Was Jesus a Legalist?

Like the Communist label during the 1920s “Red Scare,” and during the Joe McCarthy era thirty years later, the word “legalist” has become a popular though undefined epithet in a great deal of theological dialogue within Western Adventism. Like similar labels, whether in the secular political world or the world of theology, the “legalist” moniker often has the effect of closing minds and shutting down conversation before substantive evidence is considered.

One notable feature of this label’s use in contemporary Adventism is its frequent employment as a means of removing all practical obedience—whether before or after conversion—from the conditions of salvation. But if this is how legalism is understood, we have a big problem. And that is with the teachings of Christ Himself.

Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler

The story is one of the saddest in the life and ministry of Jesus. A promising young man, obviously attracted to the Savior’s teachings, approaches Him and asks the most important question ever to cross human lips:

And behold, one came and said unto Him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?

And He said unto him, Why callest thou Me good there is none good but one, that is God; but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments (Matt. 19:16-17).

Ellen White, in The Desire of Ages and elsewhere, offers considerable commentary on this encounter between Jesus and this young man. She writes at one point:

The young man who asked this question was a ruler. He had great possessions, and occupied a position of responsibility. He saw the love that Christ manifested toward the children brought to Him; he saw how tenderly He received them, and took them up in His arms, and his heart kindled with love for the Saviour. He felt a desire to be His disciple (1).

Little wonder that “Christ was drawn to this young man” (2). According to Ellen White, he was “a member of the honored council of the Jews” (3), more than likely meaning he was a member of the Sanhedrin. In other words, this man was what we could call today a successful young professional. And according to Ellen White, Jesus knew he was sincere (4).            

But Jesus also recognized that this young ruler was deceived with regard to his true spiritual condition. The superficial piety so rampant in his day had caused him to have “a high estimate of his own righteousness” (5). But irrespective of how he viewed himself, Jesus knew that the young man’s “exalted position and his possessions were exerting a subtle influence for evil upon his character. If cherished, they would supplant God in his affections” (6).

Thus the Lord proceeded to tell this young man what was yet required of him, and how his character still fell short of the law he claimed to keep:

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow Me (Matt. 19:21).

Tragically, this young man found the price of salvation too high, and thus “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (verse 22). Ellen White says that “his claim that he had kept the law was a deception. He showed that riches were his idol” (7), which means that the very first of God’s Ten Commandments—“thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3)—found the young ruler guilty.

Jesus’ statement in this story regarding the conditions of salvation, and the distinction between merely legal and truly genuine obedience, is described by Ellen White in the following statements:

In reply to this question Jesus told him that obedience to the commandments of God was necessary if he would obtain eternal life, and He quoted several of the commandments which show man’s duty to his fellow men. . . .

Christ’s dealing with the young man is presented as an object lesson. God has given us the rule of conduct which every one of His servants must follow. It is obedience to His law, not merely a legal obedience, but an obedience which enters into the life and is exemplified in the character. God has set His own standard of character for all who would become subjects of His kingdom (8).

The only way, of course, that obedience can truly enter into the life and be exemplified in the character is through conversion and total surrender, by which supernatural power is received and the obedience required by the law rendered. Jesus made this clear after the young ruler had walked away. The disciples then asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25). Jesus replied, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (verse 26). Elsewhere Christ declared to His disciples, “Without Me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). But the opposite side of this truth is declared by the apostle Paul when he writes, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13).       

Jesus and the Lawyer

In Luke chapter 10, Christ was again confronted by this most pivotal and life-altering of human questions, this time by the lawyer to whom He told the story of the Good Samaritan:

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted Him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?                                                      

He said unto Him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?                    

And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself.

And He said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live (Luke 10:25-28).

As with the rich young ruler, Jesus insisted to this lawyer that obedience to His Father’s commandments was in fact the condition of salvation. The problem was, as with the young ruler, that he failed to recognize the depth to which God’s commandments reach in the human experience.

Again, Ellen White confirms that Jesus’ description in this interview of the conditions of salvation means exactly what He said:

“This do, and thou shalt live,” Jesus said. He presented the law as a divine unity, and in this lesson taught that it is not possible to keep one precept, and break another; for the same principle runs through them all. Man’s destiny will be determined by his obedience to the whole law. Supreme love to God and impartial love to man are the principles to be wrought out in the life (9).

Elsewhere she writes regarding this encounter:

The lawyer asked Jesus what he should do that he might inherit eternal life. Jesus referred him to the commandments of His Father, telling him that obedience to them was necessary for his salvation. Christ told him that he knew the commandments, and that if he obeyed them, he should have life (10).

When the lawyer came to Christ, saying, 'Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?", the Saviour did not say, Believe, only believe, and you will be saved. 'What is written in the law?' He said, 'how readest thou?' . . . Here the false doctrine that man has nothing to do but believe is swept away. Eternal life is given to us on the condition that we obey the commandments of God (11).

Like Jesus, of course, Ellen White is clear that only through God’s imparted strength can this obedience be accomplished:

The keeping of these (ten) commandments comprises the whole duty of man, and presents the conditions of eternal life. Now the question is, Will man comply with the requirements? Will he love God supremely and his neighbor as himself? There is no possible way for man to do this in his own strength. The divine power of Christ must be added to the effort of humanity (12).

In the strength of God alone can you bring yourself where you can be a recipient of His grace, an instrument of righteousness. Not only does God require you to control your thoughts, but also your passions and affections. Your salvation depends upon your governing yourself in these things (13).

God would have all make a practical use of the plain teachings of His word in regard to the salvation of man. If they are doers of the word, which is plain and powerful in its simplicity, they will not fail to perfect Christian character. They will be sanctified through the truth, and through humble obedience to it will secure everlasting life (14).

Contrary to what some believe, nowhere—either in the Biblical account of Christ’s teachings or in Ellen White’s commentary on the same—is the claim put forth that Jesus in the settings here described was merely playing to the legalistic mindset of His listeners, challenging their level of commandment-keeping for the purpose of proving such obedience to be impossible for fallen humans, even through the transforming power of God’s grace. Those who teach this theory usually insist that the only way the conditions of salvation here listed can be rendered by fallen beings is through justifying, forensic righteousness, which in their view covers not only the believer’s past sins—a point on which we all agree—but also the believer’s presumably “inevitable” shortcomings of the present and future. But Jesus certainly offered no hint of such a concept, either in his dialogue with the young ruler and the lawyer or in the teachings He gave His disciples.                                                                  

As we saw in the story of the young ruler, Jesus was clear that “with men this (obedience) is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). And to the lawyer to whom He told the Good Samaritan story, Jesus asked:

Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?

And he said, He that showed mercy to him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise (Luke 10:36-37).

Once again, there is no hint anywhere in these verses, or their context, that the obedience required by God’s law is unattainable by earthly believers, even through the experience of conversion and sanctification. Jesus is absolutely clear that only through heaven’s power can such total surrender and the resulting obedience to the divine law be experienced here on earth (Matt. 19:25-26; John 15:5). But He is equally clear, as is the apostle Paul (Rom. 2:6-10; 8:13; Heb. 5:9), that obedience to God’s moral law stands before the Christian as the unalterable condition for obtaining eternal life (Matt. 7:21; 19:16-26; 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-28).

Conclusion: Was Jesus a Legalist?

What should be clear from our study of Scripture and the writings of Ellen White is that if one understands legalism to refer to any doctrine which includes Spirit-empowered commandment-keeping among the conditions of salvation, Jesus most assuredly qualifies as a legalist. But then, so would the apostle Paul, for he too declared obedience made possible through conversion to be among the conditions of salvation (Rom. 2:6-10; 8:13; Heb. 5:9).

No definition of theological terms is acceptable unless it comports with definitions and teachings contained in the written counsel of God. We already noted Ellen White’s definition of a mere “legal obedience”—outward conformity which fails to bring the life and character into harmony with the divine requirements (15). In other statements Ellen White is equally clear that “legal religion” has nothing to do with sanctification, but is rather the attempt by human beings to obey God’s law in their own strength, apart from the experience of conversion:

He who is trying to reach heaven by his own works in keeping the law, is attempting an impossibility. There is no safety for one who has merely a legal religion, a form of godliness (16).

The spirit of bondage is engendered by seeking to live in accordance with legal religion, through striving to fulfill the claims of the law in our own strength (17).

.As the time is fast closing, we should keep before the mind the spirituality of the law, and the utter worthlessness of a formal, ceremonial obedience to the commandments, involved in a legal religion (18).

Unless the daily life conforms to the will and works of Christ, no one can establish a claim to be a child of God, an heir of heaven. There is a legal religion, which the Pharisees had, but such religion does not give to the world a Christ-like example; it does not represent Christ’s character. Those who have Christ abiding in the heart will work the works of Christ. Such are entitled to all the promises of His word (19).

“As many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name.” These have not a mere nominal faith, a theory of truth, a legal religion, but they believe to a purpose, appropriating to themselves the richest gifts of God (20).

Legalism, in other words, is all about human beings trying to fulfill God’s requirements in their own unaided strength, apart from the divine power which can only be ours through wholehearted surrender and proactive cooperation with God’s transforming grace. Biblical righteousness by faith is not salvation apart from human effort. Rather, it is the fulfillment of the divine law—identified beyond question by Jesus and the apostles as the condition of salvation (Matt. 7:21; 19:16-26; 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-28; Rom. 2:6-10; 8:13; Heb. 5:9; James 2:10-12)—through the indispensable, enabling power of the Biblical gospel whose very essence is restoration (21).



1. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 518.

2. Ibid, p. 519.

3. Ibid, p. 520.

4. Ibid, p. 519.

5. Ibid, p. 518.

6. Ibid, p. 520.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid, pp. 518,523.

9. Ibid, p. 498.

10. ----Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 679.

11. ----Review and Herald, June 26, 1900.

12. ----Signs of the Times, Nov. 24, 1887.

13. ----Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 561.

14. Ibid, p. 694.

15. ----The Desire of Ages, p. 523.

16. Ibid, p. 172.

17. ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1077.

18. ----General Conference Bulletin, Oct. 1, 1896.

19. ----Review and Herald, Aug. 4, 1891.

20. ----Testimonies to Ministers, p. 94.

21. ----The Desire of Ages, p. 824.


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Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.