There has been much confusion over the relationship of the Law of God (the Ten
Commandments) to the believer throughout church history and especially in our day. There are
antinomians who, in one way or another, deny the Law of God, whether it is by crossing out the
4 th Commandment, or by saying that the Law was only for the Jews and has no place in the
Christian’s life, or by declaring that God broke his Law in order to love (as one famous heretic
recently said). On the other side, there are legalists who put believers back under the Law as a
covenant of works. They use the threat of judgment in order to effect change. They suspend
believers’ justification and keep the threat of condemnation possible until believers strive to
produce an undetermined amount of holiness (which they are always left guessing and which
only the pastor or preacher can determine) in order to keep people incentivized to pursue
holiness. In all of this, there is great confusion over the relationship of the Law to the believer.
I don’t know about you, but I’m amazed how quickly my calendar fills up. As I look at the days and weeks ahead of me, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, to wish for some extra free time and to want what isn’t. Discontentment can creep in so quickly and frustration can build. In times like these, I know that my thinking needs to change if my attitude is going to change, and Paul’s words in Acts 20:24 are a great place to begin to renew my mind:
“But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.”
The biggest ill use of Scripture (in my limited perspective) is by far and above legalism. This may well be the biggest danger to our churches. It is a failure to understand the right use of the law. The gospel is distorted and we often do not even notice! This happens when our sermons are all “do this” and there is no mention of what Christ has “done”. This happens when the gospel is relegated to the end of the sermon every week when every head is bowed and eye closed. This happens when we forget that we as believers need the gospel to. There is a misuse of the law and a mismanagement of the gospel!
In my last post I covered the topic of legalism. I used a definition of legalism from
Geerhardus Vos that is not common, but is what, I believe, gets to the heart of legalism.
Essentially it’s this: knowing God’s law apart from knowing his love. God has a list of rules that
we must follow, but he does this only to restrict us and not because he cares for us. His
commands are divorced from his care. It stems from the dark face that Satan craftily placed on
God when he asked Eve, “Did God say you shall not eat from every tree.” While it is technically
true that they were not allowed to eat from every tree, this is not how God framed it. God said in
Genesis 2:16, “you may surely eat of every tree of the garden” and then goes on to tell them of
the one tree from which they were not allowed to eat. Whereas God said “you may surely eat of
every tree” Satan said “you may not eat of every tree.” Thus, Satan shaped the narrative to make
God look restrictive, withholding, and thus unloving and uncaring. This dark face made Eve look
at God as a “hard man” (Matt. 25:24).
“What am I supposed to be doing?”
It’s a question I frequently ponder as a minister of the Gospel. If you’re not a pastor, maybe you have asked yourself, “What is a minister called to be and do?”
The answers one could give are manifold. What priorities should shape how a pastor spends his time? A pastor could be doing lots of things, but what must he do?
I’ve come to realize that I don’t do “process” well. I’m an “event” kind of gal. I like to plan, execute and then check it off my list. Done. I have always seen this as just the reality of being a bit of a “Type A” or a “go get ’em” personality. I didn’t see it as necessarily a weakness, and I certainly didn’t see how it could negatively effect my parenting…but now I know that it can, and in all transparency, it does.
If someone were to ask you to define legalism, how would you define it? Perhaps you
would define it as adding to God’s law or making people do things that God has not commanded.
The way I would put it is, “Saying thus says the Lord where he has not spoken.” It wasn’t too
long ago, however, that I came across an interesting definition of legalism - one that I had never
considered. In his book The Whole Christ (which I believe every pastor would greatly benefit
from) Sinclair Ferguson utilizes a definition of legalism from the nineteenth century Dutch
reformer Geerhardus Vos: “Legalism is a peculiar kind of submission to God’s law, something
that no longer feels the personal divine touch in the rule it submits to.” 1 This is a cumbersome
way of defining it, but what it refers to is separating God’s law from God’s person. The law is no
longer seen as coming from a loving Heavenly Father who has our best interests at heart, but a
mere set of rules for us to do “just because.” The way I like to sum up this definition is this way:
It’s knowing God’s law apart from knowing his love.
There are some more ways we mishandle Scripture. Sometimes looking at the negative helps to make the positive more clear. These are generalizations as we are not taking time to look in depth at each of these categories.
Elevating one portion of Scripture above another mishandles Scripture. One example of this is those that teach repentance is not a necessary response to the gospel along with faith. They take the gospel according to John and say that since John wrote so that we may believe (20:31) and John does not use the Greek word for repentance, therefore repentance is not a necessary response to our sin. They elevate the gospel of John above the rest of Scripture. Other passages do speak about repentance and just because one particular word is missing does not mean the idea is not present. They do not handle well the Word of God.
“Surely I spoke about things I don’t understand, things too wonderful for me to know…therefore, I reject my words and am sorry for them.” Job 42:3b, 6
In the final chapters of the book of Job, he openly spoke about his innocence, and because of that, he couldn’t make sense of what God was doing in his life. His confusion gave way to a level of accusation against God for what his life had become. In chapters 38-41, God responds to Job by proclaiming in detail His sovereignty and absolute control and care of everything He has made…from hailstones and lightening to deer and donkeys. When God gets done talking, Job is completely humbled. Part of his response is the verses above.