how to approach it or if it just needs to be left alone. All the things God changed in me….was for me alone because these things enslaved me. I know that everyone is enslaved to different things and God will work on those specific issues with them in His time. 
Let me also add… prior to conversion, I had no reference as to how other Christian’s lived. I did not grow up in a Christian home, nor did I know any Christians personally.  I had lived 34 years on the earth and knew not one single Christian so I had no idea what a Christian thought, how a Christian lived, what they wrestled with, what they wore etc. I naively assumed that all the people that professed Christ, had the same kind of radical transformation that I did. When I saw that was not the case, I grew very confused.

When I would address my confusion with others in the church, I was told that there was “freedom in Christ” and that I should not be looking at anyone’s outward stuff and that, “God works on the heart.”  I was told, many times, that I was being legalistic by assuming that all the things that God changed in my life applied to other Christians as well.

Then, through God’s providence, He showed me another perspective about theology that emphasized grace. Seeing as how grace was another foreign word that I had to wrestle with, I came to the conclusion that I lacked grace towards others and I asked God to give me a heart that showed grace towards Christians who struggled with blatant outward sin.

I came to the conclusion that I was self righteous and I asked God to give me a softer, less self righteous heart.

I came to the conclusion that I was full of pride because I no longer struggled with many forms of blatant outward sin so I asked God to strip me of pride and replace it with grace.

I basically realized that all of my inward sin was just as detrimental as my former outward sin and I had to keep going back to Jesus and the cross for assurance because I had begun to doubt whether or not God really did save me back in 2004 because I struggled so deeply with inward sin. 

Of course, I now am aware that the inward sin I still struggle with will be an ongoing journey of God slowly showing me the deep crevices of my heart, repenting for what He shows me and then relying on God to give me the means and ability to change for His glory and my good. Inward sin is so much harder to change and thankfully God gives us the strength and means to accomplish what He is after…which is Christ-like-ness, for not only for our outward growth, but our inward growth as well. 

Earlier last week, I had a discussion with a new friend on the subject of grace vs. obedience because it seemed to be on my mind alot lately.

On the way to church yesterday I had another discussion, this time with my husband, on whether or not it was possible to use the word “grace” too freely. I have often heard others use the word “grace” to excuse their blatant outward sins, specifically the ones that God had convicted me to stop doing and it just never seemed to sit well with me. I felt like something was amiss in their theology. 

I wanted to ask someone….anyone…. is it possible to accept and believe in a theology of “too much grace”?

However,  I already knew what the answer was a very loud and roaring NO!!! 

So….I am thankful that our pastor “went there”….meaning broaching the subject of obedience, legalism, and grace.

Here is what I learned this past Sunday. 

(To listen to the full sermon go HERE. It’s a very good edifying sermon and I recommend it highly to anyone who wrestles with obedience as legalism and grace fits into it all. It will be the very last one in the list titled Being Christian: Obedience is Not Legalism)

There are actually 2 enemies of obedience: 
(I am only discussing the first one here and will use a second post to discuss the second one)

1) Legalism- our pastor defined it as any act of obedience that is motivated by the desire to earn what God gives by grace alone.

This was freeing for me. I knew that I was not trying to earn salvation by my initial obedience to change my outward sin at conversion.  I was convicted to obey because God had already saved me.  My outward obedience to God’s commands was the fruit of my salvation….not the cause of my salvation. Big difference.

Here are some examples that might help. 

a) In many Christian circles that I associated with in the past, I was guilt-ed to believe that because God saved me, I should be getting up super early to pray and read my Bible because Jesus got up super early to pray and we need to be more like Jesus. If I didn’t, then God gave me a big fat F on my spiritual report card and I might have to admit that I was not a Christian after all or I might just very well lose my salvation because I was not disciplined enough.

However….instead of thinking I HAVE to read my Bible to be approved by God or to stay “saved”,  the reality is I GET to read my Bible so that I can get more of God. I get the privilege to know more about the God that saved me. I can reflect back on where I came from and be utterly grateful that God chose to save me and change me…so I am thrilled that “while I was still sinning, God sent his son, Christ Jesus to die for me” which is Romans 5:8.

b) I was also guilt-ed to believe that I should be striving to do some kind of full time ministry work because only the super spiritual giants went into ministry and regular ol’ secular work, to include mommy life, was for people that did not take God seriously. 

However, the reality is I am free to live a life that makes every effort to glorify God in all my day to day duties. From laundry, to meal making, to teaching my kids yucky math and exciting history, to cutting fabric, to sewing up cute clothes for my kiddos, to blogging…..all of it can be used for God’s glory. I don’t have to prove to the world or myself that I am a “spiritual giant” by striving to do church ministry work. God saved me first and now every thing I do is for Him. I am free to have discernment and lean on Christ to give me the ability to do activities out side of my home, but not to prove that I spiritually have it all together….but to use my life as an offering….messes, imperfections, and all.

c) I was guilt-ed into believing that I had to make every effort to “stay saved”, which ultimately led me to struggle with severe panic attacks for 7 years…but that’s a different blog post and will write about that later.

It was freeing to hear that I was not legalistic because I obeyed easily with certain outward sins. It was freeing to hear that making every effort to obey was not an act of legalism….. because I was sweetly reminded that I was not obeying to earn my salvation nor was I trying to keep my salvation. I obeyed out of gratitude and deeply rooted thankfulness. I knew where I came from. I knew I used to be dead in sin and dead people don’t think about God nor do they make every effort to get close to Him or seek Him by reading and studying to know more of Him. For me, obeying God was an outward act of gratitude and was the result of seeing God. How could I not obey?

At the same time, I also need to be aware that striving for perfect obedience is not possible in this life time. Jesus was the only one who perfectly obeyed and I can rest in Jesus and his perfect record of perfect obedience. 

John Piper writes it this way:

Sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cited Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags. It is true–gloriously true–that none of God’s people, before or after the cross, would be accepted by an immaculately holy God if the prefect righteousness of Christ were not imputed to us (Romans 5:19; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21). But that does not mean that God does not produce in those “justified” people (before and after the cross) an experiential righteousness that is not “filthy rags.” In fact, he does; and this righteousness is precious to God and is required, not as the ground of our justification (which is the righteousness of Christ only), but as an evidence of our being truly justified children of God. (Future Grace, p 151) (emphasis mine)

Kevin DeYoung adds:

There is no righteousness that makes us right with God except for the righteousness of Christ. But for those who have been made right with God through faith alone, many of our righteous deeds are not only not filthy in God’s eyes, they are exceedingly sweet.
Obedience is possible, prescribed, and precious.

(read the entire post HERE)  

The most encouraging words on obedience came at the very end of Sunday’s sermon. These words brought me to tears and had me humbled beyond what words could express. Literally it was revolutionary in my mind and heart.

Ezekiel 36:24-28 says

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.  I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Yes….you read that right. God says that for his people….

He will give them a new heart and a new spirit He will put within them…
He will remove the heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh…..
He will put His spirit within them….
and CAUSE… them to walk in His statues and give them the ability to be careful to obey His rules…..

Yes….He….. will….. cause….

Basically this scripture tells us that God gives his people the ability to obey His commands. He does not give us new hearts and new spirits and then leaves us to figure it all out on our own. 

I did not do the “obeying” after my conversion with my own strength and ability.  God caused that. God gave me the ability and the causality to change. I can’t boast in that. I can’t be self righteous for something I did not do.

That was all God.

It was good for my wrestling soul to discover that I am not legalistic. 

Making every effort is not legalism.

1 Peter reminds us:

 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.

All I can do is be humbly thankful by making every effort to supplement my saved life….not establish a saved life….by adding qualities that continue to reflect growth and maturity of faith…..not only when it comes to my outward sins….but my inward sins as well…. and then rest knowing that God will provide the “causing” and the ability to obey.

to be continued…..The next blog post will address the 2nd enemy of obedience and I’m super excited to write about it.

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