Reader Question: Did Jesus Teach Legalism?

Site reader and frequent commenter OneSurvivor (who by the way has quite a good blog on abuse-related issues) has rediscovered the best way to get me to write a post: Ask me a good question! No really, do; it gets me talking like nothing else. She recently sent in this comment:

I have to ask. How do you deal with John 14:21 and 15:10? I used to feel so free in Yeshua and now find that I am floundering.

For those who haven’t got their Bibles handy, the verses in question quote Jesus (Yeshua) as saying:

“He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” (John 14:21, NASB)


“If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” (John 15:21, NASB)

It’s easy enough to surmise what’s causing the feelings of “floundering” and loss of freedom. If you take these verses on their own, they seem to say that Jesus’ love is conditional, based on our performance. “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love”—so You only love people who do what You command, and if I break Your commandments, You’ll stop loving me? What the heck kind of love is that? That’s not love; that’s legalism.

This interpretation gets even more perplexing when we observe that Jesus Himself vehemently denounced legalism and conditional love. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32). Others may recall my favorite article in which I list dozens of verses that describe Jesus’ love for us as gloriously unconditional, even unilateral. If we want to discard this truth, we have to throw out enormous chunks of the Bible right along with it.

So, what about these verses, then? Do they really mean what it looks like they mean? Was Jesus teaching legalism? Does Jesus go against His own advice not to only love those who love you? Will Jesus stop loving you if you don’t obey all His rules?

Short answer: no, not at all. But the question wasn’t yes or no; it was how I deal with this kind of problem. So let’s go behind the scenes, and I’ll to teach you how you can discover the answers for yourself. All you need is two of the foundational rules of Bible interpretation, and I’ll even give them to you with R. A. Torrey quotes so you can see I’m not making them up. Ready? Here we go…

Rule 1: Look at the exact words the Bible says, not anyone’s interpretation of them.

Torrey: A very large part of man’s difficulties with the Bible comes from not noting exactly what it says. Time and time again men have come to me and said, “I cannot believe this which the Bible says,” and then have quoted something which they supposed the Bible said. But I have replied, “The Bible does not say that,” and when we have looked it up, lo, it is some minute modification of what the Bible really says that has given rise to the difficulty. The Bible is always so absolutely exact, that I have found the best solution for very many apparent difficulties in the Bible to be to take the difficult verses precisely as they read. (The Voice of God in the Present Hour, pp. 11–12)

When you’re reading the Bible, read the words. Don’t read what you think the words say. Definitely don’t read what somebody told you the words say. Read the words themselves, no more, no less.

This is easy to say and hard to do. Too often, we read the Bible with a kind of mental double vision, all the unconscious lessons and applications and sermons and assumptions we’ve been taught echoing in our heads and making us think they’re part of the text.

Thus (for instance) you get people who read “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” and say “The Bible says not to smoke.” It says nothing of the sort. That’s an application they probably got from some sermon somewhere. All the Bible says is that the Holy Spirit takes up sacred residence in a believer’s body. Do you see the words “cigarettes” or “smoke” there? Didn’t think so. We may apply it that way if we decide to—and knowing what we know about nicotine it’s probably a good idea anyway—but it’s wrong to say that the application is the verse. (Actually, the application Paul gives for it in the Bible is “Don’t sleep with prostitutes,” but I’m going too far afield.)

This tendency means we have to develop quite a bit of mental discipline to look at the words and the words alone. Think like Sherlock Holmes: omit no detail, however slight. Ever read the old story of “The student, the fish, and Agassiz”? Do with the Bible what Agassiz did with the fish.

You might try marking the passage up with a pencil, or even with multiple colored pencils. (Do this in a Bible you don’t mind looking like a child’s art project.) It helps to use a very literal translation for study (I favor the NASB) rather than a paraphrase. Look for the comparisons, the contrasts, the causes and effects, the repeated words, the parallels. Look for things you assumed—“some minute modification”—that aren’t actually there. Don’t draw any conclusions or interpretations or applications until you’ve done this as thoroughly as you can.

Let’s take one of these problematic verses and show how the observation process might work:

“If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love;
just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”

Sleuth hats on; magnifying glasses up. What do you observe? (If you like, try it yourself first and then come back and compare notes with me. I’ll wait.)

Here’s my list:

  • “If” signals a cause-and-effect statement. The cause is we “keep [Jesus’] commandments”; the effect is we “will abide in [His] love.”
  • “Just as” shows a comparison: Jesus keeps His Father’s commandments and abides in His Father’s love.
  • The two statements are directly parallel, like a Hebrew poem; notice the repeated verbs (keep / abide) and nouns (commandments / love).
  • The difference between the parallel statements is the subjects and objects: You –> Jesus; Jesus –> the Father.
  • The subject of each cause-and-effect statement is the same. In the first, you do something and you end up somewhere; in the second it’s Jesus. (So it’s incorrect to say our actions change Jesus’ response.)
  • The grammatical structure significantly shows who’s doing what to whom. Jesus says “You will abide in my love,” not “I will love you.” Aha—the game’s afoot! It’s not about what Jesus will do but about where we will “abide.”
  • What’s not present in the verse? Notably, Jesus doesn’t specify here what “My commandments” or His Father’s commandments are. That may come out in our next step; make a note of it here and move along.

We’re not drawing conclusions yet, just gathering observations. Already, though, we can see that there are some serious flaws with the rendition of this verse I objected to in the introduction. The cause-and-effect statement does not affect whether Jesus loves us, any more than it changes whether the Father loves Jesus. It affects whether we “abide in His love” (again, stick with the words themselves and avoid the temptation to read that as “are loved by Him”). As noted, it’s not about what Jesus will do but about where we will “abide.”

Why is “abide” so important, and what are these “commandments”? Looks like it’s time for step 2…

Rule 2: Context is king.

Torrey: Carefully notice the context (what goes before and what comes after). Many verses, if they stood alone, might be capable of several interpretations, but when what goes before and what comes after is considered, all the interpretations but one are seen to be impossible…. A very large proportion of the vexed questions of Biblical interpretation can be settled by this very simple method of noticing what goes before and what comes after. (How to Study the Bible)

Remember Shirley Sherrod? A political blogger created a scandal with a video excerpt from a speech she gave to the NAACP. In the clip, Ms. Sherrod told a story about a time she responded out of racial discrimination to a white farmer who came to her office for financial aid. In the ensuing media maelstrom, Sherrod lost her job at the White House, was disowned by the NAACP, was denounced as a racist…

And then somebody else posted the video of her entire speech. Oopsie. Turned out that Ms. Sherrod told the story of her prejudiced reaction as part of a larger point about why she realized her reaction was wrong, and how she overcame it and helped the farmer anyway, and why we all need to learn to stop judging people that way. Face, meet egg.

For more on the story, try this for linguistic observations, and this for social observations. This being a non-political blog, I’ll stick with the editorial moral of the story: Context is king.

I dwell on this because “context” sometimes gets a bad rap in certain, um, contexts. Some people assume that “It’s out of context!” is a flimsy attempt to downplay a self-evidently incriminating remark. Sometimes they’re quite right (coughblagojevich-blessyou). But other times, as Shirley Sherrod now knows all too well, ignoring the context can alter the meaning completely.

So back to our perplexing verses. Peeking ahead, I can tell you that Jesus (predictably enough) doesn’t go on to say, “That’s what I used to think, but boy was I wrong.” But what He says “before and after” puts a seriously different spin on words like “commandments” and “abide” than legalism might lead us to expect.

“Before and after” for both these verses is what’s known as the Upper Room Discourse, one long teaching that Jesus gave His disciples the night before His arrest and execution. Really, you ought to take the time to read the whole thing, which can be found in John chapters 13–17 and is glorious. For the sake of space, I’ll just include the first half of chapter 15, which includes the second of our verses and shows us how to understand the first one.

Remember, we’re looking for statements that might show us a more precise meaning of “commandments,” “abide,” or other elements in these verses. To make things easier I’ve put a few key lines in bold. Observe closely:

1I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. 3You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. 7If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.

9Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. *10If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. 11These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. 12This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. 14You are My friends if you do what I command you. 15No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. 17This I command you, that you love one another.

So, two questions: (1) Based on this passage as a whole, how would you define the word “abide”? (2) Based on this passage, what are Jesus’ commandments? (Again, if you want to write out your own answers before reading mine, go right ahead.)

Here’s my take on them, again trying to stick as close as possible to the text:

  1. “Abiding” is about dependence (v. 4). When we abide in Jesus, our relation to Him is the same as a branch to its vine (v. 1–2). Apart from Him, we are not able to bear any fruit; so abiding involves depending on Jesus, not on ourselves (v. 5). We must trust in Jesus, not ourselves, to see fruit in our lives; without this trust we will be cast away from God (v. 6–7). Fortunately, Jesus has already made us clean (v. 3) and already loves us eternally as the Father loves Him (v. 9). That love is what He asks us to abide in (v. 10).
  2. Jesus’ “commandments” here are two: Abide in Him and His love (v. 9), and love one another (v. 12, 17). This matches Jesus’ teaching that the summary commandments in the Law are to love God and love your neighbor; do this, and you’ll have done everything God requires (Matthew 22:36–40). The commandment involved is not to practice legalism but to love.

The context shows that the interpretation “Do the right things or I won’t love you” is simply impossible. Jesus states that He has already made us clean on His own (v. 3), that we can’t do anything apart from Him anyway (v. 5), and that His love for us is as constant as the Father’s love for Him (v. 9). Just like the fruit of a vine, our good “fruit” serves to prove what we are, not to get us there (v. 8).

What’s a better interpretation, then? Let’s put all the pieces together. (Well, not quite all the pieces—another article by Torrey lists 15 principles of Bible interpretation—but enough to give us a good idea what the puzzle looks like.)

  • Jesus says, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”
  • His commandments are that we love each other as He loves us, and that we abide in His love.
  • Abiding in Christ’s love means trusting in Him, making ourselves at home in His love for us.
  • Jesus alone can bring about good works in our lives; when we abide in Him, this will happen as naturally and organically as a branch bears fruit.
  • Nothing will change Jesus’ love for us any more than it will change the Father’s love for Him.
  • “Keeping the commandments” to Jesus is not a matter of us doing the right things; it’s a matter of deciding where we want to abide.
  • Will we love like Jesus loves and thus show that we abide in Him, or will we refuse to love like Jesus loves and thus show that we don’t abide in Him?

These verses present a simple, direct, and beautiful exhortation: If you believe that Jesus loves you, then love other people like He does. This is not at odds with our freedom in Christ; this is what we do because we are free in Christ. We are free to rest in Christ and let Him bring forth the fruit in our lives. We are free to love unconditionally and be loved unconditionally. And we are free to throw out legalism and never look back.

One more verse as a bonus. A theology professor of mine showed me this and I’ve never forgotten. This is from Romans 8:

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39)

Just two questions: Are you a created being? (Hint: try prayer and see if you get a busy signal.)

If so, according to this verse, are you able to separate yourself from the love of God in Christ?

Then I don’t think you need to flounder anymore.

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For further study:

The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz – the best study is observation

Principles of Biblical Interpretation by R. A. Torrey

Profitable Bible Study by R. A. Torrey

Scripture Twisting – handy outline of the splendid book by James Sire

The Best Road – Previous article on more of the Upper Room Discourse

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Do you have a question you want me to write about? Leave it in a comment or drop me a line! I love hearing from you.

AuthorEric Pazdziora

Composer, Author, Pianist

5 replies to Reader Question: Did Jesus Teach Legalism?

  1. Hi, Eric,
    gosh…I could have sworn I left a message prior to this. Life has been insane lately. I did read your article…more than once, in fact. Even read up on some of the links you provided. Thank you!

    My goal now is to prayerfully read through all the chapters of John you suggested…the whole discourse…just soaking it in.

    Brother, I want to really thank you for answering my question. Between what you wrote… and what Hillary at Quivering Daughters wrote in her book that I am halfway through and that post on the misplaced joy that you have a link to in your sidebar…well…they are all feeding my soul.

    It is amazing to me how the lies of many years ago…reinforced throughout my life, albeit in different words and contexts…can have such a hold. More than once in my life I have prayed for release from old “knowledge/teaching” and for Holy Spirit revelation. Each time, He most graciously gave it. But then…why wouldn’t He? He wants my freedom even more than I am able to realize that I need it.

    Now…I am at the point again…praying for release from the old untruths to be replaced by the truth as only He can do it. Thank you for being willing to be a part of that. You have NO idea how much that means to people like me. Then again…maybe you DO!

    blessings in Yeshua,

    • You’re very welcome! It was my pleasure to help. I’m glad it worked the way I hoped it would. Reading good Bible teaching (C. S. Lewis, Ron Hutchcraft, G. K. Chesterton, Philip Yancey, Henri Nouwen, etc. etc.) is a big part in finding my own freedom, so I’m humbled to be able to play the same role for others.

      Be forewarned; reading through the Upper Room Discourse will probably take the rest of your life. I know I’m still nowhere near done with it, and I’ve read it dozens of times! There is always something new there!

  2. You hit the mark! Yes! God bless.

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