How do I obey the commands of Christ and avoid becoming a legalist? This is the question I have wrestled with throughout the last 2 or so years. As a believer in Christ, I strive to adhere to all of the commands I find in the Word of God, both implicit and explicit. Jesus himself stated, “If you love me, you will keep my commands,” (John 14:15). How then can I obey the commands of Christ and continue to remain aware of God’s grace through faith alone, rather than these good works of keeping his commands?
For a good majority of my teenage years, I tended to rely on good works as the basis of my faith. I knew that I accepted Christ in a moment of faith, and that salvation was through the sacrifice paid by Christ on the cross. I did not, however, find joy in that sacrifice daily. I became reliant on the good works I would occasionally perform to make others aware of my religion. I knew that Christ commanded his followers to do good works and love neighbors and care for the sick and downtrodden and just do good things. I was pretty good at being good. I volunteered at school. I went on mission trips. You know the drill.
It wasn’t until college, though, that I really began to question why I was doing good works. I asked myself, “What is the point of continuing in good works if my ransom was paid on the cross?” and “Why continue in good works when Jesus already died for my sins, and I’m counted as righteous?” You see, all of my good works were inherently focused on myself. I was only volunteering because I believed Christians should volunteer. I was only going on mission trips to simply tell others that I had been on mission trips, and they might think of me as a really good person. There was an inherent problem with my good works, their source, and their ultimate goal. I was only seeking glory for myself.
It was then, by the grace of God, that I stumbled upon John 14:15 (Read the verse in context here.) I was bogged down by attempting to be dutiful and obedient for my own sake. This verse gave me great freedom. I began to see the commands of Christ as freeing and graceful. I was no longer obedient for my own sake; rather I was obedient because I have a great love for Christ, and desire to follow his commands so that he may be glorified. We should seek no glory from our own obedience. We should, instead, look back on our good works and evaluate how God was glorified through them.
Obedience to Christ comes from loving him so much that you desire none of his glory when you do his work. We love Christ, so we keep his commands. It is not that we are justified through keeping his commands; it’s because the good works of a Christian are a direct result of being justified. It is true that faith without works is dead. This is because one who has faith will have good works as a direct result. Justified people are free to work and toil for the kingdom of God because they know what Christ has done on his behalf, and that God deserves any glory that results in works.
We do good not as a duty or as legalism, but because our chief end in life is to glorify God, and there is no better way (except for salvation) to display God’s glory than to do good things.