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.