Author Jonathan Noyes
Published on 11/21/2022

Legalism Leads to Despair, but Christ Gives Life

Jon Noyes explains why efforts to earn our salvation leave believers without hope and how we can find forgiveness in Jesus.


I want to talk about legalism. Legalism is the idea that our relationship with God—and, ultimately, our salvation—actually are dependent on how well we perform, as we overlay a system of do’s and don’ts on top of the grace of God. It’s demonstrated by the Christian who’s constantly measuring himself and, oftentimes, measuring others, their brothers and sisters in Christ. These believers are measuring themselves and others according to the standard of the law, and it can be absolutely suffocating when they do this, because there’s a record kept—a long list of successes and failures.

When we get stuck in legalism, we miss the entire point of the gospel. The point of the gospel is that we don’t measure up. The law has its purpose. It’s a teacher. It points us to our need for a savior. But we need to understand that our salvation ultimately has nothing to do with our performance and everything to do with the grace of God found in Jesus.

I love how the Apostle Paul says it in John 1:17: “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” Even more, I love how the psalmist says it in Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” And this is the best part: “But there is forgiveness with You.”

We see that the mercy of God is found in the forgiveness of our sins. God doesn’t keep a record of right and wrong. If he did, no one could stand. No one could pass judgment by a holy and just God. This is the hope of the people of God. He keeps no record, because he’s full of forgiveness.

There is not one person who can live up to the standard of the law, and when we lean toward legalism, we exhaust ourselves into hopelessness because we constantly miss the mark. We end up living life day after day, constantly letting God down, and it becomes unbearable. This is one of the main reasons why Christians lose hope. They believe a lie that they’re better off dead than alive because they try to live this life constantly measuring up to the law of God, and they can’t. But that’s not the purpose of the law.

What happens is you end up living in this cycle—success and failure, success and failure. We see this all the time with issues of addiction, for example, when people experience months and years and decades, often, of success, of broken addictions, and then they fail. They go back into their addiction, but then they come out again. We can’t keep that kind of record when it comes to our salvation. It’ll kill you. We end up losing that hope—that joy in life—because of it. It squashes it. But it’s even more than that, because when we tie our salvation to our performance, we lose sight of who we are. We’re children of God, adopted heirs through Christ.

When God looks at us, he doesn’t see our sin. He sees us clothed, wrapped in Christ’s righteousness. That’s why Christ died for us—so we don’t need to keep a record. We don’t need to anymore, and when we do, friends, life is simply unbearable, and God becomes, at best, a far off being that we can never really reach—or worse, becomes an angry father waiting for you to mess up. But that’s not the God of the Bible. That’s not the God I worship. That’s not the true and living God.

Yes, friends, we all fall short of the glory of God. We’re all sinners. Romans 3:23 is completely clear. The whole biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation is clear on this. We’re all sinners. Every one of us is broken. But equally true are the words of David in Psalm 103, where he says, “[God] has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.” David goes on to say that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” If God were to mark our iniquities, no one could stand before him, but he doesn’t do that, because there’s forgiveness in God, and that forgiveness comes through Christ.

Yes, we ought to be pursuing righteousness. We’re called to that. But our pursuit of righteousness isn’t the thing that saves us. We can’t pursue righteousness until we’re saved. God’s love for his children—for you and me—isn’t swayed by our performance. Thank God, because I fail every single day. You do, too. We all do. But, again, that’s the point of the gospel. Paul said in Romans 8:1–3, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the law could not do,” Paul says, “God did,” and he did it through Jesus.