Do I ever think that I'm accepted by God because of a religious decision I made? Just like there are people who believe that they are justified because they decided for Christ, not because Christ died for them on the cross.
Well, that was good, but because they made the decision. A group of pastors had been reading a book called The Marrow of Modern Divinity. It conflicted with some common beliefs in the church at that time, and it led to what became known as the Marrow Controversy. Dr. Sinclair Ferguson examines this dispute in his teaching series, The Whole Christ. And as we listen to each message this week, we'll learn that three centuries later, the church today needs the same gospel clarity. One of the things we've been talking about in the recent studies is the danger of legalism.
And you remember I mentioned that isms are difficult words. We speak about people being legalists, but then when someone says, What do you really mean by legalist? We're not very sure. And we were using that wonderful definition of Gerhardus Vos and the idea that he brings out from Scripture that legalism is a distortion of the relationship between the person of God and the commandments of God, so that the commandments of God become kind of depersonalized rules rather than the word of our loving Heavenly Father. And one of the things that we find runs through Scripture is that in different ways that Spirit develops. Often, for example, it is what the prophets have in view when they come to the people, that they have developed a formal relationship with God. They are going through all the motions, but they've divorced their worship, their commandment keeping.
They've divorced the liturgy of the church, their relationships with others from personal fellowship and communion with God. And similarly with antinomianism, that antinomianism breaks out because we stop thinking that the commandments of God are the generous provisions and directives that the Heavenly Father has made for His children. So that at the heart of legalism is always a distorted view of God, a distortion of His generosity and His kindness and the desire that He wants us not only to glorify Him, but He wants us to be able to enjoy Him forever.
He has made us so that we can have fellowship with Him, and He gives us directions, laws in order that we may live for our pleasure and for His glory. And this is why, as we've seen already, legalism is not simply a mental attitude. It's a misunderstanding of the law of God that tends to create an atmosphere in our lives, sometimes the reason why legalists don't appreciate what they are really like.
It's just an interesting thing. I don't think I've ever in my Christian life ever met anyone who has said to me, I'm a legalist, although I think I've met plenty of them. But they don't realize that the very atmosphere of their lives, their disposition towards the Lord and their corresponding disposition towards others, bespeaks this distortion that has taken place. So what I want us to think about for a few minutes on this occasion is, so what does that actually look like? What would some of the symptoms of a legalistic spirit be? I want us to look at this in two ways. First of all, a legalistic spirit produces in us what the older writers used to call a self-righteous temper.
Now, by temper, I don't mean flying off the handle in a temper. They meant temperament, disposition, a sense in their person and in their dealings with people of self-righteousness. Perhaps the best illustration of this in the Gospels is in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee in Luke's Gospel, chapter 18. Remember how Jesus tells the story and Luke tells us he was telling this to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. Now, notice Jesus didn't say that.
He didn't say, now, friends, I'm going to tell you a story about those who trust in themselves and treat others with contempt. So nobody listening to the story knows that's what Jesus is doing. Luke tells us, you, dear reader, should know this is what Jesus is doing. And so he tells the story about two men who go up to the temple. One is a Pharisee and he prays. The other is a tax collector and he goes to the temple as well and then they leave the temple. And the people who are listening have built in responses to the story Jesus has just told them. And then Jesus pulls the rug from under their feet and says, you know, only one of these two men left the temple as a justified sinner.
So how does the story work? Well, first of all, there's the Pharisee. The Pharisees, remember how Paul describes being a Pharisee as he was, somebody who belongs to the strictest party of the Jewish religion. They were originally a kind of holiness movement. They wanted to keep God's law. In order to keep God's law, they started adding more laws that would prevent them from breaking God's laws.
And increasingly they developed this legalistic spirit. They were taken up with the details of what they were to do and not to do and had, in a sense, lost contact with fellowship with God. So here is the Pharisee going up to the temple just for Jesus to say that, communicate something to people. Here is the man that I can't hold a candle to spiritually.
This man towers above me religiously. And Jesus says, let's listen to him pray. And he begins to pray. Notice that he speaks about God's grace. He doesn't use the language, but his whole prayer begins by hinting that he is absolutely dependent on God's grace. God, I thank you.
So he doesn't stand there and say, look at me. He says, God, I thank you. It's what follows that indicates he's not really thanking God at all. So what does he thank God for?
Well, I thank you, God, that I'm not like other men. By definition, I'm a Pharisee, cut off from other men, and I'm specially not like that fellow over there. I'm a Ten Commandments man, and he tells God in his prayer how he has kept at least three of those commandments. He's a man who is conscious that he has made so much progress, he's able to compare himself favorably with others. Interestingly, just like the Apostle Paul, who tells us, you remember, that when he was a young Pharisee, he had outrun most of his contemporaries, which I think probably was his modest way of saying, I had outrun them all.
And this man is conscious of the progress that he's made, and he is very rigorous in his disciplines. Under the Old Testament Lodge, you know how many times you were supposed to fast during the year as a commandment? Once, on the Day of Atonement. God, I'm so grateful to you that I fast twice a week.
I mean, that is, if this man is in your church prayer meeting, when he begins to pray, people are nervous about praying after him. And as though that weren't enough, he's a self-sacrificing man. He says, I thank you, Lord, I tithe everything I possess. Now, tithing was an Old Testament ordinance, but it was very limited. You tithed your crops, you tithed your fruit, you tithed your animals, you didn't tithe everything. So this is a big statement about spiritual progress.
Lord, I thank you that I tithe everything that I have. Now, who is this man? Well, all these people know is that he's a Pharisee, and he's an outstanding Pharisee. And he's thanking God for how outstanding he is.
And surely, therefore, when Jesus is bringing this man and the other man together as they walk away from the temple, there's no doubt in our minds which one of these two men is going to be justified. Just listen to the other man pray. I mean, he doesn't even know the etiquette.
The etiquette was that you lifted up your eyes to heaven. And he can't even lift up his eyes to heaven. And he beats his breast.
The man's an embarrassment. Don't you know you just don't do things like that? And then listen to the kind of thing he says. He says, God, be merciful to me. Be propitiated to me, the sinner. And then without speaking to anybody, he walks out of the temple.
Now, where's the problem? The problem is you know which of these two men left the temple justified. It was the tax collector, and you know it wasn't the Pharisee. So it's no surprise to you that Jesus says it's the tax collector. But you see, if it's no surprise to you, somehow or another we've not got the flavor of this parable, because clearly this was a shock to the people who first heard it.
So is there any way we can recover that sense of the shock of this, the surprising nature of God's grace? The way in which the Pharisee's relationship to God is a legalistic expression and not really an expression of grace. Although he says, I thank you, God, that, he doesn't really mean any of it.
He's simply talking about himself. I mean, how could we get into the notion that it's not the Pharisee who is justified but the tax collector, and that's a shock to us. Personally speaking, I may just be speaking for myself, I think there's a very simple answer to that, and the answer is this, I'm more like the Pharisee than I am like the tax collector. Isn't this the spirit that often exudes itself in our evangelical church? Lord, we're so grateful to you. Thank you so much that we've been able to give so much. Thank you so much that we are not like these other people. Thank you so much for what we've been able to accomplish.
Thank you so much for the advance that we've been able to make, and then very slowly, what have we done? We've kind of drifted into a relationship with God, which we think we impress Him by our accomplishments. And I think it would be true to say that when you go right back to the Reformation, this was the issue, wasn't it? Remember Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses, and his concern that the church was expressing a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross. So that we belong to a big church.
Many of us here have belonged to big churches that have done well with big budgets, and there are small churches down the road, and it's not easy for us to stop saying in our hearts, so glad we're not like them, so glad there are these finances, so glad there is this discipline. In all these subtle ways, this legalism creeps into our lives. And I think one of the things that Jesus is doing here, He does it more than once. He tells a story in which two people are involved. And as He tells you what happens to these two people, there's a kind of reversal of desserts. In a way the Pharisee was saying, Lord, I thank you for your grace because it's clear to me that you chose the right person.
I mean, you've heard that kind of thing, haven't you? He is just the kind of person that would be great if God chose. He would be terrific in our church. All we need is for God to choose Him. All we need is for Him to become a Christian. And we don't understand the reversals of the Gospel, how it empties us of ourselves in order that we may be filled with Christ. And here is this other man who's beating his breast, who can't look up to heaven, who doesn't know whether there's a sacrifice that can ever take away his sin, but he's crying out to God, Oh God, be merciful to me, the sinner.
So here's the test of the legalist. Do I ever, like the Pharisee, look down on someone else? Even someone else is not a Christian.
Someone else I see in the worship service. Is it ever true, for example, that there slips into my thinking, you know, at the end of the day when I see the progress I've made, you know, it's altogether surprising that God chose me. I've become just the kind of person that God would choose. Or, like the Pharisee, do I ever think that I'm accepted by God because of a religious decision I made? I mean, you decided to be a Pharisee, just like there are people who believe that they are justified because they decided for Christ, not because Christ died for them on the cross.
Well, that was good, but because they made the decision for Christ, and that is everything. And then do I ever, like the Pharisee, treat with contempt an outward show of sorrow and grief? Why am I, as an evangelical Christian, potentially more like the Pharisee than the tax collector?
Because it may have been a long time before I've beaten my breast and said, God be merciful to me, the sinner. So, you see what Jesus is actually doing here. He's comparing and contrasting these two individuals in order to expose an inability to understand, rest on, and trust in the absolute free grace of God in the gospel, and to slip back into the idea that, of course, it's because of something in me that I am acceptable with God. And so, Jesus engages in what I sometimes think of as the grace expose by showing that it's the person who knew he didn't deserve grace, who walks away experiencing grace, and the person who thought that because of what grace had done in him, I thank you, God, because of what grace had done in him, he is more acceptable in the sight of God. And one or two other places where Jesus does this, he does it in the parable of the prodigal son.
Everybody in the village would have come to the Father and said, you have lost your senses. We should be having a service to shame your younger boy and a service to celebrate the faithfulness of your older boy. All these days he's been slaving for you, and yet you see grace reverses the expectation. And do you know what does something else?
It really irritates the older brother. That's a very telling thing, isn't it? If God's grace and graciousness to someone else irritates you. I've never forgotten an occasion when a young man who, he hadn't exactly lived a riotous life, but he had lived and he was brought to faith in Christ. I'll never forget him coming into my office to tell me, because I'd watched Christ draw him to himself, and he came in one Lord's Day after the Lord's Supper, and he said to me of something I need to tell you. He had come to faith in Christ. We were both Scotsmen.
We hugged each other, despite the fact that we were both Scotsmen. You know when he came into membership, someone told me after the service that a couple who were sitting behind them, who were known to be pillars of the church, leaned over to one another and said, what's he doing joining our church? And you see this is what Jesus is doing. He's making a big thing of showing grace to the undeserving to see how those who have begun to think they are deserving of grace react.
And you see it in the older brother, don't you? Remember the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, it's the same thing, although there are more labourers now. You know there are the boyos who have come just for the last hour.
No, there you are. You know there's your minimum wage for the whole day. And then come the guys who have been there for quite a while, same amount of money.
And then come the guys who have been laboring all day long. And they are really, what really irritates them is that they think they deserve more when it was the employer's good pleasure to distribute lavishly, graciously, to those who had contributed almost nothing. And it irritated them to see grace being extended to those who were, dare we say it, in their eyes less deserving than they themselves were. You know when you hear these parables of Jesus and try and feel your way into the way in which they would have been heard, the surprise it must have been. Because so many of these people were intimidated by the religious show of the Pharisees for them to realise the sheerness of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And then to see, and this was such a litmus test, that when grace irritates you, when someone's display of their consciousness, of their sinfulness before a holy God embarrasses you, that may be one of the signs that this old legalistic spirit has crept back and you're resting on what you have accomplished.
Maybe saying, thank you Lord that you have accomplished it, but the big thing is it's in you and you've been part of it. And just before we finish this study, there's another thing. Legalism also creates a spirit of bondage in the Christian believer because we can never fully keep the law of God. And therefore, the law of God that we think is the determinating fact of our relationship with God is always going to be an irritant to us, a burden to us.
And we're never going to be free from it. And the thing is that creates an atmosphere in our lives. And you must have noticed in the last ten years or so, I've noticed it often, you're going up or down an elevator in a large building and someone comes in who has just been smoking out in the street.
You know, where you now hold your breath when you walk out of a building and try and get through the first fifteen feet. He walks into the elevator. He or she doesn't know it.
Everyone in the elevator knows what they've been doing. It's breathed out into the atmosphere. And Christians carry an atmosphere as well, don't they? Our life exudes whether we are trusting in the Lord and have graciously repented of our sin and know something of the sweetness of His grace or whether we're always thinking of whether we've really qualified or whether other people have really qualified.
And somehow or another it creates the atmosphere of our lives, whether the gospel has really gone deep down. I remember reading an article in a newspaper years ago. Because I was a post-war baby, we were given gallons of milk. I remember reading that the Japanese said, Scottish people smell of milk. I didn't know any Scottish person who smelled of milk.
But people who never drank milk could tell that somehow or another it just was there on our breath. And whether we've really grasped the grace of God in the gospel or not, yes, it tells in our level of ability to articulate it. But the place in which it really tells is in the atmosphere, in the breath we breathe out every day by the grace of God. So may God deliver us from legalism and fill us with His grace. Legalism.
To be cured, it must be diagnosed, and it cannot be diagnosed if we don't know the symptoms. Our focus this week on Renewing Your Mind is Dr. Sinclair Ferguson's series, The Whole Christ. He's reminding us of a debate that happened in the 18th century in Scotland.
It was known as the Marrow Controversy. And when we really understand that debate, we really get a grasp of the essence of the gospel. That's why Dr. Ferguson taught this series, and it's one more reason why studying church history is vital. We'll be happy to send you the 12 lessons on two DVDs when you give a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries. And once you've completed your request, we'll also add the digital study guide for the series to your learning library. This is an online offer only this week, so let me give you our web address. It's renewingyourmind.org. Ligonier Ministries is a teaching fellowship of gifted theologians, pastors, and scholars. We have the opportunity to teach through this Renewing Your Mind broadcast, through Table Talk magazine, and through the many books and teaching series we produce. You can find many of these resources on our free app.
Just download it to your phone or tablet today by searching for Ligonier in your app store. Well, today we looked at the problem of legalism. In our attempt to avoid it, though, there's always a danger of running off the other side of the road. Dr. Ferguson will explore the many faces of antinomianism tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind. I hope you'll join us. Thank you for watching.
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