Getting Off the Legalism-Laxness Seesaw (Part 1 of 4)

A friend of mine, Pastor Larry Wilson, has been working on a 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. Over the next few days, I’m going to post Pastor Wilson’s summary in four parts.


Sometimes, after a period of laxness, believers rediscover—as if it’s new—that God is holy. They start to feel that, if God is finally to deem us righteous in his sight, we’d better obey his law. This signals the start of a renewed pursuit of holiness. But then, bit by bit, assurance of salvation starts to flag. Joy wanes. People start to feel as if God is distant and angry. Christian living sinks into forcing ourselves to do our duty out of slavish fear. But then, believers start to rediscover—as if it’s new—that God is merciful and gracious. God saves sinners because of his free grace alone and by Christ’s work alone! And it’s sinners who he saves! We don’t have to obey God in order to get right with him. He saves us through faith alone! We’re not under law but under grace. Joy bursts out! But then, bit by bit, laxness starts to prevail once again.

We call the first tendency “legalism.” We call the second “antinomianism.” Alas, both tendencies are built into our sinful flesh. We believers keep trying to cure antinomianism with legalism, and legalism with antinomianism. This pattern keeps seesawing up and down, up and down, trapping us. That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear Sinclair Ferguson cut through the knot that binds us: “Antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace. This is why Scripture never prescribes one as the antidote for the other. Rather grace, God’s grace in Christ in our union with Christ, is the antidote to both” (The Whole Christ [Wheaton: Crossway, 2016], p. 156).

God says, “The law is good, if one uses it lawfully … in accordance with the glorious gospel” (1 Tim. 1:8‑11). But how do we do that? An old book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (1645), shows how we need to make three vital distinctions in order to rightly use God’s law. Thomas Boston borrowed terms from the Apostle Paul to sum it up like this:

“All [people] by nature are under ‘the law of works’ [see Rom. 3:27–28]. But taking the benefit of ‘the law of faith’ [see Rom. 3:27–28] by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, they are set free from the law of works and brought under ‘the law of Christ’ [see 1 Cor. 9:21].”

To rightly use God’s law in accordance with the gospel—and thus get off the legalism-laxness seesaw—we need to get these three things straight. Therefore, our pastors need to explicate them clearly. And our people need to embrace them heartily.

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.

Bible Reading and the False-Trinity (of Self)

At the recommendation of Tim Draper, I am currently reading a book by Eugene Peterson called Eat This Book (A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading). In it, Peterson calls the Believer to what he calls a “Trinitarian Reading” of the Bible, which he describes this way:

We read in order to get in on the revelation of God, who is so emphatically personal; we read the Bible the way it comes to us, not in the way we come to it; we submit ourselves to the various and complementary operations of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; we receive these words so that we can be formed now and for eternity to the glory of God.

In other words we come to the Bible to be shaped by the God of the Bible, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Anything less is to miss the point of reading scripture.

In Peterson’s characteristically astute way, however, he identifies a false trinity that has shaped how we often read scripture. I realize that this a bit lengthy, but worth the time of a careful read.

A new twist on non-Trinitarian ways of reading the Bible has emerged in our times. It has reached the scale of an epidemic and requires special attention. It can be understood best, I think, as a replacement Trinity… this way is very personal and also very Trinitarian, but also totally at odds with what is achieved while reading in submission to the authority of the Holy Trinity. 

Trinitarian thinking praying before Holy Scripture cultivates a stance and attitude that submits to being comprehensively formed by God in the way God comprehensively and personally reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Holy Scriptures. The alternative to that is taking charge of our own formation. The most popular way of conceiving this self these days is by understanding the self in a Trinitarian way. This way of self-understanding is not as an intellectual interested in ideas or as a moral being seeking a good life or as a soul looking for solitary solace, but as a divine self in charge of my self. And this divine self is understood as a Holy Trinity. 

Here's how it works. It is important to observe that in the formulation of this new Trinity that defines the self as the sovereign text for living, the Bible is neither ignored nor banned; it holds, in fact, an honored place. But the three-personal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is replaced placed by a very individualized personal Trinity of my Holy Wants, my Holy Needs, and my Holy Feelings. 

We live in an age in which we have all been trained from the cradle to choose for ourselves what is best for us. We have a few years of apprenticeship at this before we are sent out on our own, but the training begins early. By the time we can hold a spoon we choose between half a dozen cereals for breakfast, ranging from Cheerios to Corn Flakes. Our tastes, inclinations, and appetites are consulted endlessly. We are soon deciding what clothes we will wear and in what style we will have our hair cut. The options proliferate: what TV channels we will view, what courses we will take in school, what college we will attend, what courses we will sign up for, what model and color of car we will buy, what church we will join. We learn early, with multiple confirmations as we grow older, that we have a say in the formation of our lives and, within certain bounds, the decisive say. If the culture does a thorough job on us—and it turns out to be mighty effective with most of us—we enter adulthood with the working assumption that whatever we need and want and feel forms the divine control center of our lives.

The new Holy Trinity. The sovereign self expresses itself in Holy Needs, Holy Wants, and Holy Feelings. The time and intelligence that our ancestors spent on understanding the sovereignty revealed in Father, the, Son, and Holy Spirit are directed by our contemporaries in affirming and validating the sovereignty of our needs, wants, and feelings. 

My needs are non-negotiable. My so-called rights, defined individually, are fundamental to my identity. My need for fulfillment, for expression, for affirmation, for sexual satisfaction, for respect, my need to get my own way—all these provide a foundation to the centrality of me and fortify my self against diminution. 

My wants are evidence of my expanding sense of kingdom. I train myself to think big because I am big, important, significant. I am larger than life and so require more and more goods and services, more things and more power. Consumption and acquisition are the new fruits of the spirit. 

My feelings are the truth of who I am. Any thing or person who can provide me with ecstasy, with excitement, with joy, with stimulus, with spiritual connection validates my sovereignty. This, of course, involves employing quite a large cast of therapists, travel agents, gadgets and machines, recreations and entertainments to cast out the devils of boredom or loss or discontent—all the feelings that undermine or challenge my self-sovereignty.

Well there you have it. Do you see hints… echos… shadows of your own tendencies in what Peterson has said? Do you come to the Bible to shape it your ends or to be shaped by God’s? Is He there to serve you or are you there to serve Him?

Let us always draw near to God’s word in order that He might increase and we might decrease.

Pastor Brett

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.

New Sermon Series on the Church and Evangelism

Last Sunday we started a new series on the Church and Evangelism. While topical series are not the norm at Reformation, we do periodically pause and look at subjects that we believe are timely and important to the congregation. In the past we have done this with church officers, worship and the Lord’s Supper.

Over the past several months the elders have been reading through the book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus by Mack Stiles. The book addresses evangelism—the calling of non-Christians to saving faith and the process of discipleship, which is becoming more like Jesus (Luke 6:40).  Stiles does a great job addressing problems with many modern approaches to evangelism—but more importantly he offers a biblically faithful approach. Such an approach is desperately needed in the church today.

It is needed because God has a heart for the lost and we ought to as well. Jesus came into this world to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). The last words our Savior spoke included the command to take the gospel of salvation into all the world (Matthew 28:18-20). It pleases him for all men to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). When we are apathetic toward evangelism we betray hearts that are out of sync with our Savior’s. The elders believe that this is an area where our church can (and should) grow.

But biblical instruction on evangelism is needed for another reason as well. Many well-intentioned believers have employed methods of evangelism that are not in accord with God’s word. We don’t just want to evangelize—we want to evangelize well. So the new series will not only seek to explain what evangelism is and why we should be passionate about it, but how God calls us to engage in that work.

The series will break into two parts. First, we will look at what the church is. It is the church that evangelizes and so we must understand what the church that evangelizes is. The first sermon was on the invisible church. From here we will look at the visible church as well as various metaphors God gives us to describe the church such as the bride of Christ, the pillar of truth, the household of God, the body of Christ and so on. We will look at each of these and see how they reveal an aspect of who we are as the church. 

From there we will turn and look at the work of evangelism. We will address the content of the gospel message. Sadly many Christians struggle to clearly and succinctly summarize what the gospel is. The Bible says the gospel is the power of God unto salvation—we ought to know what it is. Much of what we will look at in this part of the series is how the church bears witness to the work of Jesus both by being the church and actively seeking to work together to share the grace of Jesus with unbelievers. Evangelism is not a solo sport, but a group effort. As Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6) A healthy view of evangelism must understand how we, as Christians, support each other in sharing the love of Christ with others. Our hope is that the series we are beginning will help us see, appreciate and embody all of these things. 

We would also encourage each of you to read Stiles’ book. If you would like to buy a copy it is available at Amazon in hardback or on Kindle. However, as we mentioned on Sunday, we have copies available for free on the back table. Please feel free to take a copy for your family and read through it—you will be glad you did. The July 2016 New Horizons had a wonderful review of the book by John Shaw if you would like to read it (pages 14-15). That same issue also had a helpful article on evangelism on pages 3-8. 

Pastor Brett

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.

Readers Bibles


Perhaps you are like me and have long felt like paying attention and retaining what you read is particularly hard when it comes to reading the Bible. I can’t count how many times I have finished reading a section of the Bible and wondered “What did I just read?” I think there a lot of reasons for this—not the least of which is that the Enemy does not want us to hear God’s word. The Scriptures are truth. They wash over us like cleansing water. The simple reality is that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities. Rather than discourage us from reading the Bible, that should convince us all the more of just how important it is.

Having said that, I also believe that there are practical impediments to hearing and retaining what we read in our personal devotional times. Most modern Bibles are filled with various apparatus helps. There are study notes, cross references and verse numbers. None of these are original, but have been added to help us in our study of the Bible. Each can be helpful if used well. However, they also have liabilities. Because these are technically not a part of the Bible, when we are just reading, we know that we need to ignore them. So our minds subconsciously filter them out. However, that takes energy and comes at a cost. Perhaps the best analogy is attempting to carry on a conversation with someone in a loud room. In order to give your attention to the person speaking, you need to filter out all the background noise. You can do this, but after a while you notice that you are simply exhausted. That is because it takes energy to filter out everything that isn’t important in order to focus on that which is. That is what is taking place when you filter out section headings, study notes, cross references and, yes, verse numbers. 

In recent years, in order to address this, there has been a growing interest in what are known as Reader’s Bibles. These are Bible that take out most or all of those distracting study apparatuses. They present the biblical text in simple, uncluttered paragraph format. Some include chapter markers so that you have some idea where you are at, others do not. While these are not helpful for group study or for bringing to worship, I have found them to be truly revolutionary for my personal reading. For the past few years I have been using Crossway’s Reader’s ESV. Their hardback edition is quite inexpensive and the Kindle edition is even less. They also have a True Tone edition that is quite attractive. A few weeks ago I received my copy of Bibliotheca, which is a four volume edition of the Bible. What sets Bibliotheca apart is that it uses nice thick paper, which makes reading more pleasant and removes “bleed-through” of the text. It also retains the Divine Name (YHWH) rather than the common use of LORD. I personally think this is quite helpful in reading the Bible. Finally, Bibliotheca uses the Hebrew order of the Bible, rather than the Greek order of the Old Testament. It uses a revised version of the ASV (American Standard Version), which is quite pleasant to read. While it is nicer in many ways than the ESV Reader’s Bible, it also costs more. If you would like a multi-volume edition that is similar, but uses the ESV text, Crossway has recently come out with a Hardback edition as well as a leather edition. They are nice, but cost more. 

Over the past few years I have become a devoted user of Reader’s Bibles and I cannot recommend them highly enough. Not only have I noticed my retention going way up, but I have talked to numerous other people who have noticed the same benefits. I encourage you to do yourself a favor and get one. I don’t think you will be disappointed. 

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.