The Surprising Truth about Legalism

As Old As Eden

The root of legalism is almost as old as Eden, which explains why it is a primary, if not the ultimate, pastoral problem. In seeking to bring freedom from legalism, we are engaged in undoing the ancient work of Satan.

In Eden the Serpent persuaded Eve and Adam that God was possessed of a narrow and restrictive spirit bordering on the malign. After all, the Serpent whispered, “Isn’t it true that he placed you in this garden full of delights and has now denied them all to you?”

The implication was twofold.

It was intended to dislodge Eve from the clarity of God’s word (“Did God actually say . . . ?”). Later the attack focused on the authority of God’s word (“You will not surely die”). But it was more. It was an attack on God’s character. For the Serpent’s question carried a deeply sinister innuendo: “What kind of God would deny you pleasure and joy if he really loved you? He allows you nothing, and yet he demands that you obey him.”

Despite an initial struggle, Eve’s ears were soon closed off to God’s word. The Serpent’s tactic was to lead her into seeing and interpreting the world through her eyes (what she saw when she looked at the tree) rather than through her ears (what God had said about it). So her gaze was diverted from the superabundant plenty God had commanded our first parents to enjoy. The use of the verb is surely significant in this context: the enjoyment of plenty is the first element in the command; the prohibition of one tree is the second. The Serpent’s tactic was to cause a fixation on the one negative command: “Do not eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, lest you die.”

Now all Eve saw was a negative command. One small object near the eye can make all larger objects invisible. Now it was the sight of the forbidden tree blocking her vision of a garden abounding in trees. Now she could not see the forest for the tree. Now her eyes were on God the negative lawgiver and judge. In both mind and affections God’s law was now divorced from God’s gracious person. Now she thought God wanted nothing for her. Everything was a myopic, distorted “now.” The entail of that theology is that if you are to receive anything from this misanthrope deity, then it must now be paid for and earned.

It is this—a failure to see the generosity of God and his wise and loving plans for our lives—that lies at the root of legalism.

A Surprising Root

What was injected into Eve’s mind and affections during the conversation with the Serpent was a deep-seated suspicion of God that was soon further twisted into rebellion against him. The root of her antinomianism (opposition to and breach of the law) was actually the legalism that was darkening her understanding, dulling her senses, and destroying her affection for her heavenly Father. Now, like a pouting child of the most generous father, she acted as though she wanted to say to God, “You never give me anything. You insist on me earning everything I am ever going to have.”

This may not look like the legalism with which we are familiar. But it lies at its root. For what the Serpent accomplished in Eve’s mind, affections, and will was a divorce between God’s revealed will and his gracious, generous character. Trust in him was transformed into suspicion of him by looking at “naked law” rather than hearing “law from the gracious lips of the heavenly Father.” God thus became to her “He-whose-favor-has-to-be-earned.”

It is this—a failure to see the generosity of God and his wise and loving plans for our lives—that lies at the root of legalism and drives it.

It bears repeating: in Eve’s case antinomianism (her opposition to and rejection of God’s law) was itself an expression of her legalism!

When this distortion of God’s character is complete, we inevitably mistrust him; we lose sight of his love and grace; we see him essentially as a forbidding God. Legalism is simply separating the law of God from the person of God. Eve sees God’s law, but she has lost sight of the true God himself. Thus, abstracting his law from his loving and generous person, she was deceived into “hearing” law only as negative deprivation and not as the wisdom of a heavenly Father.

A Lie In the Bloodstream of the Human Race

This is the distortion, the “lie about God,” that has entered the bloodstream of the human race. It is the poison that mutates into antinomianism both in the form of rebellion against God and as a false antidote to itself. Scratch anyone who is not a Christian, and this (whatever they may say) is their heart disposition. Any profession to the contrary is itself a further form of self-deception.

Thus the essence of legalism is rooted not merely in our view of law as such but in a distorted view of God as the giver of his law. In the human psyche (not only in the intellect, which is never an isolated part of our being), truth has been exchanged for the lie. God becomes a magnified policeman who gives his law only because he wants to deprive us and in particular to destroy our joy. The “lie” that we now believe is that “to glorify God” is not, indeed cannot be, “to enjoy him for ever,” but to lose all joy. When the tragic exchange took place Adam and Eve, and with them their entire progeny, with one exception, lost the instinct to say, believe, and taste faith’s vision of “God my exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4) and to make the simple confession of faith:

You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)

What God united (and which no man, or woman, should have put asunder), namely, his glory and our joy, have been divorced. Thus, except through the gospel, it is no longer possible for a man or woman to know their “chief end.”

The Whole Christ

Sinclair B. Ferguson

Helping Christians walk the line between legalism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other, this book looks to a 300-year-old controversy to shed valuable light on the law, the gospel, sanctification, and more.

These considerations give us some clues as to why legalism and antinomianism are, in fact, nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb. Eve’s rejection of God’s law (antinomianism) was in fact the fruit of her distorted view of God (legalism).

Our Only Hope

Legalism can, therefore, be banished only when we see that the real “truth about God” is that when we glorify him we also come to “enjoy him forever,” and with him enjoy everything he has given us (1 Timothy 6:15).

To the unbeliever this is incomprehensible. But it is the happy first principle of the believer’s life.

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