The Difference Between Legalism and Obedience (Romans 5-8)
Did you know that Christians are called to be slaves of obedience? Many today resist this notion. It sounds too legalistic or works oriented. In fact, at first glance, it doesn’t sound appealing at all. Slavery suggests domination and control. We in the western world desire to promote freedom and don’t want to be enslaved to anyone or anything. Even Christians will quickly point to Paul’s admonition: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1–ESV). We will also point out, and rightly so, that Christians are “saved by grace through faith…not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). The Bible’s affirmation that we are saved by grace through faith, is an important teaching that sets Christianity apart from other world religions which often emphasize earning God’s favor through good works. However, this important distinction, along with a fear of sounding “legalistic” has caused some to shy away from the important biblical teaching on obedience. This article examines the difference between legalism and obedience.
Slaves of Obedience
The same apostle (Paul) who told the Galatians to stand firm in their freedom and not submit to a yoke of slavery, also tells the Romans that those who have come to Christ have become slaves of obedience and righteousness (Rom. 6:16, 18). In fact, the context in which Paul uses these phrases concerns his discussion that Christians are under grace, not under the law (Rom. 6:14-15). However, Paul maintains that the grace that we as Christians are under was achieved by one Man’s (Jesus’) righteous act (Rom. 5:18). Paul describes this act as an act of obedience that will make many righteous (Rom. 5:19). This obedient act that brings righteousness to many is the death of Jesus on the cross (Rom. 6:3-10). But Jesus did not stay dead; he was resurrected by the Father (Rom. 6:5, 9, 10). The example left by Jesus is therefore one of obedience through death which brings righteousness and life (Rom. 5:21).
Paul connects these same key words (obedience, death, righteousness, and life) with what happens to people who give their lives to Christ. First, we die with Christ and our old man is crucified (Rom. 6:3-6). Therefore, we are to reckon ourselves as dead (Rom. 6:11). Sin no longer has control over a dead person (Rom. 6:14). By this death, we are not only set free from sin, we are also imitating the obedience of Jesus who obediently went to the cross (Phil. 2:8). By grace we are transferred from the reign of sin to the reign of obedience leading to righteousness (Rom. 6:16). This is not to infer that our obedience makes us righteous; rather, it is the obedience of Jesus (his death) that makes us righteous (Rom. 5:18). But our decision to die with Christ is a form of obedience which produces the fruit of righteousness (Rom. 6:22). Thus, our lives become a mirror image of our Savior and of the gospel message! It would be a supreme contradiction if those who were delivered from sin continued to let sin reign (Rom. 6:1-2), and those who gave their lives to the Obedient One, refused to be obedient! Therefore, obedience is a natural outcome of grace and this is also why Paul speaks of “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26–ESV). This grace is enhanced through the gift of the Holy Spirit which enables us to live obediently so “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4–NKJV).
Legalism and Obedience Contrasted
On the other hand, Paul contrasts the obedient life of righteousness produced by grace with the life of sin under the law. This is because the law arouses sinful passions which lead to death (7:5). Although the law itself is good (7:12), sin takes advantage of the law through the weakness of our flesh and produces disobedience (7:8-15). This often comes in the form of hypocrisy by judging others while we practice the same things (Rom. 2:1-5; 21-24). This is why Paul can state that those under the law are lawless (6:19)! This is the difference between legalism and true obedience. Legalism is proud and self-righteous (10:3), and results in robbing God of His glory (1:21). Obedience demonstrates humility through dying to self and surrendering control to God, which gives Him the glory. Simply put: legalism is the result of a hard heart, while obedience is the result of a humble heart.
In conclusion, the word “reign” is used frequently by Paul in Romans 5:12-6:23. Paul indicates that we will be ruled by something (much as Bob Dylan said years ago, “You Gotta Serve Somebody”). We will either be ruled by sin, or by obedience and righteousness––there are no other options. The problem is that we are not stronger than our desires. If we try to maintain our autonomy, we will become the pawn of sin. But if, on the other hand, we surrender our lives and die with Christ, we will find true freedom through a life of obedience. In the end, what we are ruled by determines our eternal outcome (5:21; 6:23), and that is the difference between legalism and obedience.
In our next article, I will look more closely at the meaning of grace.