Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Avoid Legalism: Emphasize the Law

Many of today's young evangelicals have happily thrown off the legalistic fundamentalism of their childhood. They've come to a greater understanding of God's abundant grace, and the gospel has liberated them from slavery to guilt and fear. That's a very good thing. But I submit that recovering the gospel alone isn't enough to keep legalism at bay. We need a renewed emphasis on the law of God or else legalism will inevitably reemerge. Specifically, we need a clear emphasis on (1) the law as a covenant, and (2) the law as a standard or rule.

The Law as a Covenant

The law as a covenant says, “Do this and live” (Lev 18:5; Ez 20:11; Lk 10:28; Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12). It demands perfect obedience for eternal life (Gal 3:12; 5:3). It makes no provision for forgiveness of sins (Gal 3:10). The law covenant is inflexible and absolute. Even one sin against the law covenant brings guilt and eternal condemnation. That means we're all condemned in the court of the law covenant because we're all sinners. The good news is that Christ's perfect obedience to the terms of the law covenant brings justification and eternal life for all who belong to Him.

If, however, we forget the law covenant's strict requirement of perfect obedience for justification and eternal life, then we'll inevitably start to think that we can imperfectly keep the law for our justification and eternal life. This isn't theoretical. While I appreciate many of the things N.T. Wright says, I believe he's wrong about this in particular. Wright, popular among many evangelicals, teaches that we initially receive justification and life by grace, but we retain our justification and life by a kind of imperfect soft-obedience to the law. Wright, and those who follow him, have forgotten the strict demands of the law as a covenant.

Evangelicals who follow Wright on his doctrine of justification will find themselves re-enslaved to the legalism from which they thought they were liberated. They'll keep the law to retain God's saving love and favor. They'll fear losing Christ and His good graces; so, they'll perform. Moreover, the works they do won't really be “good” because they won't flow from faith resting in Christ's complete satisfaction of the terms of the law as a covenant. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23).

The Law as a Standard or Rule

In Christ, we're free from the law as a covenant! But we're not free from the law as a standard or rule. After Jesus justifies us, He graciously points us to His good law as our guide in sanctification. As believers, we express our love for Christ by learning to keep the standard of His law more and more. The law of God is the Christian's “rule of walking” faithfully in Christ. Romans 7:12 says, “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Paul says, “I delight in the law of God in my inner being” (Rom 7:22). Romans 8:4 says that Christ satisfied the law so that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.”

If we don't emphasize the law as our sufficient standard of faithful conduct, then we'll start to make up our own standards. Preachers will teach “practical” ways of applying the gospel that aren't anchored in God's law but only in their own experiences and preferences. That's authoritarianism. Church cultures, rather than God's law, will tell us how to live in light of the gospel. Extra-biblical emphases and practices will arise by the “leading of the Spirit,” while God's own law is marginalized. If young evangelicals don't emphasize and apply the biblical doctrine of God's law, they'll inevitably be re-enslaved to the legalism from which they were liberated.

The Bible teaches “through the law comes knowledge of sin,” (Rom 3:20), “where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15), and “sin is not counted where there is no law” (Rom 5:13). The doctrine of Christian liberty is based on the Bible's doctrine of the law. If we lose the doctrine of law, then we'll lose our liberty. We will become legalists again. But when we emphasize the law of God, we'll be free from all extra-biblical commandments to walk wisely in light of His sufficient commands.

The gospel alone isn't enough to keep us from legalism. The law of God, correctly understood as a covenant and a standard or rule, is a necessary and powerful protection from legalism.

Tom Hicks 


J.L. said...


I believe that your last paragraph equivocates on the word "alone". Grace is the only antidote to legalism, and grace comes through the gospel alone (John 1:17). Yes, in order to avoid legalism we need to understand the law, but to then say that "the gospel alone isn't enough to keep us from legalism" is simply disingenuous.

Tom Hicks: "But we're not free from the law as a standard or rule."

I don't think you're doing justice to Paul's treatment of the law. Ironically, the very arguments you present in your first section (The Law As A Covenant) should dissuade you from believing Christians still live under some obligation to the law.

Since the law demands perfection, it cannot be domesticated. Read Galatians 3 carefully.

10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” 11 But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” 12 Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”).

Notice the dichotomy: the just live by FAITH, not by law, BECAUSE whoever is under the law is obligated to obey it perfectly.

No one is perfect but God, which is why the justified are IN Christ, so that He may be our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption. (1 Cor 1:30)

What then do you mean when you say that we are not free from the law as a standard or rule? It was a standard and rule before we were saved, and that is precisely why were condemned. Yet now, in Christ, the law has its fangs removed? Then it would be cease to be holy.

The law is holy and just and good. That is why it demands perfection. That is why he who continues to live by the law must be perfect. That is why it kills.

Romans 8:4, thank God, does not mean that Christ obeyed the law so that we can obey the law. Those with faith walk in the spirit. We do not walk according to the flesh---which is aroused by the law despite it being holy and good. Paul drives this home in Romans 7, right after he states that believers are as free from the law as a widow is free from her husband.

If Paul wasn't clear enough in Romans 7-8, he is quite clear in Romans 10 that there is no return to the law. Christ is the end of the law for all who believe, for whoever "does these things must continue in them." Unsurprising, then, that Paul began his letter by saying that the gospel reveals the righteousness of God and that the just shall live by faith (Romans 1:16).

Tom Hicks: "If we don't emphasize the law as our sufficient standard of faithful conduct, then we'll start to make up our own standards."

This is a false dichotomy. Nomianism and relativism aren't the only options. Titus says that the grace of God teaches us to say no to ungodliness. The gospel, not the law, is our impetus. Peter says that he who lacks fruit has "forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins". The writer of Hebrews tells us to "look to Jesus" in our race and our right against sin. I could go on. The law is not our rule and guide, Jesus Christ is. Interesting that John contrasts law with truth in John 1:17. The law is a shadow, a mere copy of something better (Heb 10:1)---the true standard of righteousness---God himself.

Christ's commands and example provide us with a New Covenant ethic. The purpose of the law was to point us to the Messiah. Its only ministry was condemnation (2 Cor 3). Now that we have the Messiah, we have not only the true standard of righteousness but also salvation from our own unrighteousness. No wonder that Hebrews calls Christ's ministry superior to the ministry of the law, which has passed away.

Tom said...


You seem to be collapsing sanctification into justification. I wholly agree that Christ is the end of the law for justification. Jesus fully satisfied the demands of the Father in order for our righteous standing before the bar of His justice. This is Christ's lawkeeping *for us.*

But Christ also keeps the law *in us* for our sanctification. We're not sanctified in order to satisfy or measure up to divine justice in any way. Rather, the Spirit of Christ sanctifies us, conforming us to Christ's likeness, in order that we might enjoy, fellowship and experience the knowledge God. Transformation is not needed in believers to satisfy God the judge (justification) but it is needed in believers so that we might enjoy Him as our Father.

Probably the heart of our disagreement about the law as a "rule of life" relates to your following statement:

"The law is not our rule and guide, Jesus Christ is."

The problem with this statement is that Jesus Christ was a lawkeeper. One of the things we love most about Christ is that He kept the law. He worshipped the Father perfectly. He kept the Sabbath, honored His parents, never murdered but promoted life, never committed adultery but served and sacrificed for women, never stole anything but always gave, never lied but always told the truth, and He was perfectly content in the Father, never coveting. Jesus perfectly embodies the law.

So, if Christ is our rule and guide (a statement with which I completely agree), then it's bifurcation to suggest that the law is not our guide.


Tom Hicks

J.L. said...


Thank you for your response.

Justification and sanctification are distinct aspects of salvation. The question is whether they are both by faith.

Since sanctification is an aspect of salvation, and since all of salvation is by faith (Eph 2:8-9), sanctification is by faith. Consider 2 Thess 2:

But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth,

Salvation is accomplished through sanctification, and sanctification is accomplished by the Spirit and our faith. I hope then, in your statement that "Christ also keeps the law *in us* for our sanctification", you are not saying that our law-keeping, even if it is Spirit-wrought, is the cause of our sanctification. Rather, I hope you are saying that the Spirit sanctifies us *according to* the commands given by Moses.

Many so-called evangelicals do unabashedly claim that while justification is by faith, sanctification is by our obedience to the law. Would you mind clarifying your stance?

Moving on. We are certainly commanded to live according to some standard of righteousness. You say it is the law, I say it is Christ himself.

First, let me note that this is a non-sequitur:

Christ is our rule and guide.
Christ kept the law.
The law is our rule and guide.

Hence I assume that your argument is actually this:

p1: I should be like Jesus when commanded to be like Jesus in a particular way.
p2: One particular way I am commanded to be like Jesus is by being a (Mosaic) lawkeeper.
c: I should be a (Mosaic) lawkeeper.

So, the question remains, are NT believers required to keep the Mosaic law? I addressed this at length in my first comment. I have not yet seen a refutation.

Pre-emptively, let me say:
1. Many of the principles found in the Mosaic law carry over to NT commandments (1 Cor 9:9).
2. The Mosaic law is still holy and just and good (Rom 7). It is still a true standard of righteousness, therefore it still continues to convict the ungodly (Gal 3).
3. By walking in the spirit, believers fulfill the law when they love one another (Gal 5, Rom 13).
4. There remains a "law of Christ" but this is not the Mosaic law. Cross-referencing Romans 8 and Galatians 5-6, I'd argue that this "law of Christ" is nothing less than the holy spirit Himself.

Now I ask concerning the first three, are these descriptive or prescriptive? Can a prescription for using the Mosaic law as a moral guide be found in any of them? Keep the scalpel of logic handy; I believe you will find the answer is 'no'. Indeed, the prescriptive moral commands in the NT do not flow out of obligation to walk by the law, but by the spirit. Moreover, law and spirit are contrasted at length as antithetical (2 Cor 3, Rom 8). One leads to death, the other to life. We cannot be under both---herein lies the contradiction in the theology of most professing evangelicals. Doesn't matter whether we're talking about pre or post-justification. Law always kills. That is its ministry.

Tom said...

Thanks for you excellent and thoughtful response. I'll take each of your questions and respond to them below.

1. Is sanctification, like justification, by faith?

Justification and sanctification are both by faith, but not in the same way. In justification, the believer lays hold of Christ and His righteousness by faith alone and is declared righteous in God's law court. Faith alone justifies us (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:15-16), and only that aspect of faith that “grasps” Christ is the reason faith justifies. No other Spiritual graces are instruments of justification but faith only, which is the “empty hand” and “open mouth,” that merely appropriates Christ and His satisfaction of God's justice. Faith, which itself is God's free gift (Eph 2:8-9), contributes nothing legal/judicial to our justification, since the believer's faith itself is imperfect and sinful. Faith is merely the suitable/fitting means of our being united to Christ who alone is the ground and cause of our justification.

In sanctification, the same faith that justifies us also sanctifies us. Paul says to “insist on these things [regeneration, justification] so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:8). As we cling to Christ by faith, we trust Him in all of His offices (prophet, priest, and king) and our minds and hearts are renovated. While faith justifies by extra-spectively grasping Christ and resting in Him alone, that same faith sanctifies us by grasping and resting in Christ alone as wells as by trusting Christ's authority as lawgiver, the goodness of His commands, the blessing of fellowship that comes from His kind hand to those who obey Him, and the filial fearfulness of His discipline, etc. Faith sanctifies by means of trusting Christ in His whole person and all of His offices. It is, therefore intensely active and energetic and is the foundation of the believer's effort, striving, discipline, and self-control to keep God's good law. That's why Paul says, “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue,” etc. (2 Peter 1:5).

Tom said...

2. Are New Testament believers required to keep the Mosaic Law? This is an expansive question, but I'll try to answer it briefly, though no doubt, what I say will not adequately satisfy all your questions.

a. New covenant believers are free from the covenant of works (cf. Rom 5:18 and 6:14; ) as well as from the Mosaic covenant (Jn 1:17). We do not keep the law to obtain eternal life or to obtain/retain an earthly inheritance.

b. The Old Testament teaches that the Mosaic law was not monolithic, but that there were always recognized divisions and distinctions within it (Deut 4:13-14; 5:31; 6:1; 7:11; 26:17). Deuteronomy 4:13-14 distinguishes the Ten Commandments from the other “statues and rules” of the Mosaic covenant: “And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tables of stone. And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statues and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.” The New Testament declares that the ceremonial laws (of Mosaic law) have been fulfilled and abrogated in Christ (Heb 7:18-19) and that the civil laws (of Mosaic law) have been torn down now that Christ has come (Eph 2:14-15). The New Testament never abrogates the moral law of the Ten commandments.

c. The moral law of the Ten Commandments, which was the substance of the Mosaic law, continues as a standard of life and conduct for the believer (Matt 5:19; Jn 14:15; Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; 1 Tim 8:8; Heb 8:18; Jas 1:25; 2:11-12; etc.). The Ten Commandments are unique. First, each of the Ten Commandments was observed before God gave the Mosaic law at Sinai. They were written on Adam's heart (Rom 2:14-16) and God held Adam and his descendants responsible to all of them. They are pre-Moses, which means it would be wrong to view them as abrogated in the abrogation of the Mosaic covenant. Second, the Ten Commandments are the only laws of God that He wrote with His finger on tablets of stone on Mount Sinai in the midst of fire, smoke, and thunder, showing their uniqueness. Third, only the Ten Commandments were placed inside the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle. The other laws “statues” and “rules” were contained in a scroll outside the ark and next to it.

When we come to the New Testament, we hear Christ say “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). His Hebrew audience would have heard the echos of Sinai in which Yahweh said that he would bless “those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:6).

The writer of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah and says that God's “laws” (plural) are “written” (GK: carved) on our hearts (Heb 8:10) in the new covenant. The citation comes from Jeremiah 31, which originally had OT laws in view. The audience would have heard “carve” as a reference to the Decalogue, the only carved laws in the OT.

Thus, the Ten Commandments remain a standard or rule of conduct for the believer, but not as the ground or means of justification. Rather, they are our guide in sanctification, written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. They are the commands we must keep in order to express our love for Jesus and to commune with the One who bought us with a price and freed us from condemnation and gave us eternal life.