In an effort to emphasize grace, many gospel preachers have fallen into the trap of denying the law. Formally, this is called antinomianism, a condition that has often plagued Reformed preachers of grace. While popularly, antinomianism often arises as preachers or believers eschew the shackles of legalism, it is more fundamentally a case where grace itself is misunderstood.
Recently, in reading Sinclair Ferguson’s historical, theological, and pastoral book, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, I have been reminded of the importance of making this point. Antinomianism is not so much the opposite of legalism (nor the reverse). Rather, legalism and antinomianism are both fundamental misunderstandings the gospel, the way the law leads to the gospel (see Romans 3:21; 1 Timothy 1:8–11), and the way in which the gospel fulfills the need created by the law—namely, a righteousness that comes by faith (not works of the law), but which also esteems the law as it is written on the heart of those who believe the gospel.
I hope you can see that the relationship between law and gospel is more complex than simple supersession or discontinuity. In what follows, I will draw from The Whole Christ to help show how law leads to gospel and gospel pardons from legal guilt and empowers to obey the law.
How the Marrow Controversy Helps
In The Whole Christ Ferguson tells the historical account of the Marrow Controversy in eighteenth century Scotland. Stemming from Edward Fisher’s 1647 publication of The Marrow of Theology, a great debate arose in Scotland about the nature and offer of the gospel. While giving many details about this historical debate and the biblical theology of the Reformed tradition, Ferguson’s book most helpfully illumines the enduring challenge of rightly understanding the gospel of grace, its relationship to the law, and the way in which it brings assurance to the believer. While time doesn’t permit a whole review, let me share something of the law–gospel relationship.
The gospel is not merely the good news of consequences covered and penalty erased. Rather, the gospel proclaims forgiveness of sin and the gift of eternal life. Put another way, the gospel declares the sinner justified even as it writes the law of God on the convert’s heart. Because the gospel is not just a word of amnesty (indifferent to the law), but rather the lawful promise that the impeccably just God justifies all who believe in his son (see Romans 3:23–26), it is important to see how the gospel fulfills the law and esteems the law as the way of life for those now made alive by the gospel of grace.
In a section lamenting the limited and reductionistic ways theologians have described the law—often, only citing Paul’s negative statements of the law—Ferguson shows that Scripture is more nuanced in its approach to the law. Rightly understood, the law is not able to bring life, but to those made alive by the Spirit, the law is a joy to learn and do (cf. Psalm 119). It is not burdensome (1 John 5:3), but a blessing for those who meditate upon it (Psalm 1).
The Law and the Gospel
On this point, Ferguson highlights two poetic encapsulations of the gospel which instead of denying the law, wonderfully communicate the biblical balance of law and gospel. The first is by Ralph Erskine; the second by William Cowper. Together, they express the way in which men and women with law written on their heart feel about the law and gospel.
Ralph Erskine, The Mystery of the Law and Gospel:
Thus gospel-grace and law-commands,
Both bind and loose each other’s hands:
They can’t agree on any terms,
Yet hug each other in their arms.
Those that divide them cannot be
The friends of truth and verity;
Yet those that dare confound the two,
Destroy them both, and gender woe.
This paradox none can decipher,
That plow not with the gospel-heifer. . . .
To run to work, the law commands;
The gospel gives me feet and hands:
The one requires that I obey;
The other does the pow’r convey.
From Gospel Sonnets or Spiritual Songs (Edinburgh, John Pryde, 1870), 288–89;
cited by Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 160.
William Cowper, No Strength of Nature Can Suffice:
No strength of nature can suffice
To serve the Lord aright;
And what she has, she misapplies,
For want of clearer light.
How long beneath the Law I lay
In bondage and distress!
I toiled the precept to obey,
But toiled without success.
Then to abstain from outward sin
Was more than I could do;
Now, if I feel its power within,
I feel I hate it too.
Then all my servile works were done
A righteousness to raise;
Now, freely chosen in the Son,
I freely choose His ways.
What shall I do was then the word,
That I may worthier grow?
What shall I render to the Lord?
Is my inquiry now.
To see the Law by Christ fulfilled,
And hear His pardoning voice;
Changes a slave into a child,
And duty into choice.
From Olney Hymns, cited by Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 161–62.
A Theological Summary
In short, the gospel not only brings pardon to sinners who believe on Christ; it also brings a transformation of the heart. In point of fact, the removal of the hard, unbelieving heart and the gift of the believing heart are what enable faith (Ezekiel 36:26–27). The heart is cleansed by God, as he gives faith to believe the gospel (Acts 15:9). Thus, by the time we see gospel faith in a babe’s heart (i.e., a babe in Christ), we are looking at someone who has the law written on the heart—by means of the gospel coming with power.
This is what the new covenant promises (see Jeremiah 31:31–34), and what Paul is getting at when he bookends his letter to Rome with a description of “obedience to the gospel” (1:5; 16:26). Again, the gospel does not put an end to the law; it declares law-breakers righteous by faith. And more, it sets them on a path of obedience, as their newfound faith impels them to study (Ps 111:2), savor (Psalm 19:10–11), and strive after the law (Psalm 1).
This is why antinomianism fundamentally misunderstands grace. For the antinomian, the grace of God is detracted from the person and personality of Christ. Grace is not an infinite substance which is able to cover any and every sin. To be sure, stress on grace’s largesse is close to correct. But, unfortunately, it distorts the whole picture. Grace is not a thing we acquire—or, for that matter, a material blessing God gives. Rather, grace is found in the whole person and work of Christ—the one who died in the place of sinners to redeem them from the penalty of the law; and the one who was raised so that he could send his Spirit to raise us from the dead and write his law on our heart.
Today, antinominianism continues to afflict the church. And, as Ferguson points out, it is often more an attitude or mood than it is a well-worn theological system. In this way, it reminds us antinominianism is a condition of the heart that flows from Eden. In the heart of a Christian, such praise of grace at the exclusion of the law distorts the beauty of grace and the holiness it produces when Christ in all of his splendor is seen and enjoyed. Accordingly, we who preach the gospel must continue to help our people (and ourselves) see the gospel as the completion of the law, not in contrast to it. The church is not a law-less people who exist to praise the merits of God’s unfathomable clemency; rather, we are a people redeemed from sin, death, and hell to live a life of holy love and obedient faith.
This is the true grace of God—a gospel that comforts those afflicted by their guilt; and a gospel that simultaneously empowers new creatures to love the law. May we never tire of hearing it, living by it, and telling others about it.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds