J. Gresham Machen counterintutively noted that “A low view of law always produces legalism; a high view of law makes a person a seeker after grace.” The reason this seems so counter-intuitive is because most people think that those who talk a lot about grace have a low view of God’s law (hence, the regular charge of antinomianism). Others think that those with a high view of the law are the legalists. But Machen makes the very compelling point that it’s a low view of the law that produces legalism because a low view of the law causes us to conclude that we can do it–the bar is low enough for us to jump over. A low view of the law makes us think that the standards are attainable, the goals are reachable, the demands are doable. It’s this low view of the law that caused Immanuel Kant to conclude that “ought implies can.” That is, to say that I ought to do something is to imply logically that I am able to do it.
A high view of the law, however, demolishes all notions that we can do it–it exterminates all attempts at self-sufficient moral endeavor. We’ll always maintain a posture of suspicion regarding the radicality of unconditional grace as long as we think we have the capacity to pull it off. Only an inflexible picture of what God demands is able to penetrate the depth of our need and convince us that we never outgrow our need for grace–that grace never gets overplayed. “Our helplessness before the totality of Divine expectation is what creates the space for God’s amazing grace and the freedom it produces.” The way of God’s grace becomes absolutely indispensable because the way of God’s law is absolutely inflexible.
So a high view of law equals a high view of grace. A low view of law equals a low view of grace.
Carefully showing the distinct roles of the law and the gospel, John Calvin wrote:
The Gospel is the message, the salvation-bringing proclamation, concerning Christ that he was sent by God the Father…to procure eternal life. The Law is contained in precepts, it threatens, it burdens, it promises no goodwill. The Gospel acts without threats, it does not drive one on by precepts, but rather teaches us about the supreme goodwill of God towards us.
As Christians, we still need to hear both the law and the gospel. We need to hear the law because we are all, even after we’re saved, prone to wander in a “I can do it” direction. The law, said Luther, is a divinely sent Hercules to attack and kill the monster of self-righteousness–a monster that continues to harass the Redeemed. The law shows non-Christians and Christians the same thing: how we can’t cut it on our own and how much we both need Jesus. Sinners need constant reminders that our best is never good enough and that “there is something to be pardoned even in our best works.” We need the law to strip us of our fig leaves. We need the law to freshly reveal to us that we’re a lot worse off than we think we are and that we never outgrow our need for the cleansing blood of Christ.
Regardless of how well I think I’m doing in the sanctification project or how much progress I think I’ve made since I first became a Christian, like Paul in Romans 7, when God’s perfect law becomes the standard and not “how much I’ve improved over the years”, I realize that I’m a lot worse than I realize. Whatever I think my greatest vice is, God’s law shows me that my situation is much graver: if I think it’s anger, the law shows me that it’s actually murder; if I think it’s lust, the law shows me that it’s actually adultery; if I think it’s impatience, the law shows me that it’s actually idolatry (read Matthew 5:17-48). No matter how decent I think I’m becoming, when I’m graciously confronted by God’s law, I can’t help but cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death” (Romans 7:24). The law alone shows us how desperate we are for outside help. In other words, we need the law to remind us everyday just how much we need the gospel everyday.
And then once we are re-crushed by the law, we need to be reminded that “Jesus paid it all.” Even in the life of the Christian, the law continues to drive us back to Christ-to that man’s cross, to that man’s blood, to that man’s righteousness. The gospel announces to failing, forgetful people that Jesus came to do for sinners what sinners could never do for themselves. The law demands that we do it all; the gospel declares that Jesus paid it all–that God’s grace is gratuitous, that his love is promiscuous, and that while our sin reaches far, his mercy reaches farther. The gospel declares that Jesus came, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it–that Jesus met all of God’s perfect conditions on our behalf so that our relationship with God could be unconditional.
God’s good law reveals our desperation; God’s good gospel reveals our deliverer. We are in constant need of both. But we need to carefully distinguish them, understand their unique job descriptions, and never depend on the one to do what only the other can.
The Law discovers guilt and sin, And shows how vile our hearts have been. The Gospel only can express, Forgiving love and cleansing grace. (Isaac Watts)
While there is so much more that can be said about the law and the gospel, I have to bring this short mini-series to a close. And to conclude, I thought it might be helpful to post the sermon below. Back in the fall, I preached from Romans 7 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary on the importance of distinguishing between the law and the gospel.