[[ Note: This is the fourth in a many-part series on overcoming the spirit of legalism and religion. In the first part I delineated the symptoms of a legalistic heart; in the second, looked briefly, though not for the last time, at the psychology of Pharisaism, and delved for a moment into the conflict at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. In the third, I explained how holiness is a result, not a requirement, of fellowship with Christ ]].
We left off in the previous blog post by asserting that not only salvation, but sanctification, through the strife of our own efforts, is an offense unto God—leading rather to perversion than to holiness. Dr. Marshall goes even further than this, declaring that the law itself is an occasion for sin:
The law is so far from healing our sinful corruptions, that it proveth rather an occasion of sinful motions and actions, in those that seek salvation by the works of it. This cometh to pass by reason of the power of our natural corruption; which is stirred up and rageth the more, when the holy and just law of God is set in opposition against it; so that the fault is not in the law, but in our own hearts… Corrupt nature is contrary to sincere obedience, as well as perfect; and, if we make it the condition of our salvation, sin will take the same occasion by it, to become exceeding sinful in its motions and stirrings.
Again, there is no corruption in the law itself; rather, the law draws out the corruption in the human heart, by opposing itself to the carnality of weak, frail flesh. This is evidently what Paul meant when he said, “Is the law sin? Certainly not! I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire” (Rom. 7:7-8, NKJV).
Here I always thought Paul was saying, “I would never have known what to do, and what not to do, unless I had been given these helpful instructions called ‘The Law.’” Which is very nearly the opposite of what he’s actually saying. You see how a person suffering under the bondage of Religion will warp even the most grace-exalting passages of Scripture to mischievous ends; and you wonder at times why the Bible, though undoubtedly the most majestic, most sublime of all books, seems so dull and mundane—it’s because the filter of Religion has eliminated all the conflict, all the sin, depravity, and grace—wholly stripped them away, and in place of the story left a long set of rules with a single, uninterruptedly monotonous message: “Be good, and God will love you.” Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong!
I say to you, throw off the yoke of slavish fear and fretful striving—take upon yourself the yoke of Christ—the easy yoke of rich, deep-hearted fellowship with One who willingly gives all—and the contours of the Scriptures will open before you in astonishing richness. He will give to you the hidden manna (Rev. 2:17). Thomas a Kempis makes a profoundly true statement in The Imitation of Christ: “The more a man is one with You, and the more he is gathered together in You, the more he understands without labor high secret mysteries, for he has received from above the light of understanding.”
What Paul is actually saying in this passage from the seventh chapter of Romans is that the weakness and filth of the flesh will fester inside of us, un-manifest, unknown, until the law draws it forth. Thus the law was established, not to give us a means whereby we could attain the holiness of God, but to expose our lack of holiness, and our need for redemption.
Marshall goes on to say:
The success of legal doctrine upon the natural man, is according to the proverb, ‘Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee’ (Prov. 9:8]. Rebuking a madman is the way to enrage him; and such is the natural man in spiritual things… We find, by manifold experience, that though men be generally addicted to the principle of salvation by works, yet multitudes of them hate all strict preachers of true holiness, because they are a torment to their consciences.
I can attest from experience that nothing will draw out the corruption in a carnal person’s heart more quickly than the presence of true holiness. We can witness this demonstrated, most plainly, in the example of the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, who, having been given the law by Moses, immediately indulged in the most lewd, riotous, rebellious acts. Yet Moses spoke with God face to face, and came down from the mountain, not in sin, but, as it were, transfigured—his countenance literally glowing with the radiance of God. What made the difference? It was this, that Moses, though receiving the law from on high, dwelt in fellowship unbroken with the Godhead during his forty-day sojourn on the mountain; while the Israelites knew only the terrors of the fire, the tumultuous quaking, the thunder of the voice, and the irrepressible emergence of the wayward flesh—which, abhorring the burdensome strictures of the law, and fearful of the judgments decreed for transgressors, ran headlong into sin.
And this is the reality at the very heart of legalistic striving—that, not finding in God the grace, love, and mercy He ostensibly possesses, we behold in Him only a frightening despot, a fierce, tyrannical, controlling, malevolent, all-powerful deity, pitiless and cunning, “in selfish holiness demanding purity, Himself impure,” who will vengefully destroy us if His wrath is not appeased. And secretly we hate Him—who would not? But not seeing any other means of eluding the fires of hell and enjoying the fruits (though hollow fruits they seem) of life everlasting, we expend our frail strength in half defying, half attempting to evade Him (to evade, and not delight—for there can be no notion of delighting such a heart).
And what is the result of this inner instability and dissension, Marshall may tell us:
If these legal zealots be forced, by strong conviction, to endeavour the practice of spiritual duties, for quieting their guilty conscience, they may possibly be brought to strive and labour earnestly, and even to macerate their bodies with fasting, that they may kill their lusts; but still their lusts are living, and strong as ever they were, and do shew forth their enmity against the law of God, by inward fretting, repining, and grudging at it; as a grievous taskmaster, though a slavish fear restrain their gross outward actings… Their hearts swell in anger and manifest hatred against the law, yea, and against God and Christ, and they can hardly refrain from blaspheming him with their tongues. And when they are brought to this horrible condition, if God doth not in mercy discover to them the way of salvation, by free grace through faith alone, they will endeavour, if they can, to sear their consciences past feeling of sin, and fully to abandon all religion; which hath proved such an insufferable torment to them; or, if they cannot sear their consciences, some are easily prevailed with by Satan, rather to murder themselves, than to live longer in the hatred of God, the spirit of blasphemy, and continual horror of conscience. This is the pestilent effect of the legal doctrine upon a carnal heart, that doth but rouse up, and terribly enrage the sleeping lion, our sinful corruption, instead of killing it… For my part, I hate it with perfect hatred, and account it mine enemy, as I have found it to be. And I have found, by some good experience, the truth of the lesson taught by the apostle, that the way to be freed from the mastery and dominion of sin, is not to be under the law, but under grace (Rom. 7:14).
That freedom will be the chief end and discussion of the following post.