Legalism Indulges the Sinful Nature (Bridges)

 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…. You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free” (Gal. 5:1; 13 NIV).  One awesome outcome of Christ’s death and resurrection is that we are free in Christ.  Now it is true that sometimes Christians flaunt their freedom by bragging about what kind of alcohol they drink or by using foul language.  People who flaunt their freedom actually lack love towards other Christians (Rom 14:15).

Alternatively, sometimes Christians go to the other extreme by living as if they are not free in Christ.  I appreciate how Jerry Bridges addresses this problem:

Despite God’s call to be free and his earnest admonition to resist all efforts to curtail it, there is very little emphasis in Christian circles today on the importance of Christian freedom.  Instead of promoting freedom, we stress our rules of conformity.  Instead of preaching living by grace, we preach living by performance.  Instead of encouraging new believers to be conformed to Christ, we subtly insist that they be conformed to our particular style of Christian culture.  Yet that’s the ‘bottom line’ effect of most of our emphases in Christian circles today.

…We are much more concerned about someone abusing his freedom than we are about his guarding it.  We are more afraid of indulging the sinful nature than we are of falling into legalism.  Yet legalism does indulge the sinful nature because it fosters self-righteousness and religious pride.  It also diverts us from the real issues of the Christian life by focusing on external and sometimes trivial rules.

Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace, page 134.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Advertisements

Legalism, Love, and the Law

 One of my favorite shorter articles on Christian ethics is John Murray’s contribution simply called, “The Christian Ethic.”  At one point in this article he discussed how God’s law and love relate in Christian ethics.  He gave three specifics: The primacy of love, the priority in love, and the specific nature of the correlation of law and love.

The section I’ll post below made me think of legalism.  Legalists are very law-heavy and quick to judge others when it comes to the details of the law.  Legalists will quickly condemn Christians, preachers, books, Christian music, and so forth if these things do not measure up to their law-heavy and detailed standards.  Legalists are always upset with someone or something and they rarely encourage, help, or share the burden of those who are (in their eyes) inferior.  They are quick to complain and condemn, but slow to encourage and help.  I don’t think it is an overstatement to say this: the more legalistic a person is, the less he or she truly loves others.  The opposite is also true.

Here’s Murray’s discussion of the primacy of love in the law:

  1. Love is primary because only by love can the commandments be fulfilled.  Love is emotive, motive, impulsive, and expulsive.  It is emotive in that it constrains affection for its object, motive because it is the spring of action, impulsive because it impels to action, expulsive in that it expels what is alien to the interests of its object.  We know only too well what a grievous burden is formal compliance with commandments when there is no love.  Why is labor so distasteful, why so much heartlessness, and with heartlessness deterioration in quality and the mark of dishonesty on the product?  It is because there is no love.  Most tragic of all is the evidence of this in the highest of vocations [callings] and the discharge of the most sacred functions.  The apostle reminds us: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” [NASB].

This quote is found on page 178 of John Murray’s Collected Writings, page 178.

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

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

 

Legalism: A Complex and Deadly Spiritual Disease

Legalism is not a rare thing in Christian circles.  It’s not confined to a certain denomination, age, gender, race, or class.  Legalism is not rare because it’s the default mode of the sinful human heart.  Thomas Boston said it is “engrained in man’s corrupt nature.”  From one angle, then, we could even say that legalism is alive and well in non-Christian religious circles since people, in general, tend to think of God as a strict master demanding obedience to his strict rules.  Many people think that we need to obey God to gain his favor and acceptance.  Legalism is not rare!

Legalism is also dangerous and deadly because, as Sinclair Ferguson notes, it is “separating the law of God from the person of God” (p. 83).  Instead of seeing God as a loving and generous Father who gave the law for the good of his children, a legalist sees God as a “magnified policeman who gives his law only because he wants to deprive us and in particular to destroy our joy” (p. 83).

Legalism is poisonous because it is “not only a distortion of the gospel but in its fundamental character it is also a distortion of the law” (Ferguson, p. 88).  A legalist distorts the gospel by mixing the law with it, as if the gospel has to do with one’s obedience.  He distorts the law by forgetting that God gave it to his people in love as a light for their paths.  Or, like John Colquhoun said, “They [the legalists] perverted both the law and the gospel, and formed for themselves a motley covenant of works.”

There is obviously a lot more to legalism.  Legalism comes in many shapes and sizes, degrees and layers; it is a complex spiritual disease.  Based on Ferguson’s discussion of legalism, my interaction with legalists, and my own experience battling legalism, here are some characteristics of legalists:

  • Legalists are unbalanced in that they stress law over grace, God’s justice over his mercy.
  • Legalists are typically rigid, harsh, and judgmental because of their emphasis on laws and rules.
  • Legalists often lack love; being “law-heavy” makes one “love-light.”  For them, judgment triumphs over mercy.
  • Legalists are often unteachable since they believe they are right and others are wrong.
  • Legalists are often biblicistic and their biblicism leads them to ignore the context of Scripture as well as other Scriptures which might go against their rigid beliefs.
  • Legalists often demand/expect perfection and are impatient with others who are not like them.
  • Legalists are often inconsistent and unbalanced.  They emphasize minor, tertiary rules or laws (i.e. clothing rules) but sometimes neglect major important laws (i.e. love and help your neighbor).

More could be said about these things, of course.  Perhaps you could add to the list!  The point I want to make (and repeat) is that legalism is dangerous and deadly.  Here’s Ferguson again:

“[Thomas Boston] knew from experience that a ‘legal frame’ or spirit can pervade the whole of an individual’s life.  It can twist the soul in such a way that it comes near to and yet veers away from the grace of God in the gospel.  Particularly if it is present in someone engaged in preaching and pastoral ministry, it can multiply and become an epidemic in the congregation.  …It lies at the heart of many pastoral problems and is one of the most common spiritual sicknesses” (p. 79-80; 123).

What’s the medicine for the deadly disease of legalism?  It’s for sure not antinomianism.  What then?  The person and work of Christ.  The gospel.  Grace!

For more information, you’ll for sure want to read Ferguson’s chapters on legalism in his excellent book, The Whole Christ.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

A Low View of the Law Brings Legalism (Machen)

I really appreciate J. G. Machen’s discussion of the law in chapter four of What is Faith?  The first line is especially insightful:

“So it always is: a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace.  Pray [to] God that the high view may again prevail; that Mount Sinai may again overhang the path and shoot forth flames, in order that the men of our time may, like Christian in the allegory, meet some true Evangelist, who shall point them out the old, old way, through the little wicket gate, to the place somewhat ascending where they shall really see the Cross and the figure of Him that did hang thereon, that at that sight the burden of the guilt of sin, which no human hand could remove, may fall from their back into a sepulchre beside the way, and that then, with wondrous lightness and freedom and joy, they may walk the Christian path, through the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and up over the Delectable Mountains, until at last they pass triumphant across the river into the City of God.”

J. G. Machen, What is Faith, p. 142.

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

Letting The Law In The Back Door of Justification

Gospel Mystery of Sanctification When it comes to religion, humans are wired with law.  Since Adam broke the covenant of works in the garden, people have always attempted to please God (or god/gods) by doing something for him.  The law that says ‘do this and live’ is part of human DNA.  This is why it is so hard for some people to believe a law-free gospel – good news that you don’t have to do a single thing for God to be accepted by him.  In fact, you have to stop doing things and receive a gift instead: the Messiah Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again to save sinners.

That humans are law-wired is also a reason why people sometimes sneak the law in the back door of the doctrine of justification.  As I’ve heard it said, everyone has a little Pope or Pharisee in his bosom.  Paul talked about this in his letter to the Galatian churches, where some false brothers infiltrated the church, sneaking the law in the back door: you have to believe in Jesus and be circumcised to be saved (cf. Acts 15:1).  People still do things like this today, mixing a bit of law with the gospel, mixing works with grace.  They talk about a “lawful gospel” or say that the gospel includes law, or they say that we are justified by faith alone – but define faith as “faithfulness” or “obedient faith.”  These types of statements have been used by advocates of the Federal Vision, which is why historic Reformed/Presbyterian churches have very decisively rejected Federal Vision teaching with a loud and unanimous NO.

In The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification Walter Marshall does an excellent job explaining how the law keeps creeping into the picture of acceptance with God (justification).  Sometimes, he says, people want to make conditions to the gospel.  Other times, people want to talk about law-obedience in preparation to salvation:

“We are naturally so prone to ground our salvation in our own works, that if we cannot make them procuring conditions and causes of our salvation by Christ, yet we shall endeavor at least to make them necessary preparatives, to fit us for receiving Christ and his salvation by faith” (p. 51-2).

Marshal goes on:

The error [of necessary preparatives] is pernicious to the practice of holiness, and to our whole salvation, in the same manner with that treated of in the foregoing direction [discussion], and may be confuted by the same arguments which are there produced. Whether holiness be made a procuring condition of our salvation through Christ, or only a condition necessary to qualify us for the reception of Christ, we are equally brought under those legal terms of doing first the duties required in the law, that so we may live.

Therefore, we are equally bereaved of the assistance of those means of holiness, mentioned in the foregoing directions, as union and fellowship with Christ, and the enjoyment of all His sanctifying endowments by faith, which should go before the practice of holiness, that they may enable us for it; and we are equally left to labor in vain for holiness, while we are in our accursed natural state, by which our sinful corruption will rather be exasperated than mortified, so that we shall never be duly prepared for the reception of Christ, as long as we live in the world.

Thus, while we endeavor to prepare our way to Christ by holy qualifications, we do rather fill it with stumbling blocks and deep pits, by which our souls are hindered from ever attaining to the salvation by Christ.

Marshall says a lot there!  Basically, he notes that whether a person says holiness is part of his acceptance with God or whether a person sees obedience as part of preparation for coming to Christ, both are examples of the law being mixed with the gospel – which actually gets in the way of justification and true holiness!  This is exactly what Luther’s first thesis says:

The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but rather hinders them.

Mixing the law with the gospel in any way, shape, or form, is a deadly concoction.  It’s something we need to guard against with all our Christian might.  Keep your back doors locked!

The above quotes were taken from Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, “Direction 7.”

shane lems