Law without Legalism

The problem is not the law. The law is good and profitable, carrying the wisdom of God for man, reflective of His character and authority

Eve reiterated the command of God not to eat from the tree in the midst of the garden, with an emphatic “yea, hath God said.” But notice she added to the command of God: “neither shall ye touch it.” By putting her response to Satan in the context of “God hath said,” Eve was giving her own words the authority of God. It seems to me that this is first instance of legalism in the Bible.

 

It’s my practice to read through the Bible every year. This year holds two twists for me.

One, I intend to use the King James Version, something I have never done. I’d like to experience the artistry of the KJV. Plus, I think the language variations will slow me down to think about and savor God’s Word.

Two, I will be using the newly published Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible, which is filled with stimuli for study and devotion. Less than a week in, I have already been blessed with the study notes that give commentary on the text and the varied helps provided. But I am especially impressed with the “Thoughts for Personal/Family Worship” that follow the notes on each chapter. They are meaningful, provocative, and useful for development of Christian character and cultivation of a redemptive focus on Christ.

In reading the account of the serpent’s temptation of Eve in Genesis 3, something struck me. The devil had brought the command of God to the table as a topic for discussion: “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?”

Eve’s response to this initial foray by the deceiver was spot on—almost. But it is the “almost” that leads to her undoing. “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”

Eve reiterated the command of God not to eat from the tree in the midst of the garden, with an emphatic “yea, hath God said.” But notice she added to the command of God: “neither shall ye touch it.” By putting her response to Satan in the context of “God hath said,” Eve was giving her own words the authority of God.

It seems to me that this is first instance of legalism in the Bible. It may be that Eve thought she was fencing the law of God, keeping greater distance so as to avoid violation of the command. After all, if you don’t touch, you’re not likely to eat.

Eve’s intentions may have been admirable but I wonder if this was not her downfall, where in trying to protect the law she actually ending up compromising it and compromising her resolve.

It may be the deceiver noticed her willingness to play loose with the word of God, and found his inroad. In putting her requirements on a par with God’s, Eve was making herself the arbiter of right and wrong, pitting herself against God—exactly where the evil one wanted her. In this we can already see the inclination seized upon by the serpent that in eating the forbidden fruit our first parents “shall be as gods.”

That’s how legalism works. It adds the rules of man to the law of God. Often, we think of legalism in terms of adding to the gospel. But there is also a legalism in adding to the law. Paul references it in his letter to the Colossians:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion… (Col. 2:20–23).

The problem is not the law. The law is good and profitable, carrying the wisdom of God for man, reflective of His character and authority. The problem is when we add to the law, absolutizing our own practicalities and preferences. The beauty and wisdom of the law can become encrusted with the barnacles of self-righteousness. Just as the gospel can be corrupted with legalism, so can the law.

The law is good. The psalmist calls it a delight. In the new covenant, the law is not abolished. Rather, it is given root by inscription on the regenerated heart that it might bear the fruit of God’s workmanship of grace, inevitable for those bound up in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:14).

Stan Gale is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and is the author of the newly released book, A Vine-Ripened Life: Spiritual Fruitfulness through Abiding in Christ. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.