Legalism Is Easier, the Gospel Is Better

Last winter, I was angry. Not just one time, but every day when I had to get all three of my sons loaded up in the car to leave for school. I asked my friends for strategies to get my kids in the car more quickly. I took deep breaths. I allowed for more time to get the plethora of coats, hats, mittens, bags, and snacks on our persons and out to the car. But no matter what I tried, I couldn't stop my unexpected explosions of anger.

I was busy. I had motherhood goals, work goals, writing goals, and marriage goals. I was focused and intentional. I bought a planner, created lists, and hustled. Every week that ended with half my to-do's unchecked felt like failure. No matter how much I planned, life never looked like my planner.

I was reading my Bible faithfully, but listening little. I was studying to feel the relief of a task accomplished instead of the joy of relationship with God. I was looking for what I could learn quickly instead of abiding throughout my day. I was stuck.

I was working for my salvation and living by my own power instead of relying on relationship with God. Like Paul questioned the Galatians, I questioned myself: “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (4:9).

In conception, grace is easier. It’s a free gift. Grace seems like the obvious choice, but legalism is actually easier than grace. Legalism fuels our pride; grace requires humility. Legalism doesn't require repentance and maintains control over our lives. Legalism only requires knowing about God instead of relationship with Him. Legalism maintains control. Legalism is easy.

Legalism is easier because it doesn't require the humble act of repentance.

Biblical repentance is a microcosm of the gospel: admitting that you have not met God's law, accepting His grace and forgiveness purchased for you by Jesus' blood, and turning from your sin by the power of the Holy Spirit. All the steps of repentance are accomplished through the power of God instead of our own. But we prefer to be strong instead of weak. We like to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and keep chugging along on the road of “basically good.” Repentance reminds us that we are unable, but God is able.

Legalism feels easy because it maintains control over our lives.

We wrap rules around ourselves like a blanket in a cold world full of unexpected circumstances. If we can keep our rules, we think we’re okay. If people keep our rules, we know we can trust them. If God plays within our rules, we're happy to have Him in our life and call Him good. But when our rules get threatened by challenging circumstances—maybe an unexpected traffic jam or a toddler who refuses to put on her mittens in subzero temperatures—the sudden lack of control sends us into a whirlwind of emotions. When our rules and plans are in control, life feels comfortable.

Legalism is easier because it only requires us to know about God instead of developing an active, daily reliance on Him.

Legalism allows us many of the benefits of Christianity like community, acceptance, and even grace, but it stops short of true salvation. It doesn't truly penetrate your heart and change your life. It doesn't accept your complete inability and God's pervasive glory. It is always easier to know about someone than walk in intimate relationship with them. It's easier to be the biographer than it is to be the best friend.

We are not called to walk in our own power by our own rules; we are called to walk by the Spirit.

We are not called to be God's biographers; we are called to be His children. We are not called to remain in control but to trust God's sovereign, kind plan. We are not called to fix ourselves but to humbly repent of our sin and receive Jesus' saving grace and the Holy Spirit's work of sanctification.

The Gospel Is Better

It may not be easier to accept the grace offered in the gospel and walk in intimate relationship with God, but it is definitely better. Legalism is a leftover of the old covenant, and Hebrews 8:6 tells us that “Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.”

The promise of the old covenant was that as long as they continued in faithful obedience to God, He would bless them (Heb. 8:9), but the promise of the new covenant tells us that because Jesus washes away our sins and stands as our perfect righteousness, God will no longer remember our sins (v. 12). Forgotten sins—the fruit of our repentance under the gospel—are always better than relying on our own insufficient goodness.

The gospel not only brought us complete forgiveness and an unshakeable covenant, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we walk by the Spirit, we receive the natural overflow of the fruit of the Spirit and the gift of sanctification. When we rely on God instead of ourselves, His purposes are made true. When we are walking in the Spirit, we will not stop growing in holiness and obedience.

When we rely upon God, He receives all the glory. While our prideful hearts long for our own glory, the glory of God is always better. It is the chief end of our life to glorify God, and when we fulfill this good purpose, we receive true joy and satisfaction.

Stop Trading Easy for Best

When we rely on our own goodness or abilities to complete our sanctification, we have traded life-giving, life-changing relationship with God for insufficient legalism. Legalism may be easier, but it leads to chains. Reliance upon God is always better. It gives us the new covenant, where our relationship with God rests completely on the work of Christ. It gives us the Holy Spirit, who never lets us stop growing in holiness. It gives us a holy purpose, glorifying God instead of ourselves. But most importantly, it gives us God Himself, and knowing Him intimately is always better.

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