Until I was a sophomore in college, I always believed that I was “going to heaven someday” because I was a “good person.” Yes, I believed that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, but deep down, it was as if I believed in myself more. While I believed the right things about Jesus, my sincere faith and trust were more in myself. What was I doing? What did I accomplish? What did I earn from God?
Basically, I was living like a modern-day pharisee, legalistically trying to check the boxes and earn my favor with God. Now, please realize, I was far from truly being a “good person.” I was not even close to living according to the Law of God, but I tried my best to “put on a good show” and “look the part.” Because I was, what I considered, “better than most” when it came to obeying God’s Word (even though I failed constantly), I was convinced that my goodness made me right with God.
Oh, how wrong I was!
Legalism is wicked and sinful because it distorts the truth of the gospel and is a mockery of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for our sins on the cross. Essentially, legalism – adding to the Word of God a works-based burden that none of us can bear – declares that Christ’s substitutionary atonement was unnecessary. When you try to live a moral life for the wrong reasons – to earn God’s favor, rather than serving Him because of the gift of His favor through faith in Jesus, you have no way to actually earn God’s favor and instead will earn His eternal wrath in hell. Harsh as that sounds, it is the truth of the gospel. We need Jesus. He alone can save us from our sins, and He alone can enable us to grow in obedience to God’s Word.
Praise God for His grace! Until I was 20 years old, despite growing up in church and being “confirmed” in a Lutheran church when I was in eighth grade, I wrongfully believed that my standing with God was based on what I could do, rather than on what Christ had already done for me.
Thankfully, He opened my eyes in the fall of 1998 to see the truth. Then, I went from legalism to liberty, meaning I was released from the overwhelming and unachievable burden of trying to be good enough to earn God’s favor. Instead, I experienced the work of God’s grace in my life, realizing and embracing the freedom to trust in Christ’s perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection for my salvation. Praise be to God!
On Sunday morning, Lord willing, I will be preaching from Galatians 2 on “The Work of Grace.” What a great chapter explaining the difference between legalism and liberty! Have you experienced the work of grace in your life?
“No one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified” (Galatians 2:16-17).
For so many years, I was trying to be justified (made right with God) by being good enough – by trying to obey the law, but I just kept failing and failing.
Well, I still fail, but now my sincere faith is in Jesus and what He did. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:19b-20).
Not ironically, I am actually more obedient to God’s Word now than I was when I thought I had to earn His favor. That is not because I have somehow figured things out and am a better person. Rather, it is because of the work of grace in my life. The same grace of God in Christ Jesus that saves me is the grace that changes me every day. Thank you, Jesus!