Legalism and Obedience: What’s the Difference?

by Andrew Hess

legalismMaybe it happened after a week at church camp or after that week at a Christian conference. You had a great time and returned to your normal life with renewed energy and commitment to live out your Christian faith. As a result, you gave up a few bad habits and renewed some good ones, and then it happened. You shared your experience with someone, and he dumped a bucket of cold water on your excitement: “Don’t be so legalistic!”

Legalism is a very real danger in the Christian life and one Christians should carefully avoid. But unfortunately too many think of legalism as any strong desire for obedience. “Yes, work out your faith, but don’t try too hard or you might find yourself on that slippery slope to legalism.” The all-encompassing way legalism is applied to situations today shows that we don’t really understand it the way we should.

True legalism is the belief that following specific rules is the way Christians get saved and grow in Christ. It boils the Christian faith down to a specific list of dos and don’ts. Christians should do certain things, and they shouldn’t do certain things. Historically, Christians have been legalistic about lots of things (alcohol, tobacco, dancing, movies, etc). We establish a particular conviction for ourselves and then attempt to universalize it, expecting everyone else to follow the same conviction as well. Our conviction may be based on biblical principles and even something God is leading us in, but we shouldn’t necessarily expect other believers to share it. As Paul wrote to the church in Rome:

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As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Romans 14:1-4).

Paul taught the church in Rome not to expect others to join them in their particular convictions and judge those who don’t. Instead, he reminds that all believers are accountable to Jesus and should strive to live out their own convictions without passing judgment on those who don’t share them. For example, some Christians may have a conviction not to drink alchohol and others may have a conviction that it is OK in moderation. Biblical principles may inform both of these convictions, but we must recognize there is no specific, biblical command. Therefore, this is an issue of conviction, and while we may discuss it with other Christians, we shouldn’t expect them to comply.

However, this takes discernment. Christians are called to live obedient lives, and there are times when we all need to be confronted for sin…


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