Commandment Keeping: Legalism or Love?

I recently read a story about a woman whose husband was a demanding and dictatorial man.

After they married, he compiled a written list of demands. Duties he expected of her. She was to wake up at a certain time. Fix his breakfast. Pack his lunch for work. Have supper waiting for him when he returned home. It also included various household chores. And certain favors he expected at various times.

Surprisingly she complied. More from a sense of duty than one of personal desire. But she fulfilled his wishes as best she could. But there was little or no romance in the relationship.

Years later her husband died. After the passing of time, she remarried. Her second husband was the total opposite. Kind, considerate, and compassionate.

One day while cleaning out a drawer, she found the list from her first husband. To her amazement, she was doing the same things for her second husband. But for a different reason. They were done out of love for him. Not coercion.

This story reminds me of the different approaches people have in their service to the Lord. Some look at the commands of Christ in a demanding manner. They serve out of compulsion. And they dogmatically demand others to follow the rules.

Then there are those whose love for the Lord leads them to obey Him out of a sense of gratitude and a desire to serve and please Him.

In the shadow of the cross, Jesus said to His disciples, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

Sometimes, the charge is leveled by those leaving the church, that we’re too legalistic. Too demanding. Too much like the Pharisees. What the church needs, they opine is more love. Greater grace. Deeper devotion to God. And less emphasis on obeying every rule.

While it is true that some brethren and churches may take a legalistic approach to Scripture, that does not negate Jesus’ command to obey Him. It is important to note that Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for obeying God’s commandments, but for being hypocritical.

They were guilty of binding burdens on others that they themselves did not follow. They too often elevated their oral traditions, above God’s Word. The volumes of Rabbinic writings reflected their opinions that diminished the heart of the Law and the greatest commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Deut 6:5; Matt 22:37-38).

Yes, there are those like the woman with the first husband, who obey because they feel pressured and pushed to conform. And sadly, some church leaders are like the first husband with a list of stringent rules. Some Biblical. And others opinionated.

But to generalize on a special situation and charge all Christians who call for obedience to God’s Word as legalistic and Pharisaical is both unfair and untrue.

There is no getting around the fact, Jesus expects us to obey His commandments. The Great Commission, one of Jesus’ final commands on earth, not only instructed the apostles to preach the gospel throughout the world, making disciples of all nations, but to teach them to “observe all things that I commanded you (Matt 28:18-20).

In John’s epistles, he often called for obedience. “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-5).

The issue is how. And with what attitude.

Like Jesus, John combined love with keeping God’s commandments. “By this, we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” ( I Jn 5:2-3).

“To John, there is only one test of love and that is obedience,” wrote William Barclay. “It was by his obedience that Jesus showed his love of God, and it is by our obedience that we must show our love of Jesus.”

C. K. Barrett was right when he wrote: “John never allowed love to devolve into a sentiment or emotion. Its expression is always moral and is revealed in obedience.”

Do you truly love Jesus? And are you willing to obey His commandments out of your love for Him?

–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman

1 Comment

Filed under Obedience

One response to “Commandment Keeping: Legalism or Love?

  1. Many people love to follow rules and and make rules to keep things easy and to eliminate conflict. If everyone obeys the rule maker and enforcer…no problem. If someone breaks a rule they are punished or exiled…sent to prison or their room.

    Love is not simple. Love is about relationships. Jesus came to teach people how to love and serve one another. Rules are important. But rules need to be negotiated and agreed to by equals who love one another. The Father and the Mother of the household need to be on the same page and the sons/the children need to have a relationship with both parents and all their elder relations. The sons and daughters can’t run amok and disobey the rules they don’t like. But the sons and daughters can discuss the rules with their Mom and Dad and change them if their Mom and Dad agree. Mom and Dad can make a new covenant with each new child, taking into consideration the needs of each new born child. The larger the family gets…the more the rules need to change to reflect the diverse needs and love to preserve the unity of the family.


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