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

This is the fourth and final 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.

GRATITUDE (“the law of Christ”)

This means that, third, we need to get straight that when Jesus saves us, he puts us under “the law of Christ,” not “the law of works.” Jesus forever sets us free from the law as a covenant of works (see WCF 19:6). We’re never again to receive the law “from the hand of Moses.” When God converts us, we start to receive the law “from the hand of Christ our Savior.” We’re under “the law of Christ” as our rule of life.

In fact, “the law of Christ” has the same content as “the law of works.” It too consists of God’s moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments. But here’s how it differs. Where the law of works says, “Do this so that you’ll live,” the law of Christ instead says, “Because God freely gives you life in Christ, you’ll do this” (see Eph. 2:8–10). The moral law can never justify us. Andthanks to the finished work of Christit can also never condemn us. Accordingly, it can no longer even command us as a covenant of works—a way to seek or maintain good standing with God. Instead, it shows us how to show love and gratitude to God for his saving love and grace. We obey God in response to his freely making and keeping us right with him through the doing and dying of Jesus Christ plus nothing. We call this “the third use of the law.”

When this fact grips our hearts, it sets us free from a “legal spirit.” This legal spirit isn’t just a doctrinal deficiency. Its solution has to be more than just adjusting our thinking. No, it stems from a deep-seated heart problem, a sin problem. We’re prone to harbor hard views of God that stubbornly resist the gospel of God’s free and full grace in Christ. We need the sovereign Spirit graciously to make the gospel truly triumph over our hearts. By his enabling, we need to repent unto God. We need to confess and forsake our legal spirit. When we do, we no longer obey God out of fear of his wrath. Instead, we know how deeply God loves us. We know how freely and fully he saves us. So now, we obey gladly, not grudgingly. We obey out of faith, hope, and love.

Ironically, this legal spirit is precisely what produces both legalism and antinomianism. These tendencies are actually two sides of the very same coin. Both treat God’s law like a covenant of works. On the one side, legalists fear punishmentthanks to God’s righteousness. So they try dutifully to obey God’s law. On the other side, antinomians no longer fear punishmentthanks to God’s grace. And so they see no point in keeping God’s law. Up and down, up and down. Without heart-repentance from a legal spirit, there’s no escaping the seesaw. But escape we must! Legalism and antinomianism are both deadly counterfeits.

Two factors make them especially dangerous. First, legalism and antinomianism don’t really come in pure form—easy to recognize. They come as subtle tendencies—hard to recognize. They’re generally taught more by what’s not said than by what is. Pastors tend to reject them both out of hand. And they really mean it when they do. But, alas, most still unwittingly preach a muddled blend of law and gospel. On the other hand, people tend to apprehend or misapprehend the preaching they hear by straining it through their own grid. They tend to pressure pastors—both by positive encouragement and by negative criticism—to preach this muddled blend of law and gospel. In this way, both pastors and people flirt with spiritual danger. J.C. Ryle illustrated the danger like this. There are three ways that pharmacists can turn good medicine into poison: (1) by adding a wrong ingredient; (2) by leaving out a right ingredient; and (3) by having all the right ingredients, but in the wrong proportions. That shows how, to the degree that we’re under the influence of a legal spirit, even the way we preach—or the way we listen to—the gospel can be dangerous.

The second factor that makes legalism and antinomianism so dangerous is that they each resemble the true gospel at points. They each ring true to aspects of actual sound doctrine. That’s why they appeal to people. But they deviate from the gospel where it really matters. The gospel insists that when Jesus saves us, not only does he cleanse us from guilt (justification), but also he cleanses us from sin—he makes us pure (sanctification). Accordingly, we won’t do good works in order to get in God’s good graces. But we will do them! We’ll do them because God forgives us, gives us new hearts with himself as our new Master, and is therefore transforming us (see Tit. 2:11–14).

We’ll do them in faith, relying on our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord Jesus plainly tells us, “apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).We never stop needing Jesus. The way we rely on him is by using his “means of grace”—especially the Word, sacraments, prayer, and the fellowship of God’s people. As the Good Shepherd puts it, ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ (John 10:27). We can escape the legalism-laxness seesaw, but only in vital contact—by the Holy Spirit and through faith—with the whole Christ.

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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.