Legalism and Strict Obedience to Law – Nana Yaw Aidoo

Nana Yaw Aidoo

The devil is cunning. He is a liar and the father of it (John 8:44). There is simplicity in Christ. However, just as the devil deceived Eve by his craftiness, I fear that many in the Lord’s church have been deceived too (2 Cor. 11:3) by thinking that strict obedience to scripture is somehow sinful. One of the ways the devil has deceived many in the church of Christ to do away with strict obedience to scripture, is through the use of derogatory names. Names like “doctrine police”, “Pharisee”, “too-knowing” and “legalist”. This list isn’t exhaustive by any means but these are the few that come to mind, and rest assured that this scribe has received his fair-share of such names. My focus however, will be on the name “legalist”. This is a name thrown at brethren who desire nothing but a strict obedience to God’s law.

There are some in the brotherhood with the idea that strict obedience to God’s law is the reason the Christ condemned the Pharisees. How true is that? We’ll get to this later. There are also some, including gospel preachers, who posit that there are no laws in Christianity. How true is that? More on this later. The reason for this write-up is because this scribe has noticed the drift towards the overly-false doctrine of “love God and do as you please”, among Christians. My aim is to defend, in love, the position that strict obedience to law is not sinful but actually commanded and that calling faithful brethren by derogatory names to get them to “loosen up” isn’t the way to go.

Who is a Legalist?

It may surprise you to know that neither the word legalist nor legalism can be found in scripture. You’d be forgiven for thinking they can be found in scripture, the way they are used by brethren today. Therefore, since these words cannot be found in scripture, they need to be defined in accordance with modern parlance.

The 21st Century Dictionary has three definitions of the word “legalism”, of which I think only two are relevant to this note. It says, Legalism is:

1. Strict adherence to law.

2. The doctrine that salvation depends on strict adherence to the law.

The dictionary also defines a “legalist” as, “someone who adheres strictly to the law.” Thus, a legalist is one who identifies or recognizes the existence of law and strictly follows or obeys it. Like Dub McClish in his material Legalism, Law, and Love, “I freely confess my conviction that the New Testament is the Divine law under which we live and which will be the final standard of our judgment (John 12:48). Second, I am quite willing to “plead guilty” to insisting upon a strict adherence to that law.”

Are We Under Law?

Brethren, it seems incomprehensible to me how fellow Christians can believe that Christ built a kingdom (Matt. 16:18-19), gave a system of governance (Phlp 1:1) and yet didn’t give laws to govern His kingdom. I challenge anyone to show me any kingdom or nation at any point in time in this world that was governed without laws. There is none. Yet some in the brotherhood believe the kingdom of Christ is governed without laws. They point to scriptures like John 1:17 which reads, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” and then wrongly conclude that this scripture teaches that there are no laws in the Christian dispensation. This argument also assumes that there was no “grace and truth” in the Old Testament. That is absolutely false. The Bible clearly teaches in Genesis 6:8 that Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. Lot who was Abraham’s nephew, also found grace in the sight of the Lord (Gen. 19:19. And regarding truth, God’s word has always been truth (John 17:17). If John 1:17 teaches that there are no laws in Christianity, then it also teaches that there was no grace and truth in the old dispensation. If not, why not?

John 1:17 says, “For the law was given by Moses…”. This is a reference to the Law of Moses. Even a neophyte in scripture can see this. No one in this dispensation is amenable to the law that was given by Moses. Anyone who obeys the Law of Moses or lives by it has judged himself unworthy of eternal life (Acts 13:46). If the law that was given by Moses is a reference to the Law of Moses (and it is) then John1:17 is just a comparison between the law that was by Moses and the law that was by Christ. “Grace and Truth” is just a reference to the full and final revelation in the gospel. R.C. Foster in his excellent book, Studies in the Life of Christ, wrote,

Now John…does not imply that there was neither grace nor truth in the Old Testament revelation. The very fact that “the law was given through Moses” shows how merciful God was in thus revealing Himself to man. It is in the comparative sense of the full and final revelation of grace and truth in the gospel that John makes this contrast.

The New Testament is not simply a “love letter.” It is a book of law. It is a legal document. The apostle Paul recognized this law, which he called the “law of Christ” and acknowledged that he was under it (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:21). The existence of sin demands the existence of law (Rom. 4:15). If there are no laws in Christianity, what then is the standard by which we judge something to be sinful? Yet, these same brethren who teach that there are no laws in Christianity believe that sin exists today. You cannot have one without the other. For there to be sin, there must be law. Also, James called the New Testament, “the perfect law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25). Brethren, we are under the law of Christ and all men, both saints and sinners, are amenable to it.

Were the Pharisees Condemned for Strictly Obeying God’s Law?

One of the go-to arguments for liberal brethren in order to do away with strict obedience to scripture is that, Jesus Christ condemned the Pharisees because of their strict obedience to God’s law. This is absurd. Why would God the Son would even do that? Now imagine this: God gave His laws to the Jews to keep. They keep the laws, and yet God still gets angry at them. Do you believe that? Why give it to them in the first place, if He was going to get angry at the fact that they were keeping it? That’s the extent some brethren would go just to do away with strict obedience to scripture. And they are very wrong.

One of the problems with the Pharisees was that they knew the law, but scripture clearly teaches that knowing the law alone isn’t enough. Jesus Christ concluded His sermon on the mount with the parable of the wise and foolish builders (Matt. 7:24-27). The foolish builder was foolish because he knew God’s word but didn’t obey it. And that was one of the problems with the Pharisees. They were foolish simply because they weren’t obeying God’s law. What then were they obeying? They were actually obeying the doctrines and traditions of men (Matt. 15:2). Not only were they obeying the traditions of men, but they elevated those traditions above God’s law and by so doing, transgressed God’s law (Matt. 15:3).

And as a result, Christ called them “hypocrites.” Jesus Christ never condemned the Pharisees for strictly obeying God’s law. This falsehood is from the minds of very liberal brethren who are outlaws and thus eschew law. Yes, there are weightier matters of the law but Christ never said that those were the only ones to be obeyed. He said, “these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the others undone.”

Strict obedience to law is never condemned in scripture. I challenge anyone to show me a single passage where God condemned anyone who strictly obeyed His laws. Strict obedience to law is actually commanded and commended. The scriptures call Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth, righteous people in Luke 1:6. Why? Because they walked “in all of the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6). How can any honest truth seeker read this and conclude that Jesus Christ condemned the Pharisees because they strictly obeyed God’s law? How can anyone read this passage and even intimate that strict obedience to God’s law is sinful? The Bible also tells us of how Noah, who is a hero of faith (Heb. 11:7), did “according to all that God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22). It beats my mind how anyone would read the scriptures and still say or even imply that strict obedience to law is sinful.

The Bible is full of commands to strictly obey God’s law. The wise man in Ecclesiastes 12:13 says the whole duty of man is to “fear God and keep his commandments”. The proof of our love for God is in the keeping of His commandments (John 14:15). Jesus Christ says we are His friends if we do whatsoever He commands us (John 15:14). Notice that Christ didn’t say “if you do some of what I command” nor did He say, “if you just say you love me and do as you please.” He said “whatsoever He commands.” No one can say he knows God and not keep His commandments (1 John 2:4). “But whoso keepeth His word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in Him” (1 John 2:5). The scriptures continue to tell us that it is the love of God that we keep His commandments (1 John 5:3).

Strict obedience to God’s law doesn’t make anyone a Pharisee. Like I said from the beginning, it is a ploy by people who have been deceived by the devil to get faithful brethren to “loosen up” and to do away with obedience to scripture. Contending that going dancing is sinful doesn’t make one a Pharisee. Lasciviousness and revellings encompass dancing and they are called “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19-21). Contending that drinking alcohol even moderately is sinful doesn’t make one a Pharisee. The scriptures command sobriety (1 Pet. 4:7) and no one can drink alcohol even moderately and still be sober. Contending that clapping for preachers in worship isn’t authorized and is thus sinful, doesn’t make one a Pharisee. God is the only audience in worship and we are the performers. The performers don’t clap for themselves. Thus when the preacher finishes preaching, which is his duty (2 Tim. 4:2), he should be seen as an “unprofitable servant” (Luke 17:7-10). Contending that singing during the Lord’s Supper isn’t authorized because the Bible is silent on it doesn’t make one a Pharisee. Silence doesn’t authorize singing during the Lord’s Supper. That is thinking beyond what has been written (1 Cor. 4:6). Forming organizations to do the work of the church doesn’t make one a Pharisee. The Lord’s church is sufficient to do its work. Christ must have the glory in the church (Eph. 3:21) not in a man-made organization. The Pharisees were not condemned by Christ for keeping God’s law and neither should faithful brethren be called names and be made to feel guilty simply because they desire to keep God’s law.


Our love for God must drive us to obey His word. We should forever be thankful for the love which God showed us on Calvary. What shows appreciation more than submission to His will? Like the Psalmist, we must forever proclaim, “I delight to do Your will, O my God, And Your law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8). Also, we must never forget the link between obedience and salvation. Contrary to teachings from the denominational world, we are actually saved by obedience to God’s law. The scriptures say, “And being made perfect, He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him” (Heb. 5:9). It also says, “…God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile” (Rom. 2:6-10). Scripture clearly teaches that obedience to God’s will saves. We must note however that we are not saved by “obedience only”. Any teaching of this sort is a graceless doctrine and makes salvation a work of merit. Inasmuch as the bible teaches that we’re saved by works of obedience, it also teaches that we are saved by grace (Eph. 2:8-9). Being saved by grace doesn’t mean that we are saved by “grace only” as denominationalists want us to believe. If we’re saved by grace only, then it implies all men will be saved since God’s grace has appeared to all men (Titus 2:11). But Christ taught that only those who do His Father’s will, shall be saved (Matt. 7:21). We are saved by grace but not by “grace only” and we are saved by obedience but not by “obedience only”. Therefore, we’re saved by both grace and obedience to God’s law. God’s grace which has appeared to all men is conditioned upon our obedience to His word. A clear example of this is Noah, who found grace in God’s sight (Gen. 6:8) but ended up obeying all of God’s law (Gen. 6:22). It was after obedience to God’s law that Noah was saved by grace.

I am not by any means intimating that we can be sinlessly perfect. I don’t believe that is possible (1 John 1:8). That is why God in His infinite love has made a way out for us when we sin (1 John 1:9-10). However, that doesn’t give us the leeway to do anything we want in religion. God has always said what He meant and has always meant what He said and this should forever resound in our hearts. Calling faithful brethren names in order to intimidate them isn’t right and should not be among us but rather, “let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works” (Heb. 10:24).

May we be strengthened by God’s word and may we desire nothing but to patiently, humbly and faithfully continue in obedience to His word. “To Him be glory both now and forever” (2 Pet. 3:18). Amen.

Works Cited

Foster, R.C. (1971) Studies in the Life of Christ, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker

McClish, D. (2000) “Legalism, Law, And Love”, The Gospel Journal, June, pp.1, Available:

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Author: Editor

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