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(When the Gospel is Turned into Law)

By Roger Salter
January 2, 2018

Serious error is subtle. It is a construct based on plausibility. There is an apparent germ of truth, a partially valid insight (half-truth) that eventually generates a mistaken conclusion. Heresy com-mences from a point of credibility and finishes with falsehood as a consequence of ignorance and speculation. The seeming likelihood of a given assertion issuing in "desired truth" gives error pop-ular appeal. Perverse preference dominating the direction of thought leads unfailingly to fallacy. The sinful human mind is seduced to the selection of notions that satisfy defective reason at war with divine revelation.

The mind of fallen man is constrained to contradict God. As the apostle John warns us we are ev-er liable to make God a liar (1John1:10). The witness of our conscience vies with the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Our nature wallows in the slime of deceit and lies and even the regenerate are by no means entirely in the clear. We are susceptible to slipping back into the sludge. Many para-sites may emerge from the ground of our Scriptural principles (e.g. grace versus antinomianism, liberty versus license). Deviation is always a danger, especially in thinkers who are self-confident or striving for originality.

Superficiality spawns spurious attitudes and convictions. The great watchwords of our Christian faith can be reduced to cliches. A notorious example of this type of corruption is to be seen in the constant iteration of the Reformation expression, "justification by faith", as if the mere mouthing of the motto guaranteed evangelical orthodoxy. Luther was right to contend against legalism in cam-ouflage when the Gospel is "turned into law".

We are all legalists by nature; the tendency is strong and we can be loveless towards others but lenient towards self. We cannot live life without believing that we are owed something and that all things gained are well-deserved rewards. We exist on the basis of work and worth i.e. the work evidences the worth. Life is all bargains, deals, performances, transactions designed to prove our astuteness and efficiency. When it comes to God we relate to him on the same basis. Our natural pride and mean-spiritedness inevitably come into play. We assume that we can successfully at-tempt to please him. We cannot accept that he is lavishly generous. To gain his favor a bargain has to be struck between him and ourselves. For example, our salvation cannot be truly free. The catch to "the gift" is that we must accomplish smoothing to earn it. Acceptance among our fellow humans has to be merited, and so it is with God. Right?

As much as we profess free grace our nature often protests against it. We struggle to compre-hend it. We can disavow and disallow it to others in our estimation of them. The very church of God can lapse into a community of law. We can restrict access to salvation and we can reject those who do not measure up to our standards of perfection (as if we do so ourselves!).

Salvation is unconditional. It has to be such for there is nothing in it of ourselves. The slightest concern about it is triggered by God and is nurtured by him until its beginnings are wrought in our heart by the gift of faith and desire for holiness. Luther is right to aver that any command or re-quirement of God is designed to disclose our inability and helplessness. Before the Word of God we are left in a state of impotence. Yet much spiritual introspection, direction, and counseling, perhaps unwittingly, advises seekers to stir up and find qualification for the receipt of grace within themselves. Somehow, we are urged to find the right frame and attitude of mind within ourselves before God will pay attention to us.

Pure resolve and repentance are thought to precede saving faith but in reality they happen to be results of the gift of faith. There can be no lively sense of repentance without a lively sense of the Gospel of grace. We rob God of his work of preparation in our hearts. Folk are mislead into supposing that we must prime ourselves for God's acceptance and favor - that conversion must commence with us, and that our earnestness must be discernible to outside scrutiny and approved by human judgment (void of empathy, pastoral or prejudiced). Unfortunately, work from us is demanded in some presentations of "the Gospel of grace" - adequate striving of soul. In over-scrupulous fashion there is excess in interior analysis. People are turned in upon themselves rather than urged to gaze upon the cross, the sinner's only refuge and hope. Salvation is of the Lord and he will act in his own "wise and sovereign way". Each of us is only the voice of invitation and caution in commending "the way of the Gospel". We cannot infallibly detect its effects. The Word is sovereign and sometimes secret in its deep down efficacy, at least in its initial operation.

In this "other way" of overbearing and exaggerated emphasis on law (erroneous formulaic insist-ence) sensitive and anxious souls may be beaten up by well-meaning folk (cf Job's comforters) or those of a legalistic strain of mind (these flourish in the evangelical church by dint of "sectarian" culture). When at fault King David opted for divine judgment in preference to human (1 Chronicles 21:13), due to the fact that human compassion and understanding are often in short supply. The divine "musts" pertaining to salvation must be fulfilled by God as part of the process of salvation. Law, our effort, can never suffice, for compliance does not originate within human capacity. We are stone dead in the department of authentic response to God before regeneration (Luke 3:8 by way of suggestive illustration).

In some sense the Gospel has become law when people are educated to look for some contribu-tion to salvation within themselves - some form of fitness. How often pastors hear the moan that an individual deems themselves unready or unworthy to come to Jesus as if they must purify themselves rather than rely wholly upon the shed blood of the Redeemer. Such a complaint is a mix of perplexity, pride, and ignorance that must be countered by the exhortation to look toward the crucified believing in the instant efficacy of the "look" of faith alone (cf John 3: 14 with Num-bers 21: 6-9).

And now Luther speaks for himself: "God does not want to save us by our own personal and pri-vate righteousness and wisdom. He wants to save us by a righteousness and wisdom apart from, and other than, this: a righteousness that does not come from ourselves and is not brought to birth by ourselves. It is a righteousness which comes into us from somewhere else. It is not a righteousness which finds its origin on earth. It is a righteousness which comes from heaven. Therefore, we must be instructed in this external and alien righteousness in every possible kind of way. That is why the first task is to pull out our own personal and petty righteousness . . . As men without anything we must wait for the pure mercy of God, for him to reckon us righteous and wise."

Luther continues, "The human race receives Christ not according to its righteousness but accord-ing to the mercy of God . . . He is given not as a result of the work I have done in getting ready for him, but as a result of the covenant of God . . . All things are given us not according to our merits but issuing from his promises." Getting ready for God, preparing oneself for encountering him in mercy, is not a matter of the natural man procuring divine favor. Such activity is born of grace re-ceived. "The righteousness of God is the cause of salvation" through the power of prevenient grace. The notion of a sinner attracting the grace of God evokes from Luther a sentiment shared with Augustine: "This is a Pelagian opinion . . . They think that if they have the will to do good, quite infallibly they will receive the grace of God infused".

The eminent Anglican Luther scholar James Atkinson comments thus on the Reformer's view concerning the donation of grace: "There began to grow in Luther's mind the idea of a God work-ing on his behalf in Christ, whose work he saw as a kindling of faith in the heart. With this there grew a deeper sense of his own sin, what scholastics called an accusation of self. Luther de-scribed this as humility . . . a humility which grew into a passive waiting on God. This merged into a trust in the Lord and a jettisoning of all and every kind of self-justification face to face with the bounty and mercy of God." This progression within the soul of man is emphatically all of grace.

Atkinson detects the legalism that can attach itself to the profession of salvation by the grace of God alone, and which can cause the anxious, hesitant soul to hobble awkwardly towards peace. Speaking of Luther as the insightful pastoral theologian he observes that, "He warned against the insidiousness of making faith into one's own work, something we put into the bargain, a state of mind we achieve". That is the nub of the matter - to avoid the constant checking of one's suitability for salivation and to do so by focusing on the objective work of Christ for unworthy sinners. Only in Christ is assurance ultimately gained. It is God's work to save. In him we trust, and upon him we wait. "Luther argued", affirmed Atkinson, "that it was a profound error to think a man draws near to God by dint of much striving. It is not a case of man striving to attain God but the other way round: a merciful God who came and who comes all the way."

Luther quipped succinctly that the message of the law is "Do!", but the message of the Gospel is "Done!" Sometimes it is made to appear that God is parsimonious with his mercy and that souls may not be won to himself gently. Anguish is apportioned to some (e.g. Luther) for educative pur-poses, for spiritual refinement and soul-making, and for clarification of the method and value of grace. But there are examples of presenting grace as being as remote as the furthermost planet in the solar system, a contradiction of the Savior's precious name Immanuel, God with us. Some versions of the Gospel restrain rather than release.

Salvation is impossible for us to attain or contribute to. With the Lord it is liberally granted (Ro-mans 10: 6 - 13). We don't harrow our souls over and over again looking for a sprig of righteous intent somewhere among the weeds. We admit our spiritual uselessness and cast ourselves on the Lord who alone can initiate our recovery to himself.

All quotes from or about Luther are found in The Great Light: Luther and the Reformation, James Atkinson, Eerdmans by agreement with the Paternoster Press, Exeter, England, 1968, pages 26-32.

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