There is (and always has been) from its founding, a conundrum within the church. The disobedient call obedience legalistic, while the obedient call disobedience the same. At first glance it can be hard to decipher one from the other and even harder to decipher which one is true. So allow me, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, to clarify this issue with a simple definition. If you hold this truth in your heart and mind you will always know the difference between obedience and legalism, and that is this:
Legalism is actions taken to please men
Obedience is actions taken to please God
The same action can for one be legalism and for an other obedience. For example, fasting. If a person, church, or denomination mandates a fast and people fast to please that person, church, or denomination knowing they will be looked poorly upon if they do not, then it is legalism. However, if God tells someone, or even a group of someones, to fast then they are simply being obedient. In fact they are actually expressing their faith through their obedience and faith is the opposite of legalism.
“But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” – Hebrews 11:6
So let’s break it down even further. If dead works are works preformed without faith, then dead works are simply works preformed that one never heard directly from God on. After all, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). They might have heard from themselves, or from a doctrine or tradition of men, or from a pastor, or a friend but if they didn’t personally hear from God then it is a dead work. However, if you hear from God, either through His written word or personal revelation in the secret place of the most high (prayer), then you’d better obey, no matter what men say. For the word says that those who know what they should do and do not do it, to him it is sin (James 4:17).
“And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.” – Acts 5:27-29
In summery, faith is rooted in obedience to what God says, despite what men say. While legalism is rooted in obedience to what men say, despite what God says.
“He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.” – Mark 7:6-9
Again, the simple truth on this matter is this: legalism is when your heart is concerned with pleasing men. Obedience is when your heart is concerned with pleasing God. Please God, not men. Seek, pray, listen, and obey; no matter what the traditions of men say.
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge (submit to) him, and he shall direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil.” – Proverbs 3:5-7