The “Old Filth” of Legalism (Fisher)

 Legalism is one of those things that keeps creeping up in the Christian life and in the Christian church.  For example, some people say that there’s a final justification which depends upon our works.  Others talk about justification by faith alone, but then go on to define faith as faithfulness.  Still others have rules for the Christian life or church that aren’t taught in Scripture, such as which Bible translation to use, how to dress for worship, which type of schooling is best for children, and so forth.  This error of legalism is nothing new, of course.  The church has been dealing with it a long time.  One good example is found in Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity, where by way of dialogue he explains legalism and refutes it with Scripture and an emphasis on the gospel of grace.

In one section of The Marrow called “The Natural Bias Towards the Covenant of Works,” Fisher explains how people in general think according to the covenant of works.  That is, people generally believe that God is the great Master of heaven, and man is the servant that must work to receive wages.

“…It is the general opinion of men’s reason throughout the whole world, that righteousness is gotten by the works of the law; and the reason is, because the covenant was engendered in the  minds of men in the very creation, so that man naturally can judge no otherwise of the law than as a covenant of works, which was given to make righteous, and to give life and salvation.”

Fisher then writes, quoting Luther, that this view of the law and obedience

‘is so deeply rooted in man’s reason, and all mankind so wrapped in it, that they can hardly get out; yea, I myself,’ says he, ‘have now preached the gospel nearly twenty years, and have been exercised in the same daily, by reading and writing, so that I may well seem to be rid of this wicked opinion; yet, notwithstanding, I now and then feel this old filth cleave to my heart, whereby it cometh to pass that I would willingly have so to do with God, that I would bring something with myself, because of which he should give me his grace.’

In other words, even Luther struggled with the “old filth” of legalism, the idea that we can earn God’s favor by obedience.  Later Fisher writes this:

…It is to be feared that there be divers [many] who in words are able to distinguish between the law and the gospel, and in their judgments hold and maintain, that man is justified by faith without the works of the law; and yet in effect and practice, that is to say, in heart and conscience, do otherwise.  And there is some touch of this in us all; otherwise we should not be so up and down in our comforts and believing as we are still, and cast down with every weakness as we are.

What is the antidote or medicine for the “old filth” of legalism?  A constant and continual emphasis on the great truths of Scripture: we’re justified by grace alone, through faith alone (apart from all of our works), in Christ alone! We need to let these gospel truths saturate our hearts and minds – in doing so, we’ll be able to better fight legalism and it’s effects.

The above quotes are found on pages 105-106 of Fisher’s Marrow.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church, OPC
Hammond, WI, 54015


Death to the Legalist (in Me)!!

  “Through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God” (Gal. 2:19 NASB).  “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Gal. 5:18 NASB).  In Reformed theology, these words are taken to mean that the believer is not under the law as a covenant of works, demanding obedience upon the pain of curse and death.  Because of what Jesus has done, we’re not under the law for justification nor are we under its curse for our sin.  Like Thomas Boston said, Christians are neither under the law’s commanding power nor its condemning power.  Boston also noted that since the Christian is not completely sanctified, sometimes the Christian sadly believes he or she is still under the law’s demands:

“In the best of the children of God here, there are such remains of the legal disposition and inclination of heart to the way of the covenant of works, that as they are never quite free of it in their best duties, so at sometimes their services smell so rank of it, as if they were alive to the law, and still dead to Christ.”

That’s true.  Sometimes Christians think they are or act as if they are still under the law, so they believe their obedience will make God love them more.  Or they think their disobedience makes God love them less.  They are then terribly frustrated by their failures and try harder to obey God only to fail and feel worse.  Or they deceive themselves and think they’ve succeeded in obedience and thus becoming proud.  They think they are still under the law and they act like it.  Boston:

“And sometimes the Lord for their correction, trial, and exercise of faith, suffers the ghost of the dead husband, the law, as a covenant of works, to come in upon their souls and make demands on them, command, threaten, and affrighten them, as if they were alive to it, and it to them.  And it is one of the hardest pieces of practical religion, to be dead to the law in such cases.  This death to it admits of degrees, is not alike in all believers, and is perfect in none till the death of the body.”

In God’s fatherly discipline, sometimes he allows the Christian to think he or she is under the law.  It’s tough, but he does this to show them not to trust in themselves or their works but in Jesus.  Boston is right: Christians are dead to the law, but we don’t always live that truth consistently because we still struggle with sin.  It has to do with sanctification.  The more God grows us in grace, the less we view ourselves under a covenant of works.  As we are gradually sanctified, the legalist in us gradually dies.  Remember what Boston and others have noted: the remedy for a legal spirit is not antinomianism, but the gospel of grace.  God loves you in Christ with a steadfast, unchangeable love.  Rest in that truth!

The above quote is found on page 176 of the Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI


Understanding and Interpreting the Commandments

Marrow of Modern Divinity Although the Ten Commandments in their biblical form (in Ex. 20 and Deut. 5) are quite short, their meaning is deep and broad.  Using other Scriptures, we can properly talk about how to interpret the Ten Commandments.  For one example, the Westminster Larger Catechism in Q/A 99 talks about biblical rules for the right understanding of the Ten Commandments.  For another example, Edward Fisher echoed those rules in his Marrow of Modern Divinity.  These rules for interpreting and applying the Ten Commandments are helpful; I’ll give an edited/summarized version of Fisher’s rules below.  (Note: though Fisher didn’t give a list of proof texts, he was clearly alluding to Scripture in his discussion, so I’ve added some texts for further thought.)

1) Every commandment has both a negative and affirmative part contained in it.  That is, where an evil is forbidden, the contrary good is commanded, and where any good is commanded, the contrary evil is forbidden (Deut. 6:13, Mt. 4:9-10, Mt. 15:4-6, Eph. 4:28, etc.).

2) Under one good action commanded, or one evil action forbidden, all of the same kind or nature are comprehended; yea, all occasions and means leading thereunto.  [For example, ‘do not commit adultery’ includes the forbidding of lustful looks that lead to adultery; consider the David and Bathsheba story.]

3) The law of God is spiritual, reaching to the very heart or soul, and all the powers thereof, for it charges the understanding to know the will of God; it charges the memory to retain, and the will to choose the better and to leave the worse; it charges the affections to love the things that are to be loved and to hate the things that are to be hated.  It bids the powers of the soul to obedience, as well as the words, thoughts, and gestures [which arise from the heart – Mt. 22:37-39].

4) The law of God must not just be the rule of our obedience, but also the reason of it.  We must not simply obey the law, but obey it because the Lord requires it; we must do what it says out of love for God; the love of God must be the fountain, the impulsive, and the efficient cause of all our obedient to the law (see 1 John).

5) Just as our obedience to the law must arise out of love for God, so it must also be directed to a right end – that is, that God alone may be glorified by us.  Otherwise obedience is not the worship of God, but hypocrisy.  In seeking to please God in our obedience, we glorify him, and these two things always go together (1 Cor. 10:13).

6) The Lord does not only take notice of what we do in obedience to his law, but also the manner in which we do it.  Therefore we must seek to obey the law after a right manner – that is, humbly, reverently, willingly, and zealously (cf. Mic. 6:8).

Or, put in a different yet parallel way, the Heidelberg Catechism goes like this:

What do we do that is good?  Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on human tradition (Q/A 91).

For the above quotes by Fisher, see p.275-276 of The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

shane lems

Thomas Boston on the Law and the Christian

Marrow of Modern Divinity One of my favorite all-time books on justification, faith, law/gospel, and the covenants is Edward Fisher’s 1645 publication, The Marrow of Modern Divinity.  As some of you know, the Christian Focus reprint from 2009 includes Thomas Boston’s excellent commentary on Fisher’s writing.

Here’s how Boston summarizes Fisher’s discussion of the phrase, “you are not under the law” (Rom. 6:14).

“Concerning the deliverance from the law, which, according to the Scripture, is the privilege of believers purchased unto them by Jesus Christ, there are two opinions equally contrary to the word of God, and to one another.  The one of the Legalist, that believers are under the law, even as it is the covenant of works; the other of the Antinomian, that believers are not at all under the law, no, not as it is a rule of life.”

“Betwixt these extremes, both of them destructive of true holiness and gospel-obedience, our author [Fisher], with other orthodox divines, holds the middle path; asserting (and in the proper place proving) that believers are under the law, as a rule of life, but free from it as it is the covenant of works.  To be delivered from the law as it is the covenant of works, is no more but to be delivered from the covenant of works.  And the asserting, that believers are delivered from the law as it is a covenant of works, doth necessarily import, that they are under the law, in some other respects thereto contradistinguished.”

For confessional references, see WLC 97, WCF 19:6, and HC Q/A 86 and 113-115.

The above quotes are found on page 175 of Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity

shane lems

Law and Works Utterly Excluded

Marrow of Modern Divinity At the end of Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity he added a section called, “The Difference Between the Law and the Gospel.”  Here’s a paragraph from it on justification sola fide.

“Therefore, whensoever, or wheresoever, any doubt or question arises of salvation, or our justification before God, there the law and all good works must be utterly excluded and stand apart, that grace may appear free, and that the promise and faith may stand alone: which faith alone, without law or works, brings thee in particular to thy justification and salvation, through the mere promise and free grace of God in Christ; so that I say, in the action and office of justification, both law and works are to be utterly excluded and exempted, as things which have nothing to do in that behalf.”

“The reason is this: for seeing that all our redemption springs out from the body of the Son of God, crucified, then is there nothing that can stand in us instead, but that only wherewith the body of Christ is apprehended.  Now, forasmuch as neither the law nor works, but faith only, is the thing which apprehendeth the body and passion of Christ, therefore faith only is that matter which justifies a man before God, through the strength of that object Jesus Christ, which it apprehends; like as the brazen serpent was the object only of the Israelites’ looking, and not of their hands’ working; by the strength of which object, through the promise of God, immediately proceeded health to the beholders; so the body of Christ being the object of our faith, strikes righteousness to our souls, not through working, but through believing” (p. 342).

Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2009).

shane lems

Thomas Boston, Richard Baxter, and Justification

  Here’s a great section from Fisher’s Marrow found on page 193.  It is Thomas Boston’s notes against Richard Baxter, who mixed up faith and obedience in the area of justification.  Boston stood firmly for the Reformation doctrine of justification sola fide, while Baxter snuck the law into justification’s back door.

“As to the point of justification; no man is, nor can be justified by the law.  It is true, the Neonomians or Baxterians, to wind in a righteousness of our own into the case of justification, do turn the gospel into a law, properly so-called; and do tell us, that the gospel justifies as a law; and roundly own what is the necessary consequent of that doctrine, namely, that faith justifieth, as it is our evangelical righteousness, or our own keeping the gospel law, which runs thus: He that believeth shall not perish.”

Here Boston is basically saying that Baxter and company mix the law with the gospel by saying that an obedient faith justifies, that obedient faith is our evangelical righteousness.  Boston continues.

“But the holy Scripture teaches, that we are justified by grace, and by no law nor deed, (or work of a law, properly so-called) call it the law of Christ, or the gospel law, or what law one pleaseth; and thereby faith itself, considered as a deed or work of a law, is excluded from the justification of a sinner, and hath place therein, only as an instrument. [Boston here writes out Gal. 3:11, Gal. 5:4, Rom. 3:28, Gal. 2:16 and quotes the Westminster Larger Catechism A 73 along with the Westminster Confession of Faith 19:6).

In other words, the law or obedience to it has no part in a sinner’s justification, since grace means giving a free gift and faith means receiving that free gift.  Faith is an instrument which receives Christ and his righteousness.  Faith looks away from self to Christ alone; faith says “my righteousness smells as wicked as my heart, therefore the only thing that can save me is Jesus and his perfect righteousness!”

If you haven’t read anything by Boston, I recommend these notes of his in Fisher’s Marrow, (along with the Marrow itself, of course).

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

Duty of the Christian: Distinguish Between Law and Gospel

 “To know the difference so as to be able to distinguish aright between the law and the gospel is of the utmost importance to the faith, holiness, and comfort of every true Christian.  It will be impossible otherwise for a man so to believe as to ‘be filled with joy and peace in believing.’  If he does not know the difference between the law and the gospel he will be apt, especially in the affair of justification, to confound the one with the other. …If he cannot so distinguish between the gospel from the law as to expect all his salvation from the grace of the gospel, and nothing of it from the works of the law; he will easily be induced to connect his own works with the righteousness of Jesus Christ in the affair of justification.  This was the great error of the Judaizing teachers in the churches of Galatia.”  John Colquhoun (d. 1827) in A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, p. 141. [Side note: Puritan Matthew Poole said the “seducers,” the dogs in the Philippian church (ch. 3) tried to pervert the church by “mingling the law and the gospel.”]

The authors of the 16th century Heidelberg catechism (well before Colquhoun) were on the same page here.  Olevian discusses the differences in Q/A 9-10 in his Firm Foundation catechism.  Ursinus, in his discussion of the true church and its marks, writes that one mark is “a profession of the true, pure, and rightly understood doctrine of the law and the gospel.”  Further, he notes that the first duty of a Christian minister is “a faithful and correct exposition of the true and uncorrupted doctrine of the law and the gospel, so that the church may be able to understand it.” (See his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 2, 13, 288,  & 572.)

This means we also properly distinguish between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.  Here’s Thomas Boston (d. 1732): “The covenant of works says to the sinner, who is yet without strength, ‘Work, and then ye shall be filled’; but the covenant of grace says to him, ‘Be filled, and then thou must work.'”  See Boston’s note 1 on page 206 of Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity.

Herman Bavinck (early 20th century) worked within this same paradigm: “The covenant of works and the covenant of grace stand and fall together” (RD II.579).  Also: “Law and gospel are the two component parts of the Word of God…these terms designate, not two dispensations of one and the same covenant, but two entirely different covenants.  The law really belongs to the so-called covenant of works…but the gospel is the proclamation of the covenant of grace.  What the law demands of us is given us in the gospel for nothing” (Our Reasonable Faith, 410-411).

Going back in Dutch history to 1585, Peter Dathen wrote a dialogue (similar to Edward Fisher’s, listed above) between himself and a Christian torn up by sorrow.  He said, “It seems to me that your sorrow is such a sorrow, and arises out of a great misunderstanding, which is that you do not distinguish between the law and the gospel because you do not rightly know the Lord Jesus. …So please…learn to understand God’s Word better, so that you do not regard Jesus as another Moses.” (The Pearl of Spiritual Comfort, p.2).

So these Reformed and Presbyterian guys from the 16th century to the 20th century agree: it is of utmost importance “to separate the law and the gospel as far asunder as heaven and earth are separated” when it comes to the topic of justification (Fisher, 339).  It will certainly “quiet our own conscience in time of trouble and distress” (Ibid.).