“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
I take a deep breath of relief when I read these three marvelous verses. That’s because I tend to push myself in ministry and feel guilty if I rest too much, with what feels like a yoke straining painfully at my neck. As my friend and I talked today, we enthusiastically agreed that the burden of legalism is unwanted but insidious, subtle, devious, and dangerous to ourselves and others.
Jesus is gentle and lowly; therefore, his yoke is easy and his burden light. He has fulfilled all the “rules” of the Law, perfectly obeying them during his short life, to qualify as the only man who ever loved God with all his heart, soul, and strength. Legalism is harsh, cruel, and utterly inadequate because its yoke enslaves us to our works for God’s approval. Legalism is a religion of works that worships the deeds of men rather than the God of Life. Legalism is deadly striving for the unreachable; Christ is the wisdom of God with grace and new life for the spiritually dead. Legalism is guilt-driven, prideful ambition for the sake of self-approval. The gospel is Spirit-led, humble submission for God’s glory and power for salvation.
In Romans, Paul wrote, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20) and in Galatians, he wrote, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse” (Galatians 3:10). Not only can the rule-keeping legalist not find approval (justification) from God, but she is under his curse. Sinfulness is the curse of disobedience to God. One of the primary purposes of the Old Testament Mosaic Law is to expose our sin. The Law cannot save anyone any more than a how-to book can change a person’s heart.
Every day we have a choice. Will we unconsciously make rules for ourselves that we cannot possibly attain, leading away from Jesus? Or, will we live in and through Christ who fulfilled the Law and frees us from the burden of performance? “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)
Note: There is a role of works in the life of a believer, but not for salvation. Ephesians 2:10 informs us that as those who are regenerated “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Our works are the fruit of our salvation, not the cause of our salvation. This differentiation is crucial to our walk with Jesus.