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The Sabbath and Legalism

The Sabbath and Legalism

Is it legalistic, as some people say, to keep the Sabbath holy? Wasn’t the “law nailed to the cross” and made obsolete?

In answering these questions, let’s first look at what “legalistic” means. In a biblical sense, it means trying to earn salvation by one’s works. The Bible tells us in plain terms, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). This fact is confirmed many times in the New Testament. No one can earn salvation, and it is futile to try.

But is keeping the Sabbath, or any of God’s other commandments, an attempt to earn salvation? Actually, it is possible to keep the Ten Commandments with an incorrect attitude, as did many Pharisees in Jesus’ day. They took pride in keeping the law and believed it made them good enough to be saved—that’s legalism. But, notice, it wasn’t the keeping of the commandments that was legalism, only their self-righteous attitude.

In contrast, those who have a loving, heart-changing relationship with the Lord know the commandments can’t save them; they keep His commandments, all ten of them, to please Him and to help make the world a better place.

Now let’s consider the second question. The idea of the law being “nailed to the cross” comes from Colossians 2:14: “Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”

Could this verse be talking about the Ten Commandments? The apostle Paul, who wrote this passage, makes it plain in other verses that the answer is “no.” In fact, in many places he goes to great lengths to emphasize the importance of keeping God’s law. For instance, he writes, “For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13). And again, In Romans 3:31, we read, “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.” James also writes of the importance of obeying God’s law (see James 1:22-25).

So what is the “handwriting of requirements” referred to in Colossians 2? Another verse on the same topic sheds light on this problem. “Having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15, emphasis added). The ordinances were contained in the law of Moses. The law handwritten by Moses was meant to be temporary, while the Ten Commandments, etched in stone by God’s own finger, were meant to stand forever.

Finally, Jesus kept the Sabbath holy. And just hours before His crucifixion, He instructed His disciples, “If you love Me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Does that sound like He was about to abolish them? It can never be legalism to keep God’s Ten Commandments out of love for Him!
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