Getting Off the Legalism-Laxness Seesaw (Part 3 of 4)

This is the third installment of Pastor Larry Wilson’s summary of part 1 of The Marrow of Modern Divinity, which was written in 1645 by Edward Fisher. It addresses the nature of God’s law and our sinful tendencies to either seek salvation through our own obedience or to do dismiss it all together.

GRACE (“the law of faith”)

Second, we need to get straight that “the law of faith” contrasts with “the law of works.” We call this “the covenant of grace.” (See WCF 7:3). In other words, the gospel contrasts with the law. “The law of faith” (the gospel) shows us how to get life, not by doing, but by receiving. God rigorously enforced the moral law at Sinai. One reason why was to drive his people away from any confidence in their own doing. The Sinai covenant administered God’s covenant of grace. But, in service to God’s grace, it symbolically recapped the covenant of works for God’s people in God’s land (see Gal. 3:23–25). As Thomas Boston explained, at Sinai “there is no confounding of the two covenants of grace and works. But the latter was added to the former as subservient unto it, to turn their eyes towards the promise, or covenant of grace.” We no longer live as a theocracy in the promised Land looking for the coming of Christ. That’s why the “civil” and “ceremonial” dimensions of the Old Testament law no longer apply. But God still uses the “moral” dimension of the law to make us see how much we need a Savior. We call this “the first use of the law.”

When it comes to how the holy God can accept us, the “law of faith” leaves no room for us to add our works to Christ’s. Actually, in practice, legalists don’t claim to perfectly obey God. They figure that, if they do their best and trust Jesus to make up the difference, God will count them as righteous. But, again, the fatal problem is that the holy God insists on perfect obedience. If we have to add our obedience to Christ’s for God to accept us, then our good works not only fall short in themselves. They also pollute Christ’s obedience. They bring it short of God’s standard of perfection. If we want God to justify us (declare his verdict that we’re righteous), then we need to present a perfect righteousness to him—either our own or Christ’s. To present our own is to reject Christ’s. To present Christ’s is to reject our own.

You see, if the holy God counts our obedience toward our justification, then we’ve got no hope that he’ll justify us. As Charles Spurgeon insisted, “If we have to put one stitch into the garment of our salvation, we shall ruin the whole thing.” But—thank God!—Jesus came to save sinners, not those who’ve already succeeded in getting rid of their sins. That’s why Edward Fisher contended, “Your sins should drive you to Christ rather than keep you from him.” It’s Christ’s doing and dying that saves us—without any need for help from us!

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Brett McNeill

Brett McNeill has been our pastor since we began in 2004. He and Jen have been married since 1998 and have four wonderful daughters. Brett is a graduate of Westminster Seminary in California (Masters in Divinity, 2003). His desire is to clearly proclaim Jesus Christ from all of Scripture in a way that is clear, convicting and encouraging.