Yikes! Were Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus all Legalists?

Ken Hensley
November 21, 2017 No Comments

In 1980, I was a young seminary student for whom nothing was more exciting than thinking about the truths of the Christian faith.

While I was a firm believer in the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide), because I was also a firm believer in the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, I remained wide-open to whatever I could be shown from Scripture alone to be true. And since I had the mindset of a theological detective, I was continually examining the shapes of ideas and arguments, always on the lookout for patterns of textual evidence.

A Peculiar Biblical Pattern

And then something happened.

One of my professors at Fuller Theological Seminary—extremely bright, had PhD’s in both Old and New Testaments—was talking one day about Luther and Melanchthon and justification.

This puzzled look comes over him and he says,

“You know, it’s a curious thing. But when you think of it, the Bible is essentially one story after another of men and women and their relationship with God, one illustration after another of how God deals with people. And never in these stories do we find illustrated the idea that people will receive God’s blessing by ‘faith alone.’

“Rather,” he continued, “the pattern we see in Scripture is always ‘trust me (faith), do what I tell you to do (obedience) and I will bless you.’ The basic pattern is always faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing.

“Think with me,” he continued. “Was Noah saved through the flood by faith or by obedience? Was it his faith that saved him or his obedience? What about Abraham? Did Abraham receive the promised blessing of God by faith or by obedience? Which was it? What about Moses and the children of Israel? Did they inherit the promised land by faith or by their obedience?”

It was a trick question. In each of these illustrations, faith was at the heart of everything. If Noah had not trusted God’s warning about the flood, he would have drowned with the rest. But he would have drowned because he would have not built the ark. Noah had to trust God and build the ark in order to be saved.

It was faith, leading to obedience, resulting in God’s blessing.

Same with Abraham. He had to trust God and leave his home and family in order to receive the promises.

Same with Moses and the Israelites. They had to trust God and sacrifice the Passover lamb, and cross the wilderness, and take the cities of Canaan one by one in order to inherit the Land.

The professor went on. “What about Namaan the Syrian? He had to trust the word of Elisha and go and wash in the Jordan in order to be healed. And what about the man born blind whom Jesus instructed to wash in the Pool of Siloam if he wished to be given sight. In order to receive the promised blessing, he had to trust Jesus (faith) and go and wash in the pool (obedience).”

He insisted this pattern was consistent throughout the Bible, that it was in fact illustrated on virtually every page of the Bible.

It seemed to me that he was correct.

The Reformed Protestant Pattern

Now, what troubled my professor—and what began that day to trouble me—was that the pattern we see in the Reformed doctrine of sola fide is entirely different than what he saw in Scripture.

According to justification by faith alone:

  1. We believe in Christ (faith)
  2. We are immediately justified by the legal imputation of Christ’s own righteous to our account (blessing)
  3. And then we proceed to live out our faith (obedience) not as a part of what is required to inherit eternal life but out of gratitude to God for having already given us eternal life.

Well, of course love for God and gratitude for God’s grace in our lives will motivate us in our obedience. However, according to the pattern we saw in Scripture, obedience was always a part of what was required in order to receive God’s promised blessing. The promised blessing didn’t come before the obedience, but after.

Reformed Protestants of course insist that this is no longer the case.

Classic Unbiblical Arguments for Faith Alone

In fact, most Protestants will insist that anyone who thinks he must obey God in order to receive God’s blessing of eternal life is a legalist. He is caught up in a damning system of works righteousness and evidences that he is most probably not even a true Christian.

Here’s a question I like to ask these Protestant friends:

So, does this mean that Noah and Abraham and Moses and the man born blind were all legalists? It’s clear that they believed they had to trust God and do what he told them to do in order to receive his blessing. Are they all illustrations of “legalism”? Were they caught up in a “damning system of works righteousness”?

Another common argument Reformed Protestants will make is to insist that salvation must be received by faith alone in order for God to receive “all the glory.” The reasoning is that if our obedience were required, then salvation would be something we had in part “earned.” The glory for the work of salvation would have to be split between God and us. Then we would have reason to boast forever that we had “saved ourselves.”

Again, seems to make sense. But is it biblical?

Here’s the question I like to ask in response to this line of thinking: So does this mean that God did not get all the glory for leading the Israelites out of Egypt? Are you saying that because Noah had to build the ark in order to be saved, he’s now in heaven boasting for all eternity about how he “saved” himself?

Finally, these Protestants insist, the pattern we see in the lives of these people in the Old Testament doesn’t apply to us. They lived under a system of works. We live under a system of grace.

Now, this sounds like an argument that might have some weight to it. Except… if this were true, why are these Old Testament saints set forth in the New Testament as examples for us to emulate?

I’m thinking in particular of Hebrews 11, where the author scans salvation history and presents his readers with example after example of men and women who put their faith in God and did what God instructed them to do and received his blessing.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous (11:4).

By faith Noah, being warned by God of events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household (11:7).

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out (11:8).

By faith [Moses] left Egypt (11:27).

He presents a stream of Old Testament saints who illustrate the pattern of faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing is presented. And then, instead of quickly clarifying, “But of course, all these men and women were living under a system of ‘works’ and we are living under a system of ‘grace.’ They were required to obey God in order to receive his blessings and so their example doesn’t really apply to us. Now we would speak of this as ‘legalism…’”

Instead of this, what does the author of Hebrews immediately say?

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us… looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).


Jesus is our greatest example. He trusted in the Father and for the joy set before him did exactly what the Father sent him to do. Having persevered to the end, he received the blessing.

Anyone wish to suggest that Jesus is an example of legalism?


Ken Hensley

Ken is a well-known Catholic speaker and author on staff with CHN. To subscribe to his personal email list and browse his many recorded talks on Catholic apologetics, visit his website at