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Biblical Counseling Coalition: Grace & Truth

9 Differences Between Legal Obedience and Gospel Obedience

9 Differences Between Legal Obedience and Gospel Obedience

One of the things that can be most perplexing in our spiritual journey and our counseling is how to handle the issue of duty. What are we supposed to do as Christians because we are Christians?

Grace and Duty CAN Work Together

Duty is in the mix of any truly biblical counseling. We encounter people who claim to love Jesus but whose lifestyles and choices seem inconsistent with what is required of Christians in the Bible. In other cases sincere folks carry burdens of guilt and despair for how much they fall short of what they feel they need to do to please God. Anger with God erupts for how He has not rewarded a good Christian life with equally good fortune. Churches are caught up in controversy over the thorny debate regarding what is legalism and what is license. These are just some the ways the issue of Christian duty can find its way into our counseling and ministry.

As counselors, one of our fundamental tasks is to help the Gospel make sense and work itself out in the lives of the people we’re seeking to help. We know good counseling ties essential truth to meaningful application over time. On the one hand, we can’t be so caught up with the practical problems that we put people on change programs they will try to fulfill in their own strength. But we can’t be so caught up in theologizing their problems that we leave them with insight but no practical ways to change. What we hope to see happen in our counselees is the discovery of Psalm 40:8: “I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”

Help from an Old Book

I’m always wrestling with this issue of our duty as Christians in my counseling. Recently I was reading a book by the Puritan Samuel Bolton entitled The True Bounds of Christian Freedom. I came across a section on how to discern tendencies to perform the Christian life through external actions and how to live out the Christian life by grace. For my own benefit, and hopefully for yours, I’ve summarized what Bolton calls, “nine differences between legal obedience and evangelical obedience.”

  1. Legalistic obedience acts to either get something from God or avoid something from God. Gracious obedience sees duties as an aspect of relationship with God—like a child living in the ways of a family.
  1. Legalistic obedience feels duty as duty. We are very conscious that what we are doing is part of our religious obligation. Gracious obedience sees duty as lifestyle; it’s the practical implications of living for what we want most.
  1. Legalistic obedience is driven by a sense of right and wrong. Life feels like a constant stream of moral choices. Gracious obedience cares deeply about moral issues, but is guided by a deeper desire to please God in all things.
  1. Legalistic obedience tries to find satisfaction the duty performed. Gracious obedience finds satisfaction in Christ, and therefore acts on duty.
  1. Legalistic obedience performs duty to quiet the unrest of conscience. Gracious obedience sees in duty an opportunity to engage God in the adventure of faith.
  1. Legalistic obedience sees duty as a means to the goal of pleasing God. Gracious obedience sees duty as the overflow of our union with Christ, with whom the Father is well pleased (Matthew 3:17).
  1. Legalistic obedience can be accompanied by great fluctuations of spiritual desire—strong passions for holiness at some times, indifference at others. Gracious obedience tends to be accompanied by desires that are steady, deep and lasting.
  1. Legalistic obedience is significantly affected by external pressures or calls. We can be “radical” because there is something in our life experience that seems to demand radical from us. Gracious obedience isn’t as motivated by the call to be radical as much as by the desire for holiness that makes radical seem reasonable to us.
  1. Legalistic obedience sees duty as a medicine to be taken to cure or inoculate us from unhealthy things. Gracious obedience sees duty as food for the strengthening of our souls.

Join the Conversation

Think about your current counseling and ministry relationships. Does this list help you discern tendencies toward legalistic obedience in the people you are helping? How can this help you engage someone who might be resistant to practical obedience in fear of being “legalistic”?

How does this help you navigate the ‘legalism/license’ quandary in your own life?

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  • Peter Overduin

    a quick note on point 4….reads a little strange and just wondering if there is a word or two missing?

    As for the subject; this is something I struggle with hugely. On the one hand, I understand that all ‘duty’ should be joyful and done with thanksgiving, etc., and done not in my own strength but by empowerment and dependance on the Holy Spirit. But how do I perform tasks and responsibilities to which I have committed myself – referring specifically to things done as part of my church, but would also include my secular vocation – with conscious dependance and reliance on the Holy Spirit? I so often feel I am doing things in my own strength. There are times when I don’t ‘want’ to do what I have said I will do, and at such times I perform duty almost purely from a sense of duty. I can’t produce gospel obedience on my own, and so i am often left frustrated by the consciousness of the sin that pervades and pollutes every effort. Frustrating, actually. I should love much, given all from which I have been forgiven; I love so little, it seems.

    • tony

      I echo your feelings. I always get caught up in whether i am doing something in my strength or god’s since often I do not sense or feel that I am doing things in God’s strength. Seem to keep repeating this year after year.

About the BCC

The BCC exists to strengthen churches, para-church organizations, and educational institutions by promoting excellence and unity in biblical counseling as a means to accomplish compassionate outreach and effective discipleship.