The Law/Gospel Distinction: A Big Help in Understanding Scripture (Boston)

The Marrow of Modern Divinty by [Fisher, Edward]

Why did Thomas Boston (d. 1732) strongly endorse “The Marrow of Modern Divinity” and write study notes for it? Because he wanted Christians to understand the biblical and practical aspects of the law/gospel distinction. Here’s Boston in his own words:

That which I aim at, and intend therein, is to show unto myself, and others that shall read it [The Marrow], the difference betwixt the Law and the Gospel, a point, as I conceive, very needful for us to be well instructed in, and that for these reasons:

First, Because, if we be ignorant thereof, we shall be very apt to mix and mingle them together, and so to confound the one with the other; which, as Luther on the Galatians, p. 31, truly says, “doth more mischief than man’s reason can conceive;” and therefore he doth advise all Christians, in the case of justification, to separate the Law and the Gospel as far asunder as heaven and earth are separated.

Secondly, Because if we know right how to distinguish betwixt them, the knowledge thereof will afford ns no small light towards the true understanding of the Scripture, and will help us to reconcile all such places, both in the Old and New Testament, as seem to be repugnant; yea, and it will help us to judge aright of cases of conscience, and quiet our own conscience in time of trouble and distress; yea, and we shall thereby be enabled to try the truth and falsehood of all doctrines….

 Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Explication of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 7 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1850), 459.

Indeed, the law/gospel distinction is not only biblical and helpful for understanding Scripture rightly, it is also very practical for Christian living!

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

Advertisements

The Difference Betwixt the Law and the Gospel (Boston)

The Marrow of Modern Divinty by [Fisher, Edward] In my opinion, one of the best brief discussions about the law/gospel distinction was written by Thomas Boston and it’s found in the second part of his comments on Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity. In this section Boston explains why a law/gospel distinction is necessary, what the difference is between the law and the gospel, and how to properly distinguish between the two.  Below is one section that I found very helpful and comforting – and notice how he explains justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in light of the law/gospel distinction (the emphasis below is mine):

Briefly, then, if we would know when the law speaks, and when the gospel speaks, either in reading the word, or in hearing it preached; and if we would skilfully distinguish the voice of the one from the voice of the other, we must consider,

Law. The law says, “Thou art a sinner, and therefore thou shalt be damned;” Rom. 7:2; 2 Thess. 2:12.

Gos. But the gospel says, No; “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners;” and therefore “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,” 1 Tim. 1:15; Acts 16:31.

Law. Again the law says, “Knowest thou not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God; be not deceived,” &c. 1 Cor. 6:9. And therefore thou being a sinner, and not righteous, shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Gos. But the gospel says, “God has made Christ to be sin for thee, who knew no sin; that thou mightest be made the righteousness of God in him, who is the Lord thy righteousness,” Jer. 23:6.

Law. Again the law says, “Pay me that thou owest me, or else I will cast thee into prison,” Matt. 18:28, 30.

Gos. But the gospel says, “Christ gave himself a ransom for thee,” 1 Tim. 2:6; “and so is made redemption unto thee,” 1 Cor. 1:30.

Law. Again the law says, “Thou hast not continued in all that I require of thee, and therefore thou art accursed,” Deut. 27:6.

Gos. But the gospel says, “Christ hath redeemed thee from the curse of the law, being made a curse for thee,” Gal. 3:13.

Law. Again the law says, “Thou art become guilty before God, and therefore shalt not escape the judgment of God,” Rom. 3:29; 2:3.

Gos. But the gospel says, “The Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment to the Son,” John 5:12.

And now, knowing rightly how to distinguish between the law and the gospel, we must, in the fifth place, take heed that we break not the orders between these two in applying the law where the gospel is to be applied, either to ourselves or to others; for albeit the law and gospel, in order of doctrine, are many times to be joined together, yet, in the case of justification, the law must be utterly separated from the gospel.

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 us in stead, but that only wherewith the body of Christ is apprehended.

 Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Explication of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 7 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1850), 461–462.

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

The Spirit Gives Life (Boston)

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston (12 vols.) I really like the way Thomas Boston explained how the Holy Spirit gives life (cf. John 6:63; 2 Cor. 3:6).  I’ve updated the language slightly:

[Jesus said] “All that the Father giveth me, shall come to me.” (John  6:37) Now, this also belongs to the promise of the Spirit, who is therefore called the Spirit of faith (2 Cor. 4:13) as being the principal efficient cause of faith (Zech. 12:10).

The effect of this promise (in John 6:37) is actual believing, produced by the quickening Spirit in the soul, immediately out of the spiritual life given to it by the communication of Himself thereto.  “The dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God” (John 5:25 compare with 1:12, 13; 2 Cor. 4:13). As receiving Christ passively, the sinner that was spiritually dead, is quickened; so being quickened, he receives Christ actively.

Christ comes into the dead soul by his Spirit: and so he is passively received; even as one, having a power to raise the dead, coming into a house, where there is none but a dead man; none to open the door to him, none to desire him to come in, nor to welcome him. But Christ being thus received, or come in, the dead soul is quickened, and by faith embraces Him; even as the restorer of the dead man to life, Christ would immediately be embraced by him, and receive a thousand welcomes from him who had heard His voice and lived.

When Christ, in the womb of His mother, entered into the house of Zacharias, and she saluted Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, he, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb, leaped as at the entrance of life: so doth the soul, in actual believing, leap at Christ’s coming into it by His Spirit. As God breathed into the first man the breath of life, and he became a living soul, who was before but a lifeless piece of fair earth; that is, God put a spirit, a soul, into his body, which immediately showed in the man’s, breathing at his nostrils: so Jesus Christ, in the time of love, puts His Spirit into the dead soul, which immediately shows itself alive, by believing, receiving and embracing Him, known and discerned in His transcendent glory. And thus the union between Christ and the soul is completed; Christ first apprehending the soul by His Spirit; and then the soul thus apprehended and quickened, apprehending Him again in the promise of the gospel by faith.

 Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Human Nature in Its Fourfold State and a View of the Covenant of Grace, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 8 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1850), 479.

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

Are Our Good Works Accepted by God? (Boston)

 The Bible teaches that a sinner is justified by faith alone apart from works (e.g. Rom 3-4).  One question the Christian might ask in light of “faith alone” is this:  “How can any of our works be accepted by a holy God since there is so much sinfulness in even best of them?”  Thomas Boston (d. 1732) asked that question, and answered it this way:

Answer 1. In point of justification they are not, nor cannot be accepted; that is, our persons cannot be accepted as righteous for our works, since they are not legally perfect, perfect in every point. In the way of the covenant of works, the work was first to be accepted for its own sake, as absolutely perfect; and then the person for the works’ sake. So that whosoever seek by their works to be accepted of God, they go back to the covenant of works; and must either bring works every way perfect, or be rejected; and because they cannot do such works, “therefore by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified,” Gal. 2:16.

Answer 2. In point of sanctification the good works of the justified may be accepted; that is, one’s person being accepted, his works may be accepted, being evangelically perfect, though not legally; being perfect in parts, though not in degrees. For in the way of the covenant of grace, the person is first accepted in Christ, and then his work though imperfect. Hence it appears,

(1.) That to a person’s being accepted of God in Christ, there is no working, but believing required; Mark 5:36. For till the person be accepted of God in Christ, he can do no acceptable work. He can yield no savory fruit till he be ingrafted by faith in Christ.

(2.) That the way to bring sinners to good works, is to bring them to Christ in the first place by faith, that they may be justified and accepted in him. Men may be made proud legalists otherwise, but not evangelical Christians; whited sepulchers, but still full of rottenness.

(3.) That there is very good reason why the good works of unbelievers are rejected, because they are imperfect; and yet the good works of believers are accepted, though they be imperfect….

The Westminster Confession (16.6) says it in a similar way:

“The persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight, but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.”

The above quote is from Thomas Boston, (1852). The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Discourses on Prayer. (S. M‘Millan, Ed.) (Vol. 11, pp. 131–132). Aberdeen: George and Robert King.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

What Does “The Empty Hand of Faith” Mean? (Boston)

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston (12 vols.)You may have heard someone talk about coming to Christ with an empty hand of faith.  What does this mean?  This phrase has a historical background.  In the 17th century, some Christian teachers were saying in order to be forgiven and justified a sinner needs to have repentance.  [Repentance in this context has a broad meaning which includes hating sin, turning to God, and endeavoring unto new obedience (see WLC 76 or HC 88-90)].  For example, Richard Baxter taught that a person must be forsaking sin and following Christ to be pardoned and justified.  This led some Reformed preachers to say that Baxter was setting up a new covenant of works!

I appreciate how Thomas Boston discussed this topic.  Here are some things he said in a treatise on this topic:

“I conceive that such doctrine is injurious to the grace of God, and doth much darken the free pardon offered in the gospel, in regard the pardon is promised immediately to those that believe (Acts 10:43 ‘Through his name, whosoever believes in him shall receive remission of sins’).

Boston noted that if someone does need to be forsaking sin and following Jesus to obtain forgiveness, it would be like earning forgiveness.  Boston quotes Preston favorably: “It is a fault to think that God’s pardons are not free and that you must bring something in your hand.”

Upon the whole we may see that the gospel teaches us to come empty-handed to the market of free grace for remission of sins and God’s favor.  But he does not come empty-handed who brings repentance along with him.  If any shall say we screw up matters so high in this point that we must also cast away faith as well as repentance for obtaining pardon, as if faith is something we bring to attain pardon, I say this:

For the safety of God’s grace, let the ‘work-faith’ and the ‘inherent-quality-faith’ go, and be made to stand back, while the sinner stands before God’s tribunal to be justified – that the empty-handed, ‘taking-faith’ may alone have place.  Hasn’t the Lord made pardon to be only of faith, that it might be of grace, while faith comes with an empty hand and receives all?

Boston then said that in this matter there’s a big difference between faith and repentance (conversion/living a new life), for one receives (faith) and the other gives (repentance).  In fact, Boston exhorted readers not to turn the covenant of grace into a “bastard covenant of works” by saying we have to bring something when we come to Jesus to obtain his favor.

So what does “the empty hand of faith” mean?  It means coming to Christ empty-handed simply to receive the free, gracious gift of full forgiveness.  When we come to Jesus for pardon and justification, we don’t need to bring Him anything in exchange; we don’t need to clean up our act, put nice clothes on, or do a few good deeds so He notices us.  We come like a beggar would come before a king with nothing but an open hand to receive a gift from the king.  And as the Bible teaches, this King blesses beggars who come with an empty hand of faith!

The above-edited quotes are found in Thomas Boston, Works, Volume 6, p. 87ff

Shane Lems

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