The Law Is Not a Remedy for Sin

 (This is a re-post from October 2010)

You cannot fully understand Martin Luther’s work unless you understand his distinction between the theologian of the cross and the theologian of glory.  This distinction is also important for us today especially when some are leaving the biblical truths of the Reformation for the traditions of Rome.  I myself will not and cannot go to Rome because I believe the five solas are eminently biblical and also because I believe Luther was right in declaring that Rome taught a theology of glory in opposition to the theology of the cross.

Interested in this discussion?  You should be.  And you should get this outstanding book, On Being A Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde.  The book is sort of a commentary on Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation of 1518.  Though it is only around 100 pages long, it is one of the most profound discussions of the cross and salvation you’ll ever read.  The book will not only lead you away from Rome’s theology of glory, but it will also lead you away from yourself (your own righteousness, good works, and fig leaves) and lead you away from the things of this world.  It will lead you to the cross, and the cross alone.

I’ve blogged on this book before, so I won’t go into all the details.  But I do want to give an example of the contents of the book.  Here’s a small sample.

“The cross is the death of sin and the sinner.  The cross does the ‘bottoming out.’  The cross is the ‘intervention.’  The addict/sinner is not coddled by false optimism but is put to death so that a new life can begin.  The theologian of the cross ‘says what a thing is.’  The theologian of the cross preaches to convict of sin.  The addict is not deceived by theological marshmallows but is told the truth so that he might learn at last to confess, to say, ‘I am an addict,’ ‘I am an alcoholic,’ and never to stop saying it.  Theologically and more universally all must learn to say, ‘I am a sinner,’ and likewise never to stop saying it until Christ’s return makes it no longer true.”

“It is commonplace among evangelical Christians to believe that we can’t perfectly fulfill the law, but we often try to because we assume that if we only could we would do it.  Some believe that we must try to do something at least, and then, it is assumed, Christ will make up for our ‘shortcomings.’  But here is the bombshell: doing the law does not advance the cause of righteousness one whit.  It only makes matters worse.”

“The law is not a remedy for sin.  It does not cure sin but rather makes it worse.”

“Thesis 25.  He is not righteous who works much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.”

“Thesis 26. The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done.  Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.

I could go on and on.  Again, trust me when I say that you need to get (and read!) this book if you haven’t yet: Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross.

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

The Law, The Gospel, Our Salvation (Witsius)

 I like how Herman Witsius ended his discussion on the antinomian and neonomian controversy in Britain around 1700.  In the concluding part of this book Witsius discussed the preaching of the law and the gospel.  Here are the last two sections which I’ve slightly edited for length:

…The beginning of the new life is not from the preaching of the law, but of the gospel. The gospel, is the seed of our regeneration, and the law of the Spirit of life, which makes us free from the law of sin and death. Doubtless, while Christ is preached, and life through him, his Spirit falls upon the souls of the elect, and infuses into them a principle of spiritual life. [James 1:18; Galatians 3:2].

…But when that [new] life, infused by the Spirit, through means of the gospel, begins to exert itself; if I am not deceived, it generally proceeds in the following order. That the soul, awakened as from a deep sleep, or faint, or rather death, views itself polluted with sin, guilty of many crimes, abominable unto God, most miserable in every respect, and altogether unable to deliver itself, and therefore seized with pungent grief, and despairing of itself, it pants after salvation, about to come to it from another quarter, to which purpose, the ministry of the law is useful: later it sees Christ held forth in the gospel, and discovering, that in him there is a fulness of salvation, and an abundance of grace, it immediately betakes itself to him, altogether empty of itself, that it may be filled by him; destroyed in and of itself, that it may be saved by him.

It is not possible, that apprehending Christ, and being apprehended by him, it should not, through his inestimable goodness, be inflamed with love to him, and be willing to devote itself wholly to his service, to whom it professes to owe its salvation, nor is it possible that it should not acknowledge him for a Lord, whom it hath found by experience to be a Saviour. And thus again, the gospel brings us back to the law as a rule of gratitude. Hence it is evident, how law and gospel mutually assist one another, in promoting the salvation of the elect; and how sometimes the former, sometimes the latter, takes the lead.

 Herman Witsius, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, trans. Thomas Bell (Glasgow: W. Lang, 1807), 190–191.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

 

 

The Freeness of Grace… (Toplady)

The Works of Augustus M. Toplady (6 vols.)

Augustus Toplady used the term “legal fear” to describe the fear people have that makes them think they need to earn God’s favor. They’re afraid that if they don’t do enough to meet God’s standards he will not accept them. It’s a fear that tells a person he cannot be certain of God’s love – to do so would be presumptuous. At other times, Toplady noted, legal fear says

“You must bring…a price in your hand to God the Father or Christ’s redemption will profit you nothing. Do not undervalue yourself by supposing that you can do no good work before you are justified. I tell you that you must work for life and justification. You must do good works in order to be accepted – and fulfill a string of terms and conditions, seeing you are to be saved for your works, because of your works, yea, according to the merits of your works.”

That’s what legal fear says. Toplady responds:

But thou, O believer in Christ, flee these abominable doctrines. Listen not to them, as you value the glory of God, the freeness of grace, the riches of Christ, the interests of real holiness, and your own happiness. Remember that the conditions of fallen man’s salvation are two, and no more: namely, perfect atonement for sin, and perfect obedience to the law. Both of these conditions Christ has completely fulfilled, in the stead, and for the infallible salvation, of every soul that comes to his blood for cleansing, and to his righteousness for clothing. “To what end, then, serves faith?” To let thee into the knowledge, possession, and enjoyment of this free and finished redemption. “And to what end serve good works?” Not to entitle us to God’s favor, or even to pave (much less to pay) our way to his kingdom: but to glorify his name, to adorn his gospel, to evidence our adoption, and benefit others on our road to heaven.

Augustus M. Toplady, The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 3 (London: Richard Baynes, 1825), 369.

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

The Native Language of the Law (Gurnall)

 Here are two sections of William Gurnall’s discussion of “the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:15):

The news which the gospel hath in its mouth to tell us poor sinners is good.  It speaks promises, and they are significations of some good intended by God for poor sinners.  The law, that brings ill news to town.  Threatenings are the ‘lingua vernacula legis’ – the native language of the law.  It can speak no other language to sinners but denunciations of evil to come upon them, but the gospel smiles on poor sinners, and plains [smooths] the wrinkles that sit on the law’s brow, by proclaiming promises.

1 Timothy 1:15.  This bridge which the gospel lays over the gulf of God’s wrath, for poor sinners to pass from their sins into the favor of God here, and into the kingdom of God hereafter, is supported with no other arches than the wisdom, power, mercy, and faithfulness of God….

William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armor, Direction seventh, 1.1, 1.5.

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

The Two Principal Parts of Scripture (Beza)

Theodore Beza

Here’s a helpful explanation of the law/gospel distinction by Theodore Beza (d. 1564):

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the “Law”, the other the “Gospel”. For all the rest can be gathered under the one or the other of these two headings.

What we call Law (when it is distinguished from Gospel and is taken for one of the two parts of the Word) is a doctrine whose seed is written by nature in our hearts. However, so that we may have a more exact knowledge, it was written by God on two Tables and is briefly comprehended in ten commandments. In these He sets out for us the obedience and perfect righteousness which we owe to His majesty and our neighbours. This on contrasting terms: either perpetual life, if we perfectly keep the Law without omitting a single point, or eternal death, if we do not completely fulfil the contents of each commandment (Deut. 30:15-20; James 2:10).

What we call the Gospel (“Good News”) is a doctrine which is not at all in us by nature, but which is revealed from Heaven (Matt 16:17; John 1:13), and totally surpasses natural knowledge. By it God testifies to us that it is His purpose to save us freely by His only Son (Rom. 3:20-22), provided that, by faith, we embrace Him as our only wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor 1:30). By it, I say, the Lord testifies to us all these things, and even does it in such a manner that at the same time he renews our persons in a powerful way so that we may embrace the benefits which are offered to us (1 Cor 2:4).

We must pay great attention to these things. For, with good reason, we can say that ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principle sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.

Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. James Clark (Lewes, UK: Christian Focus, 1992).

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

The Whole Curse Spent on Him (Bunyan)

Justification by an Imputed Righteousness One of the wonderful and comforting truths of the Christian faith is the fact that a sinner is justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  This truth is full of hope, peace, joy, happiness, and assurance.  One aspect of justification is what Scripture teaches about Christ suffering the curse of law-breaking in the place of his people (Gal. 3:13).  John Bunyan gave an excellent explanation of how Christ suffered the curse in our stead and completely freed us from it by doing so:

As we are said to suffer with him, so we are said to die, to be dead with him; with him, that is, by the dying of his body. ‘Now, if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him’ (Rom 6:8). Wherefore he saith in other places, ‘Brethren, ye are become dead to the law by the body of Christ’; for indeed we died then to it by him. To the law that is, the law now has nothing to do with us; for that it has already executed its curse to the full upon us by its slaying of the body of Christ; for the body of Christ was our flesh: upon it also was laid our sin.

The law, too, spent that curse that was due to us upon him, when it condemned, killed, and cast him into the grave. Wherefore, it having thus spent its whole curse upon him as standing in our stead, we are exempted from its curse for ever; we are become dead to it by that body (Rom 7:4). It has done with us as to justifying righteousness. Nor need we fear its damning threats any more; for by the death of this body we are freed from it, and are for ever now coupled to a living Christ.

 John Bunyan, Justification by an Imputed Righteousness, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2006), 304.

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

He Submitted Himself to the Covenant of Works (Bavinck)

 Romans 5 is a great passage in Scripture that compares and contrasts Adam and Christ.  Paul uses legal and covenantal language to explain how Adam was a type of Christ.  For example, here’s verse 19: For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (NIV).  I appreciate how Herman Bavinck commented on these great truths:

…While it is certainly true that as a human and with reference to himself Christ was subject to the law, it must be emphasized that his incarnation and being human occurred not for himself but for us. Christ never was, and may never be regarded as, a private person, an individual alongside and on the same level as other individuals. He was from the very beginning a public person, the second Adam, the guarantor and head of the elect. As Adam sinned for himself and by this act imposed guilt and death on all those he represented, so Christ, by his righteousness and obedience, acquired forgiveness and life for all his own. Even more, as a human being Christ was certainly subject to the law of God as the rule of life; even believers are never exempted from the law in that sense. But Christ related himself to the law in still a very different way, namely, as the law of the covenant of works. Adam was not only obligated to keep the law but was confronted in the covenant of works with that law as the way to eternal life, a life he did not yet possess. But Christ, in virtue of his union with the divine nature, already had this eternal and blessed life. This life he voluntarily relinquished. He submitted himself to the law of the covenant of works as the way to eternal life for himself and his own.

The obedience that Christ accorded to the law, therefore, was totally voluntary. Not his death alone, as Anselm said, but his entire life was an act of self-denial, a self-offering presented by him as head in the place of his own.

 Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 379.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015