I have also reading Sinclair Ferguson's new book, "The Whole Christ" over the last six weeks and found it to be helpful. The book discusses the age old challenge of legalism and antinomianism, but sets it in the context of a 18th c. Scottish Presbyterian debate. That may seem a little too technical or a little too historically distant for some of you, but trust me... it is relevant.
You may or may not know the terms "legalism" and "antinomianism", but if you have been around Christianity for any significant amount of time you know the concepts. The term "legalism" has the obvious root "legal" and relates to a misuse of the law, or using the law to achieve salvation through our own religious efforts. By contrast, the term "antinomianism" has the root "nomos" which also means law and with the prefix "anti" it means against the law, or a rejection of the law of God in the Christian life.
The stereotypes can help us get introduced to the problem. The legalist says, "If I want to be a good Christian, then I need to work harder to keep the rules. Then God will love me." The antinomian says, "Jesus died for my sins, it doesn't matter if I keep the rules." Now both of those stereotypes are a little off, but they do represent two trends in Christian thought.
Sometime we approach the matter by thinking in terms of law and grace on a spectrum. That is, we think that a legalist has too much law or too much Old Testament... but the antinomian has too much grace and not enough law. If we approach it that way we tend to think that the antidote for one is a little more of the other. As if a legalist has just swung too far to one end of the spectrum and needs more grace to lighten up. In actual practice, people do often swing from one mistake to the other. That is a person who grows up in a legalistic church setting regularly swings the other way. They end up saying, "Now that I know grace, what is the point trying to be more spiritual. God just takes me as I am."
But the goal of the Christian life is not merely to get a proper balance of grace and law and land right in the middle of the spectrum. Instead, the goal of the Christian life is to deepen our spiritual life by becoming more like Jesus. Here are two quick references:
2 Corinthians 3:18 Beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image.
Romans 8:29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son,
Here is where Sinclair Ferguson's book comes in. Through the lens of this historical controversy, Ferguson puts his finger on the solution to this important problem. His premise is by no means new - in fact, it is probably the most obvious thing that one might say about Christianity. That is, the solution to our struggles with law and grace is not to focus on "law" or "grace" as abstract qualities. Rather, the goal is to focus on the way both law and grace are expressions of God's character. And since Jesus is the manifestation of God's character (Heb 1:3), we can say that our goal is to look at the way grace and law are expressed through Jesus Christ.
Viewed through this lens, the problem with legalism is not that someone is too serious about rules. God's commands are good and meant to be a blessing. If only more Christians agonized over the commands that God has given to his people. After all Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). Instead, the problem with legalism is that a legalist has separated the law of God from the person of God. As a result, the experience of law is no longer viewed as coming from the same loving father who has saved us and dealt graciously with us. Instead, the law becomes an enemy.
(Now some of you may be thinking: "Doesn't Paul say that the law has a ministry of death." Ferguson deals with this is detail, and I won't rehearse all of the arguments there. His main point is that the context of this passage shows that Paul is referring to a misuse of the law. Or, the same sort of abstraction of law that Ferguson is warning against. Simply put - if all you have are a bunch of religious rules and you lose sight of God's gracious character, then your experience of the law will bring spiritual death to you. If that drives you to Christ, then it is a good kind of death. If you don't go to Jesus then it will not be.)
On the other hand, the antinomian makes a similar mistake with both grace and law. They detach grace from the person of Christ. Grace is not a substance that floats around in the air. It is not something that we can store up. It is not something that we access outside of our relationship with Jesus. Grace is not an abstract quality. It is a quality that a person possesses. God is a personal being and he is gracious. He is gracious to us in Jesus. That doesn't mean that we can never use "grace" as a noun, but conceptually it must be linked to a person. Here is Ferguson's summary:
"Practical antinomianism has many forms today. One of them is the secular gospel of self-acceptance masquerading as Christianity. 'Since God accepts me the way I am, I ought to not get straight-jacketed by the law of God - what God wants is that I be myself.' This has very concrete expressions in what are euphemistically described as "lifestyle choices": "This is how I am, God is gracious... and he accepts me as I am, and therefore I will remain as I am.
"... But it is misleading to say that God accepts us the way we are. Rather he accepts us despite the way we are. He receives us only in Christ and for Christ's sake. Nor does he mean to leave us the way he found us, but to transform us into the likeness of his Son.
"...There is only one genuine cure for legalism. It is the same medicine the gospel prescribes for antinomianism: understanding and tasting union with Jesus Christ himself."
Here are a few very practical applications:
1.) This means that the goal of the Christian life is to draw closer to Jesus a truth found on nearly every page of the NT.
2.) It also means that relationships are a great way to learn about salvation. Real relationships impose demands on our life, and also provide opportunities to experience grace. This is why the church is so important - a truth found on nearly every page of the NT.
3.) It means that my ability to produce good spiritual fruit is directly related to cultivating a relationship of dependence upon Jesus. See - John 15.
4.) It means that even though I am growing in the grace of Jesus, I am still capable for falling into sin when I stop leaning on him. That is a truth that I know all too well.
5.) It means that our goal as a church is not to focus on either "grace" or "truth" in abstract ways. Doing that obscures the gospel. Instead, we must focus on both grace and truth as they are expressed in Christ. Salvation is relational from beginning to end.
6.) It means that a person doesn't get saved by simply saying a prayer or raising their hand. Saving faith is always personal - it connects us to Jesus. If you said a prayer of "accepting Jesus", but have no relationships with Jesus, then you really do not have saving faith. (see picture)