7 Barriers Legalistic Religion Puts Between People and Jesus

Susan Aken

iBelieve Contributing Writer
Published: Nov 24, 2021
7 Barriers Legalistic Religion Puts Between People and Jesus

Grace is an incredible, astounding gift. Underserved. Unearned. And it’s yours for the taking.

Have you ever entered a church for the first time and sensed you didn’t belong? Maybe you felt unwelcomed because of your appearance or speech. Perhaps everyone else seemed put together while your life was full of heaviness and uncertainty. Many refuse to attend worship services because they’ve been harshly judged or rejected by Christians.  

Too often, religious groups teach that we have to behave or look a certain way before we can come to Jesus. At the same time, He says, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29, NIV).

Jesus continued with this astounding truth, “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Unfortunately, Christians have frequently taught the opposite about following Jesus by adding burdensome expectations. He came to set us free from the law and its consequences yet we keep running back to its impossible demands.

The Gospel is good news: Jesus loves us completely and became a man like us. He lived the perfect life it’s impossible for us to live. Then He chose to die in our place, paying the price for our sin and breaking its power. Conquering death, He set us free from the burden of the law. He lovingly invites all who will trust Him to accept His righteousness as ours. We have to believe in Him and receive His love.

His grace is so outrageous and hard to believe that we try to earn His love and require the same of others. The church too often puts barriers between people and Jesus though He wants us to build bridges.

Here are 7 lies too often taught or implied that keep people from Jesus:

1. The Christian life is about keeping the rules.

I’ve always been a rule follower. I grew up in a denomination that emphasized expected behaviors: Go to church regularly, don’t drink alcohol, smoke, dance, or have pre-marital sex were favorites. Keeping these made you a “good” Christian. Never mind that some of these directives were man-made.

It’s easy to follow a hand-picked list of laws. I was proud of avoiding the big three: alcohol, cigarettes, and sex. 

Each group often has its own list. Others look at these expectations and say, “I could never be good enough to be a Christian.”

Scripture records, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10, NIV). In other words, it’s impossible for us to earn favor with God through our behavior.

Jesus brought good news. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse...Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous live by faith’...Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:10-13, NIV).

Jesus rescued us from the burden and curse of the law. He fulfilled its demands and offers us grace, forgiveness, and undeserved favor.

Does that mean our behavior doesn’t matter? Of course not. When we believe in Christ, His Spirit lives inside of us and helps us live a righteous life. But no one will do that perfectly. We’re all in continual need of His grace. Once we believe, we’re His forever, and our sin will never again separate us from Him.

Truth: The Christian life is about abiding in Jesus and living in a relationship with Him realizing we’re helpless in our own strength.

2. You must achieve a victorious Christian life to prove you know Jesus.

Various groups have their own definition of what a victorious life looks like. For some, it’s having daily devotions, attending services each week, memorizing Scripture, or witnessing to others. Another church might emphasize avoiding worldly behavior and living separated from their culture. You’re expected to be better than others or you don’t know Jesus.

Actually, life is a step-by-step journey. I may experience victory one minute and, in the next, fail miserably. Every day I have a choice. Hopefully, my journey is an upward one, but it will consist of ups and downs, victories and failures, glory and sorrow. Following Jesus is a state of continual repentance, learning, and growth. I’ll never reach perpetual victory on earth.

Truth: We need to continually seek Jesus and not focus our efforts on becoming a super saint. Our faith is all about Him, not us.

3. You must worship like my congregation.

Most people have a strong opinion about what the worship service should be like. Hymns only or contemporary band. Solemn and respectful or loud and rejoicing. Liturgy or spontaneity. Leather bound Bibles or Scripture on an iPad. Dressing up or down.

Some services are quiet and traditional, while others are loud and modern. International groups may look totally different. Is another group wrong because they don’t look or sound like mine?

I once received a letter judging the way my church worships. Stunned, my first reaction was to become defensive but I held back. As I prayed about how to respond, I realized this person spoke out of fear of making a mistake and losing God’s favor. What they needed were love and grace.

Is there one right way to do church?

Jesus said, “...True worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23, NIV). Our Savior is looking at our hearts, not the outward trappings.

Truth: There are multiple ways to conduct a worship service. God is looking for the heart that’s focused on Him.

4. True Christians should all look alike.

Can we identify who believes in Jesus by their outward appearance? Once, a tattooed, pierced person would’ve been labeled non-Christian. Today, this describes some pastors and ministry leaders.

The problem with judging by looks is that standards and customs change over time and vary around the world. What’s taboo today may be acceptable in a few years.

God never intended for us to be identical. He created unique one-of-a-kind individuals. God’s Word doesn’t give detailed directions on what’s acceptable for appearance but we’re given these principles:

  • Glorify God in all you do. The Apostle Paul wrote, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31, NIV). 
  • Don’t lead others to sin. “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32, NIV).
  • Seek modesty. The Apostle Paul wrote to his young friend, “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety...” (1 Timothy 2:9, NIV). But keep in mind that what’s considered modest changes through the years and is different for each culture. 

Truth: God gives us the freedom to choose how we dress and present ourselves. We’re each responsible for making choices we believe honors God.

5. Keep searching until you find the formula for maturity.

I spent a lot of years looking for the way to instant maturity. There are hundreds of books, articles, sermons, seminars, and weekend retreats promising the secret. Many times, I’ve thought, “This is it! These are the steps to becoming a super Christian!” Unfortunately, when all is said and done, I’m still me, and there’s no shortcut.

Jesus taught, “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23, NIV).

Truth: There’s no secret for instant growth. We have to make the day-by-day journey and will not reach perfection until we see Jesus in heaven.

6. Only those who understand deep truth and study hard can know God intimately.

What God makes simple, we often complicate. The Gospel is easy enough for a young child to understand and accept. It’s like a pool a child is able to wade in while someone more mature can dive in and never reach the bottom. 

The Bible is supernatural. We can delve into the depths of His teaching and never reach the point we know it all. But knowing God personally is an act of faith available to everyone. We respond to His love and receive all He has to give.

Truth: Knowledge is good, but God wants our love most of all. The Apostle Paul wrote, “...knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

7. If you blow it big time, you’ll miss or mess up God’s plans for you.

Some people teach that God has a perfect, beautiful plan for us, and if we commit certain sins, we ruin that plan and have to settle for second best.

This false teaching puts a heavy burden on the human heart. A person can set out with the intention of keeping the law, but when they fail, as we all do, they’re left feeling defeated, discouraged, and will possibly give up. I’ve known those who’ve said, “Well, I’ve blown it, so I might as well do what I want now.”

Following God’s commands is a wise way to live but doesn’t make us better than others or guarantee certain outcomes. I was once trapped in a self-righteous mindset and cringe to think of the pride I placed in my seeming purity. I knew in my heart I wasn’t better than others, but I clung to the appearance like a life raft. All the while, Jesus was giving me free grace. The same grace is offered to everyone because no one is capable of being good enough.

Failing to obey His commands never overrides His grace or redemption.

There are consequences for sin, and Scripture teaches we reap what we sow, but when we confess our sins and turn to God, He forgives and gives restoration (1 John 1:9). God can redeem anyone and anything. 

When a Pharisee criticized Jesus for allowing a sinful woman to wash His feet, He remarked, “...I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47, NIV).

The Apostle Paul wrote, “In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined to the plan of Him, who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will” (Ephesians 1:11, NIV). We can’t mess up God’s plan. He even uses our mistakes to accomplish His will. Scripture records, “...No purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2, NIV).

Truth: We all need redemption. God can redeem anything and anyone. No one can prevent God from reaching His objectives.

Friends and family love us despite knowing our weaknesses. This love is strong, but, in truth, it's not even a drop in the ocean compared to the love Jesus has for us. He knows our every weakness and still loves us completely. It’s impossible for Him to love us more! 

Jesus came to build a bridge between people and God. He overcame the only barrier making it impossible for us to come to God—our sin. All are invited to believe in Him, receive His love, and accept His gift of salvation. When we do, His grace covers us and gives us all we need to follow Him. He took the burden of the law on Himself, so we don’t have to carry that load.

I believed in Jesus at an early age and then allowed myself to be entangled in the false teaching of keeping the law to prove my salvation. Jesus came because we can’t keep the law perfectly. I’ve been learning what grace really means for over thirty years, and it still seems new and like a breath of fresh air.

Grace is an incredible, astounding gift. Underserved. Unearned. And it’s yours for the taking.

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/EJ Rodriquez

Susan Aken writes devotions and articles for Wholly Loved Ministries, is an Oklahoma native who’s lived in Nebraska since 1987 and has been in public education for over thirty years. She and her husband have one son and a wonderful daughter-in-law. Besides writing she has a passion for special needs and prayer ministries. She enjoys time with family, reading, photography, movies, walking in nature, and a nice cup of tea. She believes life is a journey and we’re all in different places. Jesus is everything to her and it’s all about grace. Visit her at susanaken53.wordpress.com or on Facebook.