Little Babels of Legalism

Jeffrey Perry   -  

In Genesis 11, we encounter a narrative that mirrors the historical trajectory from the garden of Eden, onward.

Driven by the ambition to make a name for themselves, Noah’s descendants settled in the land of Shinar, and in in the aspiration to make a name for themselves, they embarked on the construction of a tower that would reach the heavens.

And much like our ancestors aspiring to get closer to God, and to make a name for ourselves, we do the same thing. The difference is that instead of building with bricks, we build with our works.


Inward Legalism

Admittedly, the word legalism is overused, and is often employed whenever we consider obedience inconvenient, but what does legalism really mean?

Author Derek Thomas, in his book “How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home,” defines legalism as a demand to obey in order to God’s favor.[1]

Similar to Adam in the garden, we do exactly this – we cover ourselves with whatever is at hand, often distorting God’s creations for our own ends. We distort the law, so that, just as fig leaves that were fashioned into makeshift garments, we may create robes of self-righteousness from the very laws that were intended for our benefit.

Outward Legalism

Dr. Thomas further explains that legalism often manifests when individuals are required to adhere to commands over and above that which God has given in the Bible.

The builders of Genesis aimed to ascend to heaven, viewing each brick laid as a step closer, and each swipe of mortar as cementing their legacy in place. This mirrors the legalistic spirit within us, often utilizing people as bricks to construct pedestals from which we look down on others.

Have your ever noticed that those with the strictest standards often appear cold and indifferent? This is because, to climb the metaphorical ladder of priority and acceptance before God, we must position others beneath us. The more people that are under us, the closer we get to God, motivating us to grasp hold of the people we perceive to be above us in order to continue our climb.

So how do we fix this?


The dismantling of these Babels that we attempt to construct requires us to rid ourselves of this legal mindset .

While we may easily sing “Amazing Grace,” we often forget that grace is initially devastating. It is devastating because it shatters our pride and self-assurance, and demolishes everything we attempt to achieve independently. Grace consistently thwarts our efforts to earn favor, acting as a wrecking ball to the Babel-like foundations upon which we’ve built our lives.

And this wrecking ball of grace isn’t a one-time occurrence; we perpetually need it because we continually need Jesus.


The gospel plays a pivotal role in dismantling what we construct. Because it reinforces our identity in Christ, redirecting our focus to Him and His work for us and in us. This good news continuously clears away the debris of Babel, and allows us to see that it is Christ’s work on our behalf that has granted us favor with God.

Let’s heed the call to dismantle our Babels and discard the ill-fitting robes of self-righteousness. As we navigate our own lives, may the gospel be a compass, steering us away from the pitfalls of a legal mind and toward the freedom found in Christ.
[1] Thomas, Derek, How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home, (Sanford: RTP, 2011)