Home > Justification, Righteousness > The effect of legal doctrine upon a carnal heart – Walter Marshall

The effect of legal doctrine upon a carnal heart – Walter Marshall

September 6, 2009

6.2.5. The law is so far from healing our sinful corruption that it proves rather an occasion of sinful motions and actings in those that seek salvation by the works of it. This comes to pass by reason of the power of our natural corruption, which is stirred up and rages the more when the holy and just law of God is set in opposition against it, so that the fault is not in the law, but in our own hearts. Those that find not this by their own experience should believe the apostle Paul, who teaches it plainly, and that from his own experience (Rom. 7:5, 14). He affirms that there are motions of sin by the law in a fleshly state, and that sin, taking occasion by the commandment, ‘You shall not covet’, wrought in him all manner of concupiscence, deceived him, slew him, became exceeding sinful; and that without the law, he was alive, and sin dead but, when the commandment came, sin revived, and he died. He shows the cause of this irreconcilable enmity and contrariety between his sinful nature and the law: ‘The law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin.’ Take notice here, from the reason given by the apostle, that the doctrine of salvation by sincere obedience will have the same event. Corrupt nature is contrary to sincere obedience, as well as perfect and, if we make it the condition of our salvation, sin will take the same occasion by it to become exceeding sinful in its motions and actings. The success of legal doctrine upon the natural man is according to the proverb, ‘Do not reprove a scorner, lest he hate you’ (Prov. 9:8). Rebuking a madman is the way to enrage him, and such is the natural man in spiritual things, since he fell out of his right mind by the sin of Adam.

We find by manifold experience that, though man is generally addicted to the principle of salvation by works, yet multitudes of them hate all strict preachers and professors of true holiness, because they are a torment to their consciences. They endeavor to shelter themselves in ignorance of the law, accounting that the less they know, the less they shall answer for, and therefore they would not have right things prophesied to them (Isa. 30:10). And they have prevailed generally in the world to darken the natural knowledge of moral duties in such a degree that there is a necessity of learning them by divine revelation out of the Scriptures. We may find how prone legal writers are to corrupt the sense of the law, that they may leave starting-holes for their corruptions, by the corrupt glosses of the scribes and Pharisees, from which Christ did vindicate it (Matt. 5). And, as far as I have observed, none more endeavor to discover the purity and perfection of the law than those that seek holiness and salvation without any legal condition, by the mere free grace of God in Christ. The doctrine of salvation by sincere obedience is but a mincing the perfection required in the law, and yet how is this doctrine minced again and again, until it is become so small, that the substance of all true obedience is lost? A willingness to be saved according to Christ’s terms, or a consent that Christ should be our Lord, or a resolution to obey His commandments (which is little more than ignorant men trust on, when they say they hope God will save them because they have a good meaning, though they live in the neglect of all religion) without any further practice of holiness, shall pass with many for enough of sincere obedience, both to enter them into a state of salvation, and to continue them in it; so that they shall never be accounted breakers of the gospel covenant, while so much can be pretended. The most that is made necessary for salvation shall be only to endeavor to do what we can to obey Christ’s commands, though all that the most can do is nothing that is truly good. Those that have a little more zeal for their salvation by works are prone to spend it in superstitious observances, because they suit better with their carnal nature than the spiritual commands of God and Christ. I doubt not but this has been one occasion of the prevailing of heathenish, Jewish and popish superstitions in the world. We find by experience how Popery fell in several nations of late years, when the great pillar of it, the doctrine of justification by works, was overthrown by the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone.

If these legal zealots be forced by strong conviction to endeavor the practice of spiritual duties for the quieting of their guilty consciences, they may be brought to strive and labor earnestly, and even to macerate their bodies with fasting, that they may kill their lusts; but still their lusts are alive, and as strong as ever they were, and do show forth their enmity against the law of God by inward fretting, repining and grudging at it, as a grievous taskmaster, though a slavish fear restrain their gross outward actings. And, if once these zealots are enlightened with the knowledge of the spiritual nature of the law to discern that God rejects all their slavish service, and will not own it for sincere obedience, then they fall into despair of their salvation, because they see they have failed in their highest attempts to perform the condition, and they can easily discover themselves, that their hearts swell in anger and manifest hatred against the law, yea, and against God and Christ, for prescribing such hard conditions of salvation, which they cannot keep, and yet must expect to be damned eternally for breaking them. This fills them with blasphemous thoughts against God and Christ, and they can hardly refrain from blaspheming with their tongues. And when they are brought to this horrible condition, if God does not in mercy discover to them the way of salvation by free grace, through faith alone, they will endeavor, if they can, to sear their consciences past feeling of sin, and fully to abandon all religion, which has proved such an insufferable torment to them, or, if they cannot sear their consciences, some of them are easily prevailed with by Satan, rather to murder themselves than to live longer in the hatred of God, the spirit of blasphemy and continual horror of conscience.

This is the pestilent effect of legal doctrine upon a carnal heart, that does but rouse up and terribly enrage the sleeping lion, our sinful corruption, instead of killing it – as is too evident by the sad experience of many that have endeavored with all their might to practice it, and by the Scripture, that shows a sufficient cause why it cannot be otherwise. Therefore, the doctrine of salvation by sincere obedience, that was invented against Antinomianism, may well be ranked among the worst Antinomian errors. For my part, I hate it with perfect hatred, and account it mine enemy, as I have found it to be. And I have found by some good experience the truth of the lesson taught by the apostle, that the way to be freed from the mastery and dominion of sin is not to be under the law, but under grace (Rom. 6:14).

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