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

Misunderstanding the Law: Antinomianism and Legalism

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way In, The Christian Faith, Mike Horton has some helpful notes that help steer Christians clear of both antinomianism and legalism.  Here are a few parts of a longer section:

In many respects, antinomianism and legalism share the same misunderstandings of the law.  Like human laws, God’s laws are not abstract principles for living but are stipulations in a covenant.  God’s law functions differently depending on the type of covenant.  In a covenant of law, the principle is, ‘Do this and you shall live; break it and you shall die.’  The basis of blessings and curses is personal fulfillment of the covenant’s terms.  However, in the covenant of grace, the basis is the personal fulfillment of the law by our representative head and his bearing of the covenant curses on the cross.  In this exchange – our sins imputed to Christ and his righteousness imputed to us – we are pronounced just according to the fullest letter and spirit of God’s law.  No longer capable of condemning us in God’s courtroom, the law directs our steps in the way of faith-filled gratitude.  Antinomianism and legalism seem to assume that the only function of the law- even in relation to believers – is that of condemning those who fail to keep it.  Neither recognizes sufficiently the completely new relationship that the believer has to God’s law.”

“Now written on our heart and not merely on our conscience, the law is cherished by believers.  They long to keep it, not as a way of attaining life but as a way of living the life that they have been given by grace alone.”

The entire discussion is on pages 673ff in The Christian Faith.  (FYI, if you’re interested in a detailed outline of this book, here is one I put together).

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Since It Is God’s Law…

Product DetailsOur triune God has given us his law in Scripture.  Specifically, the Ten Commandments are at the heart of God’s law – summarized with the verb “love” (cf. Mt. 22:33-40).  Thomas Watson, thinking about God’s law and the preface to it (I am the LORD your God… [Ex. 20:1-2]), says because it is God’s law, several duties are enjoined upon us:

1) If God spoke all these words, then we must hear all these words.  The words God speaks are too precious to be lost.  As we would have God hear all our words when we pray, so we must hear all his words when he speaks.

2) If God spoke all these words, then we must attend to them with reverence.  Every word of the moral law is an oracle of heaven.  God himself is the preacher, which calls for reverence.

3) If God spoke all these words of the law, then we must remember them.  Surely all God speaks is worth remembering; those words are weighty which concern salvation.  God’s oracles are ornaments, and shall we forget them?

4) If God spoke all these words, then believe them.  See the name of God written upon every commandment.  The moral law fetches its pedigree from heaven.

5) If God spoke all these words, then love the commandments (Ps. 119:97).  The moral law is the copy of God’s will, our spiritual directory; it shows us what sins to avoid, what duties to pursue.  The commandments are our treasury to enrich us.

6) If God spoke all these words, then teach them to your children (Deut. 6:6-7).  He who is godly is both a diamond and a magnet: a diamond for the sparkling of his grace, and a magnet for his attractive virtue in drawing others to the love of God’s precepts.

7) If God spoke all these words, they must be obeyed.  If a king speaks, his word commands allegiance; much more, when God speaks, his words must be obeyed.  God, who spoke all the words of the moral law, will have them all obeyed.

Watson goes on to say that in a legal sense no one can obey the law because of the fall and our sinful nature.  However, he notes, in a gospel sense we can obey the law.  “Gospel obedience consists in a real endeavor to observe the whole moral law (Ps. 119:166):”

“Where my obedience comes short, I look up to the perfect righteousness and obedience of Christ, and hope for pardon through his blood.  This is to obey the moral law evangelically; which, though it not be to satisfaction, yet it is to acceptation [acceptance or approval].

Antinomianism downplays the law; legalism downplays the gospel.  Biblical and Reformed spirituality gives both their rightful place in the Christian life.  Watson’s discussion is a good example of this.  Note: The above seven points are abridged; you can read the entire section on pages 14-16 of The Ten Commandments.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Antinomianism by Mark Jones: A Review

There is today a great deal of talk about ‘grace.’  It is described as scandalous, liberating, shocking, counterintuitive, unpredictable, dangerous, etc.  But when an emphasis on grace eclipses a focus on Christ, as it sometimes does, then grace is not being preached; rather, a sort of cheerleading experience takes place, in which very little is actually said about grace because it is divorced from the riches of Christ’s person and work” (p. 114).

So Mark Jones argues in his new book, Antinomianism (Phillipsburg; P&R Publishing, 2013) – a book which is sure to elicit some mixed reviews.  After reading it, I am compelled to review it because I do think it is a worthwhile resource on the topics of grace, law/gospel, justification, and sanctification.  As many of our readers know, there is an ongoing debate over these doctrines in Christian circles (specifically in Calvinistic circles and in Reformed ones).  In fact, one reason Jones wrote Antinomianism is to engage Tullian Tchividjian’s 2011 publication, Jesus + Nothing = Everything.  For the record, I did read Jesus + Nothing = Everything, but didn’t really enjoy the book because the writing style drove me crazy.  And I don’t follow Tchividjian’s work at all, so I’m not deeply involved in this ongoing debate.  But it is an important one, and I’m glad Jones’ book is now part of it.

Antinomianism is primarily a discussion about several aspects of the antinomian movement in 17th century English Puritanism and Presbyterianism.   Jones doesn’t cover every part of this historical debate, and though the book is historical theology, it is more than that.  There are explanations of how the debate back then can help our discussions about this topic today and also a few pastoral notes throughout.  In fact, Jones wrote this book primarily for pastors, though of course others can benefit from it as well.  It is worth noting that the book is somewhat scholarly and detailed; I would say it is not for beginners, but more for those who know the main aspects of Reformation history, systematic theology, and the Westminster Standards.   Jones interacts well with figures like John Owen, Francis Turretin, Thomas Goodwin, John Flavel, and so forth.

In the first chapter, Jones summarizes the 17th century antinomians.  He also takes some time to explain how antinomianism is much more layered than simply wanting to do away with God’s law.  It is deeper than.  In fact, Jones argues (persuasively, in my opinion) that antinomianism also has to do with Christology and an overemphasis on justification, among other errors.  The second chapter is where Jones talks about the Reformed terms impetration and application – redemption accomplished by Christ and applied by him through his Spirit who unites his people to him.  Antinomians blur this Reformed distinction, Jones argues.  In the third chapter, Jones explains the law in the Christian life.  The fourth chapter is where Jones discusses the Reformed law/gospel distinction, as well as the “gospel” defined narrowly and broadly.  Good works and rewards are the topics of the fifth chapter.  Here he talks about evangelical obedience and God’s gracious reward for it (cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 63).

The sixth chapter is the one on God’s love for his people.  Specifically Jones highlights the Reformed distinction of God’s amor benevolentiae and God’s amor complacentiae.  Reformed theology echoes the Bible’s teaching that while our heavenly Father loves his people with an everlasting love, he is also grieved and displeased with his people when they sin.  The seventh chapter is on assurance.  Here Jones explained that the 17th century antinomians based assurance solely on believing in justification more, whereas the Reformed said a Christian’s good works also have something to do with assurance (cf. WCF chapter 18).  In the eight chapter, Jones examines the rhetoric of the 17th century antinomians and compares it to the rhetoric in today’s debate.   I love this line: “[Today]… the richness of Reformed Christology has been lost in favor of clichés” (p. 118).  The final chapter is where the author again defines antinomianism and gives a brief Reformed way to respond to it and deal with it.

One area where I thought the book could have been better was Jones’ explanation of the law/gospel distinction in chapter four.  He is right that the word “gospel” can be used broadly and narrowly, but at times I didn’t know how he was using the term himself.  It would have also been helpful if Jones had summarized the ways Reformed theologians have explained the relationship between the law and the gospel (i.e. Fisher and Colquhoun, for example, have “points” that explain the law/gospel distinction).  I also wished Jones would have nuanced the way he talked about Jesus’ faith, justification, and assurance.  True, when he was on earth, Jesus believed in God the Father, was “justified,” and assured of his future, but in the context of having no sin – so the discussion needs to be nuanced.  It didn’t seem to me that Jones nuanced this enough.

However, I do believe Jones’ purposeful grounding of this debate more in the person and work of Christ is right and good.  Many new Calvinists and the Young, Restless, and “Reformed” crowd today are not aware of the historic and confessional Reformed distinctions and discussions.  In other words, perhaps some in Calvinistic circles sound at times like antinomians because they are not well versed in historic Reformed theology.   There’s more to Reformed theology than the five points, the five solas, and the law/gospel distinction!  For example, if you highlight grace and justification, you should never lose sight of Christ’s person and work.  They go together.  Jones does a nice job in getting us to look again at other aspects of Reformed theology, namely Christology.

One more thing is worth noting: Jones’ chapter on antinomian rhetoric (where the opening quote above is found) is very helpful.  I agree that there is much moralistic preaching in churches today.  But we have to be careful not to overreact and overemphasize justification at the expense of sanctification.  We have to be careful not to overemphasize Jesus’ work (what he’s done for us) at the expense of his person (who he is).  We have to be careful not to make trendy “twitterable” statements about grace at the expense of all the other beautiful aspects of Reformed theology.  As Jones notes well, “frequently, antinomians are in more serious error in what they fail to say than in what they do say” (p. 117).

In summary, I do have some question marks in the margins of Antinomianism.  I don’t agree wholeheartedly with it all.  There are some aspects of it that I need to think more about and study.  This isn’t the “final authority” on antinomianism.  But I do very much recommend because this book pushes us deeper into Reformed and biblical theology.  The book was helpful to me because it reminded me of the great Reformed and biblical way to talk about (and preach!) sanctification in a way that centers on Christ’s person and work and also does justice to God’s grace and justification by faith alone.

Mark Jones, Antinomianism (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2013).

shane lems
hammond wi