Breaking the Legacy of Legalism
Words by Amy Gannet
Kids sports teams are a guaranteed source of humor. From lanky six-year-olds in baseball pants and cleats to round three-year-old bellies aimlessly running around the soccer field, sports teams for little ones are always colorful experiences. Throughout my childhood, my parents insisted that each of their nine—yes, nine—children participate in at least one sport every spring and fall. Those of you who know me are already chuckling at the mental image of me doing anything remotely athletic. For those of you who don’t know me, please disbelieve my friends and imagine that I move like a swan.
My go-to sport of choice was soccer on one of the community soccer teams. And, like most soccer teams full of nine- and ten-year-olds, we were a colorful bunch. There was the girl who insisted on playing goalie so she could sit in the goal net and pick dandelions; there was the stocky redheaded boy who seemed to be confusing soccer with football by his overly aggressive hurdling down the field; and there was the bossy brown-haired girl who was missing too many teeth at once, who liked to imagine herself the referee. Every team has one: the rule follower. This toothless wonder very likely spent more of her time on the field “reminding” her team mates of the rules of the game rather than actually playing the game. Instead of following the soccer ball around with the rest of the herd of children, she followed around each teammate, emphatically telling them that they needed to back up a bit or to tuck in their disheveled jersey. When a teammate threw a throw in, she told them to watch the boundary line and where to throw it; when the ref called for kick off, she hustled over to the offense and told them to wait for the whistle. She was utterly obnoxious. And she was me.
Ever since I can remember, I loved rules. I loved crisp lines drawn in the sand and firm boundaries. Some of my siblings were the rebellious kind; not me, I was the rule follower. I was home fifteen minutes before curfew (and made sure my parents knew it). You would think that this rule-lover would grow up to be a police officer or a lawyer where she could put her love of the rules to immediate use. But no, she found something better. She went to Bible school.
Bible school was a breeding ground for rules. Rules literally multiplied by the semester, and I quickly fell into line. Outside the classroom I became fluent in the rhetoric of rules: I named certain pieces of clothing “immodest” and named certain kinds of foods as “gluttonous.” But inside the classroom, I learned a new, startlingly negative vocabulary for this habit that was lodged in my heart: legalism.
It wasn’t until I stepped into theological and biblical discussions that I learned that my love of rules didn’t much mirror the Gospel that I claimed to proclaim. In fact, professors and text books (not to mention the Bible itself) shined the light on my propensity to follow and add to the rules as a sin. I remember very clearly working through a New Testament narrative in one of my classes. Jesus was talking to a group of religious leaders called Pharisees who are described as being “experts in the Law of Moses” (Matthew 23:2); in fact, the Pharisees cared so much for following the Law that they wrote their own set of laws as a buffer to keep them from breaking the Law. They were the type who, if the rule said “don’t touch the stove,” wouldn’t even step foot in the kitchen. They were the rule-followers and rule-enforcers of the day. And, much like me, I imagine they loved it.
I sat in class that day staring at the Scripture in front of me. Experts in the Law? That sounded right up my alley. But despite all their knowledge and rule-abiding rituals, Jesus condemns them. Jesus, the all-knowing God in flesh, says that they have needlessly heaped laws upon laws, creating a burden that was too much to bear. Legalism, I was honestly surprised to find, didn’t impress Jesus, but he deemed it as opposed to the message of salvation he came to proclaim and embody.
Having my eyes opened to this reality wasn’t the cure for my legalism. It took much more than being aware that my tendency was to try to appease God through following the rules and adding to them. No, legalism was heart-deep for me. And even today—after four years of Bible school, three years of seminary, and many more years of walking with our God—I still find my knee-jerk reaction in any given situation is to resurrect that rule-following nine-year-old that I wish I could have left on the soccer field.
Surveying my life and tendencies, I have realized that I come from a lineage of legalism. You do, too. No, I don’t mean that you birth mother imparted to you your unreal ability pile rules upon rules (though maybe she helped), but our dear mother Eve paved the way for us. Before her fingers even brushed the skin of the forbidden fruit, we find legalism woven in her language. Eve likely knew the prohibition: do not eat the fruit of the tree of life. As he always does the enemy of God, and therefore of mankind, came slithering, sneaking, and swindling. Does he deny the words of God outright? No, he just questions it. “Did God really say that you can’t eat this fruit,” he suggestively asks her. Eve could have repeated the command of the Lord, she could have told him to get lost. But instead she tells him: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 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.’” (Genesis 3:2–3)
Did you catch it? God told the man and woman in the garden not to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree, and in true form Eve buffers that command with another: don’t even touch it. In Eve we find a comrade in our legalism, a mother for our propensity to add rules to the rules of our God. Our history with legalism goes all the way back to the garden.
Eve’s legalism doesn’t get her very far. Her self-built hedge around the commands of God don’t keep her from disbelieving God’s promises and breaking God’s command. She sins: she eats the fruit God commanded her not to eat. She gives it to her husband who is standing by her side. And with the juice still tingling their tongues and dripping down their chins, they hear the voice of their creator: where are you? In their shame they run and hide. They are estranged from their creator and friend, and scrounging for leaves to cover their newly noticed nakedness, the death that God promised would follow their disobedience is realized.
This is the reality of our legalism: it gets us nowhere. Though we buffer ourselves with rules and regulations to keep ourselves “in the right,” our bleak attempt to keep our God pleased with us is fruitless (pun intended). Eve experienced it in the garden and we experience it every day. We survey fashion trends online and, in an attempt to adorn ourselves with modesty (1 Tim. 2:9), we pronounce our judgments on pieces of clothing, rather than on the way they are worn. We hear the call to be women of God’s Word, and so we schedule our thirty-minute devotional time, but sit anxiously the last five minutes, unwilling to get up before the timer officially goes off. We read that we are to show hospitality without grumbling (1 Peter 4:9), but we insist on having a meticulously clean home before anyone comes over and refuse to voice our despair over the never-ending diapers and dishes. And the brutal truth at the end of all of our legalism is this: we still fail. For all our layers of laws we have written, we fail to meet God’s standard.
Thankfully, Eve’s story didn’t end while she crouched behind the garden foliage. And our story doesn’t end here, either. The Creator God sought the first couple out, called them out of their hiding place, and promised that one day a Son would be born who would break the curse wrought by their sin. God promised that a serpent-crusher would come, destroy the enemy, and bring them back into right relationship with himself.
That Son, Jesus Christ, offers new life to you and me in the midst of our legalism. The promise of the Gospel is for us today. While we spin more and more rules in an effort to keep ourselves from breaking the Law, the promise of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is that we can never keep the Law in our own efforts. Instead, Jesus came and fulfilled the Law. Jesus was the ultimate Law-keeper, and in salvation his inheritance is ours. By the Gospel, we have the freedom and the gift of leaving our legalism behind in the wake of Christ’s victory. In his grace, he calls us to follow him in obedience to God’s Word not from legalism, but from grace.
This is your inheritance today, follower of Christ: grace has been offered you, and grace wins out over legalism every time. We have the power by the Spirit of God to break the historical pattern of legalism and lean into the fullness of life in Christ. Sister, leave legalism behind today and embrace the grace of your Savior. Freedom awaits.