Obedience: Is it Legalism or Love?

A few days ago I was at a friend’s house and an important question came up: Why do we sometimes confuse obedience to what Jesus has called us to do as being “legalistic or religious”? This question led to a great discussion.


Most Jesus followers understand that obedience matters. But why? If we are saved completely by the grace and goodness of Jesus, through trusting in His work for us (which is true) and not through our religious activity, good works, church attendance, good morals or our efforts (which is also true) – why does obedience matter?

I believe it comes down to understanding cause and effect.

The grace of Jesus is unearned and undeserved. Period. Salvation, rescue and redemption are a gift. I don’t cause grace or salvation because of my goodness. In fact, this Good News is so good that in spite of my lack of goodness God in His love still chooses to rescue me.

As amazing as all of this is, it doesn’t stop here. As we experience grace, mercy and salvation from Jesus in our lives it has an effect. I did’t cause my salvation, but the salvation I experience should have an effect on the rest on my life.

Everything changes when we understand that when we receive the grace of Jesus, it empowers us to live the lives that He has called us to live. In other words, we spend our lives responding to all He has done for us. This is what Jesus called “obedience to His commands.”

Obedience isn’t Legalism.

Jesus isn’t legalistic. But He does expect my obedience. Why? Because as I walk in obedience to Him and His commands, I am putting Him in His proper place in my life. I am no longer my own master. I am not the king who sits on my own throne – I have given the throne of my heart to the true King.

What we sometimes want to call LEGALISM, Jesus called LOVE.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

John 14:15 (ESV)

John, one of Jesus closest disciples said the following about what loving Jesus looks like:

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.

1 John 5:1-3 (ESV)

And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.

2 John 6 (ESV)

All of this comes back to what Jesus said was the greatest commandment: to love God with everything, and to love others as we love ourself (Matthew 22:37-40).

So the question is: What does it look like for me to love Jesus? The answer is simple, yet it will be something we work towards the rest of our lives: Obey what He calls me to.

Obedience becomes legalism when it becomes detached from its true motivation: love for Jesus.

I don’t obey to get something from God. I obey because everything I have need of has been provided by putting my trust in what Jesus has done for me.

Grace is a gift. Free and set aside for underserving and unworthy people. That grace, as it becomes active in our lives, has the power to transform us into the people that He is calling and creating us to be. Without this grace moving in our lives, the ability to walk in obedience wouldn’t exist.

The journey of following Jesus is receiving what only He can provide, and spending the rest of our lives responding to that work.

It truly is amazing grace.

4 comments
  1. Amen
    The loving response is gratitude:

    HC – Lord’s Day 24
    63 Q. How can our good works be said to merit nothing when God promises to reward them in this life and the next?
    A. This reward is not merited; it is a gift of grace.
    64 Q. But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?
    A. No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ by true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like
Read More

A Call and Commitment for Spiritual Leaders

I recently shared the following with our pastors and ministry staff leaders at Life Center as we talked…
Read More
Read More

15 Lessons from 15 Years of Marriage

Today, Amber and I celebrate 15 years of marriage. 15 years. (If you are wondering, yes… they did let…
Read More