Thursday, April 5, 2012

Romans 4:1-8, the New American Gospel of Legalism

"What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.' Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 'Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.'"

Part of the background of my church is the Associate Presbytery of Scotland, usually called by their nickname of "Seceders." I have studied them extensively, both because of that historical connection and because of the spiritual issues involved in their secession from the established Church of Scotland. I especially concentrate on the issues of that division which we see arising again in our modern time.

I won't go into the complex of issues that led to the secession. Rather, I want to address the one issue of neonomianism. Neonomianism is the teaching, not usually explicitly stated, that the Gospel is a form of Law ("neo" new+ "nomos" law), such that a person is not saved by acts of the Mosaic law, but rather through a new form of merit through repentance and works of new obedience.

The dominant party in the Church of Scotland General Assembly held that the recipient of the Gospel had to go through several steps of preparation, through sorrow and repentance of sin and moral reformation. In opposition to these forms of merit, the Seceders, centered around a book called The Marrow of Modern Divinity, held to a Gospel of free grace. They insisted that all of the merit in the Gospel is in Christ alone, by grace alone, received by faith alone. In other words, they were defending the same solas that led to the Protestant Reformation two hundred years earlier.

The reason that I refer to this as the "New American Gospel of Legalism" is that the same errors that destroyed the Church of Scotland have become the doctrine of mainstream American Evangelicals. Even in the psychobabble that has become part of our daily conversation, "Just have faith," arises from this error. "Faith" has become the new works-righteousness. We supposedly merit salvation by having enough faith. This is even made explicit by the prosperity preachers. But isn't it what most people expect? "If I just believe hard enough, God has to give me what I want and take me to heaven."

However, notice what Paul says above about Abraham: "Abraham believed God." He doesn't say, "Abraham believed in God." Everyone believes in God, even if they don't admit it (Romans 1:18-21). James 2:19 says that even the demons believe in God! That puts the spiritual commitment of most Americans on par with that of demons!

But Abraham didn't just believe in God. He believed God, that is, he believed the promises of God. Go to Romans 4:20-25, "No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised. That is why his faith was 'counted to him as righteousness.' But the words 'it was counted to him' were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in Him Who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, Who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification."

That is to say, our faith doesn't earn us salvation (or blessings). Our repentance doesn't earn us salvation. Our reformation of our lives doesn't earn us salvation. The only thing that earns our salvation is the finished work of Christ in His crucifixion and resurrection. That sole merit is then applied to us by means of faith.

The biblical order is Christ, then faith, then justification, then repentance and sanctification. Any other order requires the hearer to act upon a person and work that he doesn't yet believe in. Logic alone should convince us that is impossible!

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