The Gospel And The Law
Back in May I posted an interview that my friend Justin Taylor did with me for my book Surprised by Grace. Since the book is (essentially) on the outworking of the gospel in the life of Christians, Justin asked me a few questions about the gospel and the law, especially as it relates to Christian motivation.
Even though I posted this only five and a half months ago, I thought it might answer questions that some have asked with regard to Sinclair Ferguson’s quote that I posted the other day on the Gospel and sanctification.
Is the gospel a middle ground between legalism and lawlessness?
This seems to be a common misunderstanding in the church today. I hear people say that there are two equal dangers Christians must avoid: legalism and lawlessness. Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law, or rules. Lawlessness, they say, happens when you focus too much on grace. Therefore, in order to maintain spiritual equilibrium, you have to balance law and grace. Legalism and lawlessness are typically presented as two ditches on either side of the Gospel that we must avoid. If you start getting too much law, you need to balance it with grace. Too much grace, you need to balance it with law. But I’ve come to believe that this “balanced” way of framing the issue can unwittingly keep us from really understanding the gospel of grace in all of its depth and beauty.
How would you frame it instead?
I think it’s more theologically accurate to say that there is one primary enemy of the gospel—legalism—but it comes in two forms.
Some people avoid the gospel and try to “save” themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (you could call this “front door legalism”).
Other people avoid the gospel and try to “save” themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (you could call this “back door legalism”).
So the choice is between submitting to the rule of Christ or submitting to self-rule?
Right. There are two “laws” we can choose to live by other than Christ: the law which says “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I keep the rules” or the law which says “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I break the rules.”
Both are legalistic in this sense: one “life rule” has as its goal the keeping of rules; the other “life rule” has as its goal the breaking of rules. But both are a rule of life you’re submitting to—a rule of life that is governing you—which is defined by you and your ability to perform. Success is determined by your capacity to break the rules or keep the rules. Either way you’re still trying to “save” yourself—which means both are legalistic because both are self-salvation projects.
If most people outside the church are guilty of “break the rules” legalism, most people inside the church are guilty of “keep the rules” legalism.
What do you say to folks who think we need to “keep grace in check” by giving out some law?
Doing so proves that we don’t understand grace and we violate gospel advancement in our lives and in the church. A “yes, grace…but” disposition is the kind of posture that keeps moralism swirling around in the church. Some of us think the only way to keep licentious people in line is by giving them the law. But the fact is, the only way licentious people start to obey is when they get a taste of God’s radical acceptance of sinners. The more Jesus is held up as being sufficient for our justification and sanctification, the more we begin to die to ourselves and live to God. Those who end up obeying more are those who increasingly understand that their standing with God is not based on their obedience, but Christ’s.
But don’t Christians need to be shaken out of their comfort zones?
Yes—but you don’t do it by giving them law; you do it by giving them gospel. The Apostle Paul never uses the law as a way to motivate obedience; he always uses the gospel. Paul always soaks gospel obligations in gospel declarations because God is not concerned with just any kind of obedience; he’s concerned with a certain kind of obedience (as Cain and Abel’s sacrifice illustrates). The obedience that pleases God is obedience that flows from faith—faith in what God has already done, and trust for what he will do in the future. And even though we need to obey even if we don’t feel like it, long-term, sustained, heart-felt, gospel motivated obedience can only come from faith and grace; not fear and guilt. Behavioral compliance without heart change, which only the gospel can do, will be shallow and short lived. Or, as I like to say, imperatives minus indicatives equal impossibilities.
So do you think the law no longer has—or should no longer have—a role in the Christian life?
No. While the law of God is good (Romans 7), it only has the power to reveal sin and to show the standard and image of righteous requirement—not remove sin. The law shows us what God commands (which of course is good) but the law does not possess the power to enable us to do what it says. You could put it this way: the law guides but it does not give. In other words, the law shows us what a sanctified life looks like, but it does not have sanctifying power—the law cannot change a human heart. It’s the gospel (what Jesus has done) that alone can give God-honoring animation to our obedience. The power to obey comes from being moved and motivated by the completed work of Jesus for us. The fuel to do good flows from what’s already been done. So, while the law directs us, only the gospel can drive us.
You’re the master of good word pictures. Got one for this?
Well, someone told me recently that the law is like a set of railroad tracks. The tracks provide no power for the train but the train must stay on the tracks in order to function. The law never gives any power to do what it commands. Only the gospel has power, as it were, to move the train.
But doesn’t Scripture motivate us by saying that if we love Jesus we’ll keep his commands?
When John (or Jesus) talks about keeping God’s commands as a way to know whether you love Jesus or not, he’s not using the law as a way to motivate. He’s simply stating a fact. Those who love God will keep on keeping his commands. The question is how do we keep God’s commands? What sustains a long obedience in the same direction? Where does the power come from to do what God commands? As every parent and teacher knows, behavioral compliance to rules without heart change will be shallow and short-lived. But shallow and short-lived is not what God wants (that’s not what it means to “keep God’s commands.”). God wants a sustained obedience from the heart. How is that possible? Long-term, sustained, gospel-motivated obedience can only come from faith in what Jesus has already done, not fear of what we must do. To paraphrase Ray Ortlund, any obedience not grounded in or motivated by the gospel is unsustainable.
Do you believe in the so-called “third use of the law”?
Yes. I’m a staunch believer in the three uses of the law (pedagogical, civil, and didactic). The law sends us to Christ for justification (the first use—which is correct), but some would also say that Christ sends us back to law for sanctification (a misunderstanding of the third use). In other words, there’s a common misunderstanding in the church that while the law cannot justify us, it can sanctify us—not true. In Romans 7 Paul is speaking as a justified, rescued, regenerated Christian and he’s saying, “The law doesn’t have the power to change me. The law guides but it does not give any power to do what it says.” So, I would caution people from concluding that the third use of the law implies that it has power to change you. To say the law has no power to change us in no way reduces its ongoing role in the life of the Christian. And it in no way minimizes the importance of the law’s third use. We just have to understand the precise role that it plays for us today: the law serves us by making us thankful for Jesus when we break it and serves us by showing how to love God and others.
How would you boil your concern down to one sentence?
We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone, and God sanctifies us by constantly bringing us back to the reality of our justification.