The One Genuine Cure for Legalism and Antinomianism

Sinclair Ferguson: Antinomianism takes various forms. People do not always fit neatly into our categorizations, nor do they necessarily hold all the logical implications of their presuppositions. Here we are using “antinomianism” in the theological sense: rejecting the obligatory (“binding on the conscience”) nature of the Decalogue for those who are in Christ. Antinomianism, it was widely assumed in the eighteenth century, is essentially a failure to understand and appreciate the place of the law of God in the Christian life. But just as there is more to legalism than first meets the eye, the same is true of antinomianism. Opposites Attract? Perhaps the greatest misstep in thinking about antinomianism is to think of it simpliciter as the opposite of legalism. It would be an interesting experiment for a budding doctoral student in psychology to create a word-association test for Christians. It might include: Old Testament: Anticipated answer → New Testament Sin: Anticipated answer → Grace David: Anticipated answer → Goliath Jerusalem: Anticipated answer → Babylon Antinomianism: Anticipated answer → ?

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What is the opposite of antinomianism?

Sinclair Ferguson: “What is the opposite of antinomianism?” Would it be fair to assume that the instinctive response … would be “Legalism”? It might be the right answer at the level of common usage, but it would be unsatisfactory from the standpoint of theology, for antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace. This is why the 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 wholesale removal of the law seems to provide a refuge [for the antinomian]. But the problem is not with the law, but with the heart – and this remains unchanged. Thinking that his perspective is now the antithesis of legalism, the antinomian has written an inappropriate spiritual prescription. His sickness is not fully cured. Indeed the root cause of his disease has been masked rather than

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The Surprising Truth about Legalism

Adapted from The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters by Sinclair Ferguson. As Old As Eden The root of legalism is almost as old as Eden, which explains why it is a primary, if not the ultimate, pastoral problem. In seeking to bring freedom from legalism, we are engaged in undoing the ancient work of Satan. In Eden the Serpent persuaded Eve and Adam that God was possessed of a narrow and restrictive spirit bordering on the malign. After all, the Serpent whispered, “Isn’t it true that he placed you in this garden full of delights and has now denied them all to you?” The implication was twofold. It was intended to dislodge Eve from the clarity of God’s word (“Did God actually say . . . ?”). Later the attack focused on the authority of God’s word (“You will not surely die”). But it was more. It was an attack on God’s character.

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Why Legalistic Preaching Doesn’t Work

David Prince: Legalism is the pursuit of good works abstracted from faith in an effort to garner God’s favor and blessing. Moralism is the attempt to obey or impose the ethical commands of the Bible abstracted from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Much preaching in Christian churches is simply a collection of legalistic moralisms. Graeme Goldsworthy suggests that the reason this approach to preaching is prevalent and popular is because “we are all legalists at heart” (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 118). Both liberal and conservative preachers often embrace the same moralistic methodology, albeit from opposing directions and opposing moral visions. The goal of much preaching in both liberal and conservative churches is to make good people a bit better, but it never works. Legalistic, moralistic preaching exacerbates sin rather than killing it. Consider some of the reasons why. 1. Legalistic preaching feeds the flesh No truth of Scripture is meant to be understood in isolation. It is

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Antinomianism Is Not the Antidote for Legalism

  Tony Reinke: We can rejoice that Sinclair Ferguson succumbed to years of pressure to turn his three (now somewhat famous) Marrow Controversy lectures into a book, and the book is done and launches soon from Crossway under the title, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance — Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. [Download the original audio files here: part 1, part 2, part 3.] Yes, this old Scottish theological debate matters, and Ferguson’s three lectures proved life changing for me. I doubt I will ever forget the place I was walking when I first heard Ferguson explain why antinomianism is not the antidote for legalism, and why legalism is not the antidote for antinomianism. One deadly poison cannot cure another deadly poison, but each poison calls for the counterpoison of grace. Here’s how he says it in the new book (pages 151–170): Perhaps the greatest misstep in thinking about antinomianism is to think of it simply as

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Avoiding Legalism and License in Preaching

Kevin DeYoung: Wise words from John Witherspoon’s farewell sermon in Paisley, the bustling Scotland town the famous Kirk minister left for America in May 1768: If you preach the free forgiveness of sin through Christ, without at the same time showing the necessity of regeneration and sanctification by his Spirit, it will either not be embraced at all, or it will be turned into licentiousness. And if you preach the duties of the law, without at the same time displaying the grace of the gospel and the vital influence that flows from the head to the members, you will either build up men in a destructive system of Pharisaical religion and self-righteousness, or bring them under the Egyptian bondage of making brick through they are not furnished with straw. The privileges and duties of the gospel stand in an inseparable connection; if you take away the first you starve and mortify the last. (“Ministerial Fidelity in Declaring the Whole Counsel

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Fully pleasing to him

Ray Ortlund: “. . . so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.”  Colossians 1:10 We should not be afraid of this clear biblical teaching.  It does not counteract the gospel in our lives; it is the sweet fruit of the gospel in our lives. The good news of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from all our works, is thrilling.  The message of forgiveness, acceptance, adoption, all by radical divine grace — I never get tired of hearing it and preaching it.  It is oxygen to me.  Every day.  I hope it means that to you too. But this grace is also a power that transforms.  It both reassures us and changes us.  Both/and.  How else can we account for the New Testament? “Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.”  Ephesians 5:10 “We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how

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How Your Preaching Might Increase Sin in Your Church

Kevin DeYoung: For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering . . . – Romans 8:3 We tread lightly here, but I fear we vastly underestimate the spiritual damage inflicted on our churches by “How To” sermons without an explicit gospel connection. The Bible is full of practical exhortations and commands, of course, but they are always connected to the foundational and empowering truth of the finished work of Christ. When we preach a message like “Six Steps to _______” or any other “be a better whatever”-type message — where the essential proclamation is not what Christ has done but what we ought/need to do — we become preachers of the law rather than Christ. (And it is not rare that this kind of message with barely any or no mention of Christ(!) at all gets preached.) But

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Two Kinds of Legalism

Andy Naselli: I recently highlighted how Sam Storms defines legalism: “the tendency to regard as divine law things that God has neither required nor forbidden in Scripture, and the corresponding inclination to look with suspicion on others for their failure or refusal to conform.” Some thoughtful friends of mine graciously pushed back on that definition. I replied to one of those friends with this comment: Thanks for raising this question. So many disagreements dissipate when we carefully define terms. There are at least two senses of legalism: 1. I grant your point that technically legalism is attempting to obtain salvation by works. 2. But usage determines meaning, so I don’t think we can limit the definition to that one sense since today many people use the word legalism to denote something different than that. Sam Storms fits here; and he’s also careful to say that we can be “legalistic” (as opposed to being “legalists” in the first sense of the term). I recently

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14 Characteristics of Theological Legalism

By C. Michael Patton: […] Here are some ways to know if you are a theological legalist: You don’t think there are “minor theological issues” You always define yourself with the word “true” in front of it (e.g. “I am a ‘true’ Calvinist,” “I am a ‘true’ Baptist,” “I am a ‘true’ Christian). Your statement of faith or catechism is so detailed that no one but your particular tradition can sign it. Your passions focus on the small issues and this finds expression in your personality. Most of your theological writing and/or discussion focuses on where other Christians have gone wrong. You have a bulldog mentality with regard to your “pet” issues; you cannot let things go emotionally. You have to leave the room. When one disagrees with you they are forever defined by that disagreement (“There goes Joe the Arminian” or “I would like to introduce you to Katie the complementarian.” You think belief is either black or white, you

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Rule-igion

Josh Harris: What is “rule-igion”? We know the word “religion” is belief in and worship of God. “Rule-igion” is the idea that a right relationship with God is earned through rule-keeping. “Rule-igion” says that we have to climb our way up to God. In other words, it’s through our performance and obedience and good deeds that we earn God’s love and favor and blessing. We follow the rules, we live a good life and that puts God in our debt. Rule-igion is the basis of almost every false religion in the world today. Sadly, it infects a lot of Christian churches. But rule-igion is completely at odds with the good news of Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that salvation is a free gift. We are not saved by our works we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus. This good news–what we call the gospel– is the opposite of rule-igion. The gospel tells us that we can’t climb

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Only the gospel of grace can produce true godliness

“In practical terms, if we as preachers lay down the marks of the spiritual Christian, or the mature church, or the godly parent, or the obedient child, or the caring pastor, or the responsible elder, or the wise church leader, and if we do this in a way that implies that conformity is simply a matter of understanding and being obedient, then we are being legalists and we risk undoing the very thing we want to build up. We may achieve the outward semblance of conformity to the biblical pattern, but we do it at the expense of the gospel of grace that alone can produce the reality of these desirable goals. To say what we should be or do and not link it with a clear exposition of what God has done about our failure to be or do perfectly as He wills is to reject the grace of God and to lead people to lust after self-help and

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Extend the Same Grace You Preach

Paul Tripp: I did it for years. I was good at it, but I didn’t know it. It shaped how I preached and how I sought to pastor people. If you would have questioned my theology, I would have been offended. I was an ardent defender of the “doctrines of grace.” I knew them well and could articulate them clearly, but at ground level something else was going on. In the duties, processes, and relationships of pastoral ministry I actively devalued the same grace I theologically defended. My ministry lacked rest in grace. It lacked the fruit of grace: confidence and security. So I attempted to do in people what only God can do, and I consistently asked the law to do what only divine grace will ever accomplish. How does this happen? The heart of every believer, still being delivered from sin, is tugged away from rest in the nowism of grace to some form of legalism. Even after

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Legalism or Obedience?

Fred Zaspel: Try to imagine it. You are playing a game of Monopoly, and your opponent throws a ten with the dice. Then he picks up his player marker and begins counting his steps. Immediately you realize he will land on the corner — “Go to Jail!” Well, he doesn’t want to land there, so he stops just one step short, on New York Avenue. Immediately you cry foul. But he responds indignantly, “I only stopped one step short. What’s the difference? Don’t be such a legalist!” Will you feel ashamed? Will you now feel that you have been too persnickety and legalistic? Too careful to obey the rules? Or will you feel that you have been cheated? To make the point another way, I have never yet met a parent who complained that his child was a legalist because he obeyed too much. In fact, it would be impossible for any parent to imagine how his child could obey too much. Yet,

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The Slavery of Performancism

From Tullian Tchividjian’s forthcoming book Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Here’s a great quote from a chapter on the dangers of legalism, or what Tullian likes to call “performancism.” “Legalism traps you in slavery and despair. To define ourselves by what we must do, what we must accomplish, and who we must become–that’s the epitome of slavery. When we believe, deep down, that God’s blessing depends on how well we’re behaving, we wither and groan under the heavy burden of self-reliance. In this ‘performancism,’ we eventually figure out that being the star of our own show actually makes life a tragedy. When life is all about us–what we can do, how we perform–our world becomes small and smothering; we shrink. To have everything riding on ourselves leads to despair not deliverance. When we’re living by this legalism–trusting in our rule-keeping, our abilities, our performance–to sustain our little safe and controllable world that we’re addicted to, someday it will all start to crumble. Our kids

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Application is Not Legalism

“There are many pastors today who, for fear of being branded ‘legalists’, give their congregation no ethical teaching. How far we have strayed from the apostles! ‘Legalism’ is the misguided attempt to earn our salvation by obedience to the law. ‘Pharisaism’ is a preoccupation with the externals and minutiae of religious duty. To teach the standards of moral conduct which adorn the gospel is neither legalism nor pharisaism but plain apostolic Christianity.” John Stott, Between Two Worlds, p. 158 (HT: Douglas Wilson)

…the enemy of the best!

“That both heathenism and Jewish legalism, very different from one another, are here bundled together in contrast with the liberty of the Gospel is plain from the fact that the observances which are referred to are applied to both. The law observed externally as a superstitious system without faith was doubtless a bondage to elemental spirits of this age, as heathenism was. Not only the bad, but often and much more the good, is the enemy of the best!” William Still – Notes on Galatians (Aberdeen: Didasko Press, reprinted 1972) p. 59. (HT:  Nicholas T. Batzig)

Four Kinds of People

LAW Relying Not relying Obeying 1) Law-obeying,  law-relying 4) Law-obeying,  not law-relying Disobeying 2) Law disobeying,  law-relying 3) Law disobeying,  not law-relying   Tim Keller, Galatians Study Guide, p. 118: Law-obeying, Law-relying These people are under the law, and are usually very smug, self-righteous and pharisaical. Externally, they are very sure they are right with God, but deep down, they have a lot of insecurity, since no one can truly be assured they are living up to standards.  This makes them touchy, sensitive to criticism, and devastated when their prayers aren’t answered. Law-disobeying, Law-relying These people have a religious conscience of strong works-righteousness, but they are not living consistently with it. As a result, they are more humble and more tolerant of others than the Pharisees above, but they are also much more guilt-ridden, subject to mood swings and sometimes very afraid of religious topics. (Some of these people may go to church but stay on the periphery because of their low

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The difference between a legalist and an evangelical

Ralph Erskine on the difference between a legalist and an evangelical (“gospel-believing”) Christian. (1) They differ in their complaints. The legalist will complain more for want of holiness than for want of Christ; seeing he hath taken up with self-righteousness, it is his all, it is his happiness, it is his husband, it is his God. But the language of the evangelical Christian, who is dead to the law, is, O for Christ! O for a day of power! O to be wrapt up in the covenant of grace! to get an omnipotent power, determining me to comply with the gospel-offer. (2) They differ as to their comforts, – the legalist finds comfort in law-works, even in all his extremities. In the prospect of trouble, who comforts him? Even this, that he hath done many good duties. He wraps himself in a garment of his own weaving. Upon challenges of conscience, what comforts him, and gives him peace? He even covers himself

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Modern Judaizers?

J. Gresham Machen, in his Notes on Galatians, draws out a careful application of the principle argument of Galatians to the church today when he wrote: The particular form of merit which they induced men to seek was the mertit of keeping the Law of Moses, particularly the cermonial law. At first sight, that fact might seem to destroy the usefulness of the epistle for the present day; for we of today are in no danger in desiring to keep Jewish fasts and feasts. But a little consideration will show that that is not at all the case. The really essential thing about the Judaizers’ contention was not found in those particular “works of the law” that they urged upon the Galatians as being one of the grounds of salvation, but in the fact that the urged any works at all. The really serious error into which they fell was not that they carried the ceremonial law over into the new

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