I received this letter a few weeks ago from someone I’ve never met. He sent it to me as a word of encouragement regarding how the message of grace has revitalized his love for God. I hesitated to post it because, given the kind things he says about my work, I didn’t want to appear self-promotional. But what he says about the effect of grace in revitalizing his spiritual life and the inability of the law to engender what it commands is so good, I just had to share it with you.
Over the last couple of years, we have really been struggling with the preaching in our church as it has been very law laden and borders on moralistic. After listening, I feel condemned with no power to overcome my lack of ability to obey the law. Over the last several months, I have found myself very spiritually depressed, to the point where I had no desire to even attend church.
We don’t have an evening service so we started listening to sermons as a family on Sunday evenings on the Internet. (We have 4 children, with another due on Monday!). We have listened to part of your “Pictures of Grace” sermons on your church website over the past few weeks. Additionally, we have been reading your blog. I just want to thank you for your commitment, and faithfulness to the gospel of grace. Since reading your blog and listening to your sermons, it is like a fresh ocean breeze blowing through my face. You rightly put the focus on the finished, completed work of Christ, and point us away from ourselves. I have found myself gradually crawling out of my spiritual depression and wanting to do the things God has called me to do. This isn’t a result of more law in my life, but more gospel.
Grace is not dependent on anything, and if it is, then it wouldn’t be grace! Pastors are so concerned about somehow preaching “too much grace” (as if that is possible) as they wrongly believe that type of preaching leads to antinomianism or licentiousness. But, I can testify that the opposite is actually true. I believe preaching only the law, and giving little to no gospel, actually leads to antinomianism. When mainly law is preached, in my opinion, that leads to the realization that I can’t follow it, so I might as well quit trying. When the remedy to the law (gospel) is not presented, the hearer is left without any power to perform good works. Only the gospel gives the power to obey. I know what to do; I need the power to do it.
The ironic thing about legalism is that it not only doesn’t make people work harder, it makes them give up. Moralism doesn’t produce morality; rather, it produces immorality. We make a big mistake when we conclude that the law is THE answer to licentiousness. In fact, the law alone stirs up licentiousness. People get worse, not better, when you lay down the law.
To be sure, the Spirit does use the whole Word in our sanctification: the law as well as the gospel. But the law and the gospel do very different things. The law reveals sin but is powerless to remove sin. It points to righteousness but can’t produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. As Martin Luther said, “Sin is not canceled by lawful living, for no person is able to live up to the Law. Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God.” The law is impotent–it has no strength, it has no power, it offers us nothing. Sinners already are powerless to obey the demands of the law, and the law offers them no assistance–absolutely none.
The law apart from the gospel can only crush; it can’t cure.
The law could promise life to me,
If my obedience perfect be;
But grace does promise life upon
My Lord’s obedience alone.
The law says, Do, and life you’ll win;
But grace says, Live, for all is done;
The former cannot ease my grief,
The latter yields me full relief. (Ralph Erskine, 1745)
So, the law serves us by showing us how to love God and others. But we fail to do this every day. And when we fail, it is the gospel which brings comfort by reminding us that God’s infinite approval of us doesn’t depend on our keeping of the law but on Christ’s keeping of the law for us. And guess what? This makes me want to obey him more, not less! As Spurgeon wrote, “When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so, and sought my good.”
Indeed, it is “the kindness of the Lord that leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4).