“Legalism Dies Hard”?

A number of years ago, one Sunday morning, the pastor of a church in which I was an elder and I were preparing to lead the worship service. The other elders in the church had joined us for prayer before the service.  Either during the prayer time itself, or perhaps in conversation afterwards, one of the elders had referred to the need for our lives to conform to the ethical prescriptions of Scripture.  After the elders left us, and just before this pastor and I walked out to conduct the service, the pastor turned to me and remarked, “Legalism dies hard,” expecting, I believe, that I would certainly be in agreement with him.

But I was not in agreement. Nor were the other elders.  Some time later we elders met with this pastor to discuss the content of his sermons.  In many respects he was a very fine preacher; but we had noticed that he preached a lot from Paul’s epistles, preaching especially on grace, but almost never preached from the gospels.  During the meeting, he actually told us that he preferred to preach from the epistles rather than the gospels, because the gospels seemed to be too full of commands, laws, ethical prescriptions, etc.  This seemed quite strange to me at the time, for I remember thinking that, evidently, he must have been quite selective even in his reading of Paul’s letters, in which biblical scholars have long acknowledged a very recognizable indicative-imperative pattern.

This pastor was certainly not the first to complain about Scripture’s ethical imperatives. Charles Spurgeon, in one of his sermons, once referred to the “Scotchwoman, who after hearing  a sermon, said, ‘It was all very well if it had not been for the trash of duties at the hinner end.’”  Nor was this pastor the last, as evidenced by the modern-day hyper-grace movement; by those who, because we have the Spirit of God dwelling inside of us, believe we can live our Christian lives on auto-pilot; by those who say we do not have to consult the Scriptures to find out what pleases God; and by those who at the drop of a hat are willing to cry, “Legalism! Legalism!”

Well, this morning, balancing out that “Scotchwoman,” I was doing some reading in a book by the nineteenth-century Scottish theologian, Hugh Martin. The book was his very fine work, The Atonement: In Its Relations to the Covenant, the Priesthood, the Intercession of our Lord.  I was delighted to come across these two paragraphs.

How was it with the second Adam? All God’s law was in His heart. Operating there, an inward principle of grace, acted in Him by the Spirit of holiness His immeasurably, He surely, if any, might have dispensed with strict, imperative, authoritative law and commandment. “I delight to do Thy will, O God; Thy law also is within my heart.” Was no commandment, therefore, laid upon—no obedience statute and ordained unto Him? Or, did He complain if there was? Nay; I hear Him specially rejoicing in it. Every word He uttered, every work He did, was by commandment; and I hear Him rejoicing that it was so. “My Father which sent Me, He gave me commandment what I should say and what I should do; as He gave Me commandment therefore, so I speak.” And grand beyond compare as was His willing priestly act of laying down His life; and only second to it in grandeur as was His kingly act of taking it again; both these acts of Zion’s royal High Priest were done in obedience to strict imperative commandment, statute and ordained. “I lay down My life of Myself, and I take it again: this commandment received I of My Father.” Ay, and at this moment, while He pleads at the right hand of the throne, an Advocate for sinners, He is acting by commandment, by the imperative law and obligation of official duty; and the vilest sinner seeking His aid can appeal to Him by the obligation of His office and by the force of His Father’s commandment, that “him that cometh to Him He may in no wise cast out.” He at least counts it not dishonour to be under imperative commandment—to hear the Father saying to Him, “Thou shalt.” And, oh, how blessed for me it is that it should be so! For I hear the Father’s “Thou shalt” unto the Son take gracious, glorious forms like these: “The bruised reed Thou shalt not break, and the smoking flax Thou shalt not quench, till Thou bring forth judgment unto truth.”

And shall His members, though the regenerating Spirit dwells in them, claim an exemption from what the Son was not exempt, from what the Son counts it honourable not to be exempt even in His heavenly glory? for even there He shall for ever be “subject to the Father, that God may be all in all.” Shall believers, because the Spirit puts the law into their hearts, claim a right to act merely at the dictate of inward gracious principle, untrammelled, uncontrolled by outward peremptory statute? I appeal to Paul in the seventh chapter of the Romans, where he says, “The law is holy,” and adds, as if to show that it was no inward actuating law of the heart, but God’s outward commanding law to the will: “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, and just, and good.” And I appeal to the sweet singer of Israel, a man whose heart was after God’s own heart, yet trusted not his obedience in the keeping of inward principle, but bowed to outward categorical commandment. For I find in this psalm, which is all throughout the breathing of a heart in which the law of God is written—I find him, over and above that, owning himself with joy as under peremptory external law: “Thou hast COMMANDED us to keep Thy precepts diligently. O that my ways were directed to keep Thy statutes. Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect to all Thy commandments.”

The writing here is somewhat dense, so here is my summative paraphrase:

(1) When Jesus lived his life here on this earth, and when he went to the cross to die for our sins, he did so by the commandment, the law, the statutes, and the ordinances of God his Father, and in conformity to the Scriptures. Jesus, more than any person who has ever lived, was indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and one might have thought that Jesus could have carried out his mission solely in the power of that Spirit.   However, the language Jesus uses shows that he did not do what he did solely on the inner impulse of the Spirit, but he did so in response to the commandments of his Father.  He kept the commandments, he obeyed the law, he lived according to the Scriptures which had to be fulfilled.  He lived his life under the word.  He lived to please his Father.  And he did not consider this to be any kind of dishonor.

(2) The same is to be true for Christ’s followers. Even though they have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them, this does not relieve them of the need to conform their lives to God’s righteous ethical commandments as laid out in Holy Scripture.  Why should they think that just because the Holy Spirit indwells them, they can live their Christian lives on auto-pilot, as if they did not have to consult Scripture as to what God wants and how they are to live in such a way that they bring God pleasure?  If even Jesus their Lord did not do this, why should they think that they are for some reason exempt?

As well, even though Martin does not say this in that second paragraph, it is important to add that it is all too easy for us Christians, those who are on the road to sanctification but have not yet arrived, to mistake our own feelings, inner compulsions, and urges for the promptings of the Spirit. That is why the Reformers wisely emphasized that when it comes to living the Christian life, it is not the Spirit alone, but the “Spirit working with the word.”

“Legalism dies hard”?  Well, frankly, legalism ought to die.  But when a Christian desires to live their life in conformity with God’s will as revealed in the Holy Scripture—that is not legalism.  That is simply what every Christian ought to do.  When we as Christians, indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit, and in conformity with God’s revealed will in Holy Scripture, present our bodies, even as our Lord did, as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, that is simply our true and proper worship, our reasonable service (Rom 12:1).  It is precisely what we ought to do.  It is what our God has commanded.  It is never a bad thing to do what God wants us to do.  And how do we know what God wants us to do?  We consult his word.  And if, by some chance, you want to think of that as legalism, then may that “legalism” never die.

Jerry Shepherd
November 7, 2015

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