Confessions of a Legalist

Mar 05, 2009 |Rachel Starr Thomson

When she answered Satan, Eve didn't stand on God's command. She stood on her own.

Huddled in an old house on a cold December night, one of the men in our study group asked why Eve fell so easily prey to Satan while Jesus stood strong. The discussion stayed with me — haunted me all the way home. We had missed something, I thought. Something that mattered.

It hit me urgently later. Most of us assumed Eve had heard God's taboo against the tree. She hadn't — at least, not that we have any record. God spoke His commandment to Adam before Eve was created, so we can only assume she heard it secondhand. And her response to the Serpent when he asked what God had said has a fascinating component:

"We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden," she said, "but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'" (Gen. 3:3)

Neither shall you touch it?

Where did that phrase come from?

In Genesis 2:17, God said, "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." God said nothing about touching, so where did Eve's extra prohibition come from? Perhaps she had added it; perhaps Adam had.

And who could blame them? Surely, by going the extra mile, they were just working to keep themselves safe.

So why do I have this terrible fear that "Neither shall you touch it" is the most overlooked key to Eve's vulnerability? Could adding to God's Word have such terrible consequences? Could similar words have a similar effect in other Christians' lives — in my life?

Satan's challenge was "Did God actually say?" And the truth was, He hadn't. When she answered, Eve didn't stand on God's commands. She stood on her own. By contrast, when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, the Son of God consistently responded with the pure Word of God. There are no added bits in the Lord's words — and never once did He pull in a tradition or extra prohibition to help ward off evil. He knew, far better than I do, the sufficiency of God's words.

Lately, God has been convicting me about living by conviction. I want to live my life according to His ways. David wrote, "And I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved" (Ps. 119:47, KJV). As I live in the reality of salvation and grace, earnestly desiring to draw closer to my Father in heaven, God's commands should be not just my standard, but my heart's delight.

But even as I try to follow God, one temptation continually dogs my way. Born of zeal mingled with ignorance and a natural tendency to self-protect, it urges me to hedge myself in with laws of my own making. God is much too big and too free, so I make life safer and simpler by building on His words. God says "Thou shalt not eat," and I add, "Neither shall ye touch it." Conviction easily slides into legalism as the lines between God's commands and my ideas blur. Legalism feels great when I begin to engage in it, but it quickly shows its true colors.

It's interesting that the world defines Christians by several outward standards that are not strictly Christian at all — Christians, I've heard, don't drink or swear, for example. Is it wrong to hold such standards? No, especially if we understand where they are rooted in God's commands — be filled with the Spirit, not with wine; let your speech be edifying and pure. But it's important to keep the lines clear between God's words and human choices concerning them. God has not forbidden drink or the use of rude words in every circumstance.

The words ring in my heart: "I will delight myself in thy commandments." I can't delight in God's Word if I am continually replacing it with my own. God guards few things so jealously as He guards His message to us. After delivering it to His people, He bound them to keep it intact and unembellished: "You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it" (Deut. 4:2).

Why does it matter so much that I keep the Word of God pure in my own mind? It matters because it is the nature of God to free, but the nature of my flesh to bind. It's the nature of God to tell the truth, but the nature of my flesh to lie. It's the nature of God to lead me in good and growing paths, but the nature of my flesh to wander out of them.

Legalism is dangerous because it defaces God in my heart. God reveals Himself through His words. When I add to them, I add something false to my understanding of who He is. When I take away from the Word, it's as though God has presented me with a finished puzzle, but I am determined to remove pieces. If I lose the line of separation and view my own ideas and standards as flowing directly from God's character, I do precisely what Aaron did in the wilderness: I melt down my own possessions, form them in the image of something I understand, and proclaim, "This is your God."

But if I refuse to add or take away from the Word of God — if I accept God as He has revealed Himself, on His own terms and not on mine — I find myself in a wide, free place. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" (1 Cor. 3:17, KJV). I find myself dwelling in the sheepfold of Christ, who said that His sheep would "go in and out and find pasture" (John 10:9). To dwell in God's reality is not to be imprisoned. It is to live with the freedom to move, with access to green places where we may feed, with protective gates around us each night.

Legalism is also incredibly destructive to relationships within the Body of Christ. Whenever I set up my own laws as equal to God's, I become a horrible judge of others — proud, arrogant and unforgiving. In Romans 14:4, Paul rebukes those who judge their brethren by standards God has not set: "Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand."

When I reject legalism and embrace the Word of God — delighting in God's reality — I see myself as an equal with every sinner saved by grace. I am joyful at the salvation of others, compassionate, wiser than I ever was on my own. More than once, I've come close to losing good friends because I set myself up as a judge over them. And each time, the Word itself has shown me the truth and reconciled the relationships.

When I study to see what God's words mean, I try to pay special attention to what they say. Equally, I watch for what they don't say. I do this because I am a legalist, and I know it; because given free reign, I will entangle myself every time. God has been good enough to give me the Scriptures, which every day cut away at the bindings I tie around my own soul. I can sing with the psalmist that my soul "is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped" (Ps. 124:7).

Knowledge of God and His Word is freedom. Adam and Eve fell when they traded God's world for one of their own making. In sharp contrast, Christ rejected any concept of reality that was not attuned to His Father. When Satan tempted Him, He clung to the word of God. As I must cling to it — pure, unadulterated, and freeing.

What has God said? With my Bible in hand, and my inner legalist in check, I am on a lifelong quest to find out.

Copyright 2009 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.

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