A Legal Spirit Vs. An Evangelical Spirit

by A. W. Pink

A Legal Spirit

Though the term "legality" does not occur upon the pages of Holy Writ, it is one which is found more or less frequently on the lips and pens of God's servants, and we believe rightly so, providing it is given its proper import and legitimate application. Yet this is by no means always done, for often the word is accorded a significance which it does not bear, and is ascribed to persons and things very erroneously and unjustly. In theological parlance "legal" has quite a different force from its dictionary meaning, where "legalese" is defined as "to render lawful" and "legality" as "lawfulness." It is this etymological significance of the term which has led many ignorant people to form a false conception of it when employed by theologians with quite another and distinctive sense. When we hear it said in religious circles that such and such a person "has a legal spirit" we should rightly conclude that he is infected with something harmful—yet when David exclaimed, "O how love I Your Law," he certainly averred a "legal spirit" in the dictionary meaning of that expression.

From what has just been pointed out, we may perceive the need for and the importance of defining our terms. What, then, does a preacher mean when he warns his hearers against a "legal spirit," that is, when he employs the term properly, in a religious sense? He means that we must beware of looking within ourselves, for something to commend ourselves unto God; to beware of trusting in any of our own performances to gain the Divine approbation; to beware of esteeming any of our works as meritorious or deserving of something good at the hands of the Most High God. This is what the Pharisees did; this is what the deluded Papists do, thinking to earn God's favor by their good deeds—and to be justified by Him on that ground. Nor is such senseless egotism by any means confined to Papists, though all are not so frank in openly affirming it, nay, many are not aware of such madness and self-conceit, for the heart is exceedingly deceptive and its workings often concealed from our consciousness.

It has been rightly said that all men are "essentially legalistic by nature." Nor is this to be wondered at when we consider that sin has so darkened man's understanding and blinded his judgment—that he calls darkness light, bondage liberty, and good evil. Being completely under the dominion of the Devil—fallen man is puffed up with pride. Instead of humbling himself beneath the mighty hand of God and confessing his ruined condition—he is lifted up with delight and foolishly imagines that he cannot only do that which will meet with God's approval—but actually make God his Debtor, so that justice requires Him to reward him for his excellent performances. For though the natural man is not so destitute of moral sense and conscience as to be unaware that in certain respects at least he fails in the discharge of his duties—yet he is so deceived by his wicked heart as to conclude that his good deeds far outweigh his wicked ones—and therefore he is entitled unto favorable consideration.

In view of the facts stated in the last paragraph we should not be surprised that the natural man—every man while unregenerate—makes an evil use of the Moral Law. That which is provided for the purpose of revealing the ineffable holiness of God—man turns into an instrument for advancing his own self-righteousness. That which is furnished to give man a knowledge of sin—he perverts into a means for proclaiming his own goodness. That which is designed to make man conscious of his spiritual impotency—he twists into an ordinance for exercising his powers. That which is calculated to serve as a schoolmaster unto Christ—man distorts into a refuge in which he hides from Christ. Though the Law is spiritual and man carnal, though the Law is holy, and man corrupt, though the Law sets before him a standard of excellence which no fallen creature can possibly attain unto—yet the unsaved are so deceived by their own hearts and so deluded by Satan—they imagine they can so far perform the Law's requirements that they have nothing to fear—and it is impossible to disillusion them until a miracle of grace is wrought within them!

Here, then, is "Legality" in its baldest form, stripped of all disguise. It consists of a spirit of independence, of self-sufficiency, of self-righteousness. It refuses to acknowledge that man is a fallen, depraved, lost sinner, "without strength," without a spark of spiritual life. It refuses to acknowledge man is utterly incapable of recovering himself, of bettering himself, of doing anything which can meet with the approval of a holy and sin-hating God. Even those who have sat under sound preaching, who have an intelligent knowledge of these solemn truths, who profess to believe them, yet, while they remain in their unregenerate state—they have not the slightest spiritual apprehension of them, nor do their hearts consent to their verity. Though they read in God's Word, "by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight" (Romans 3:20), they believe it not—but continue in their vain attempts to keep the Law in order to be justified by God. A spirit of legality binds them hand and foot—as in fetters of steel.

In like manner a spirit of legality causes every unregenerate hearer to pervert the Gospel. Though the Gospel is exactly suited to the dire need of fallen man—yet it is far from being suited to his proud heart. It calls upon him to "Behold the Lamb of God," but in order to do so—he must look away from himself—that is, he must renounce himself, deny himself, repudiate all "imagined goodness" in himself—and this is something which he is very far from being willing to comply with. The Gospel is a revelation of pure grace, of sovereign mercy, unmerited favor—offering to enrich spiritual paupers, to clothe the spiritually naked, to save Hell-deserving sinners—but that is something the self-righteous and independent heart of fallen man cannot tolerate! Yet few are frank enough to openly avow their antipathy to Divine grace; rather do multitudes pretend to admire it, and profess to receive it. But in fact they still trust in their own religious performances and simply bring in Christ as a make-weight to meet their deficiencies. In reality, they believe in grace plus works, Christ plus something of self.

Even Christians themselves have the root of legality still left within them and are to a greater or less degree infected with a self-righteous spirit to the end of their days. Though a Divine work of grace has been wrought in them, enabling them to see, feel and know they are depraved, polluted and vile creatures—causing them to close with Christ as He is presented to them in the Gospel and cast themselves upon Him as their only Hope, their Deliverer, their all-sufficient Savior—pride still works within them, and as it does, they are ready to give heed to some of Satan's lies and imagine that they are now in themselves something more, something better than Hell-deserving sinners.

The whole Epistle to the Galatians demonstrates our danger at this point and most solemnly warns us to what fearful lengths a legal spirit may carry those who have savingly trusted in Christ. False teachers had introduced "another Gospel," affirming that Christ was not sufficient, that they must be circumcised and submit to the whole ceremonial law in order to be justified, and instead of rejecting this error with abhorrence, the legal hearts of the Galatians so far accepted it that the Apostle had to say "I stand in doubt of you."

Even where Christians are preserved from such awful lengths of legality as the Galatians, this "root of legality" is constantly bringing forth its foul and poisonous fruit, though for the most part they are quite unaware of it so subtle and secret are its activities. Whenever we are pleased with ourselves and our performances, a legal spirit is at work within us. Whenever we are less conscious of our deep need of Christ—pride is to that extent possessing our hearts. Whenever we feel that God, in His providences, is dealing severely with us and we ask, "What have I done to call for such chastisement?" —a self-righteous spirit possesses us. Whenever we entertain hard feelings against God, because He does not answer our prayers as quickly or as fully as we think He should—we are guilty of this sin. We should marvel that He ever deigns to hear us at all! Whenever we are hurt because fellow-Christians slight us and do not pay us that respect we feel we are entitled to—it is sure proof we think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. "Your boasting (whatever form it takes) is not good. Don't you know, that a little leaven leavens the whole lump" (1 Cor. 5:6). A little "legality" or self-righteousness will defile the whole soul and grieve the Spirit of God.


An Evangelical Spirit

Once more we employ a term which does not occur in so many letters and syllables on the pages of Holy Writ. Though its sound is not heard, there the sense and substance of it most certainly is—and it is one which we can scarcely avoid using, if we are to express ourselves accurately and intelligently. While all men are essentially "legalistic" by nature none but those to whom the Gospel of Christ has been made the power of God unto salvation, is possessed of a truly "evangelical" spirit. The terms are antithetical, as much so as are darkness and light, bondage and liberty.

The one is the product of the Fall—the other is the fruit of regeneration. The one is the breathing of self-righteousness—the other is the outcome of self-renunciation. The one is the work of pride and independence—the other is the outflow of humility and dependence. The one is the enmity which the carnal mind has against the grace of God, the other is the acquiescence of the renewed mind in undeserved mercy.

An evangelical spirit is found where the heart beats in accord with the essence and substance of the Gospel. The Gospel makes nothing of man—and everything of Christ. The Gospel comes to us on the assumption—or rather the fully demonstrated fact—that we are lost creatures— hopelessly, helplessly, irretrievably lost in ourselves. It comes unto us as those who are justly condemned by the holy Law of God, as those who are even now under the Divine curse, as those who are rushing headlong to eternal destruction! The Gospel tells of the amazing provision which God has made for depraved and vile sinners. It announces the exceeding riches of grace, unto those who are His inveterate enemies. It proclaims a full and perfect salvation, for all who are willing to receive it. It not only publishes a full pardon and deliverance from Hell—but it promises eternal life and everlasting glory to all who believe its glad tidings; and it offers these inestimable blessings freely, "without money and without price."

The Gospel makes known how God can show mercy unto the rebellious, without compromising His justice; how He can receive the ungodly, without sullying His holiness; how He can remit the penalty of sin, without dishonoring His Law; how He can save the very chief of sinners, to the praise of the glory of His grace. The Person and work of Christ supplies a full and perfect answer to each of these "hows." God has not shown mercy at the expense of justice—for He set forth Christ "to be a propitiation (a satisfaction rendered to Divine justice) through faith in His blood" (Romans 3:25). God has not sullied His holiness—but rather has He exemplified and glorified it by refusing to spare His own dear Son (Romans 8:32) when He bore the sins of His people. God has not slighted the Law, for it was magnified and made honorable, by Immanuel's rendering unto it a perfect and perpetual obedience in thought, word and deed. God can save the very chief of sinners unto the praise of the glory of His grace, without requiring any price from them—because He has received full payment of his debts in the sacrifice of Calvary, which was and is of infinite value!

Where the Gospel is applied by the supernatural power of the Spirit, beating down all opposition thereto, the mind cordially assents to its contents, the heart rejoices therein, the will responds thereto, and thus an "evangelical spirit" is born in the soul. The sinner is then evangelized in the true and full sense of that word. He not only throws down the weapons of his warfare against God—but he repudiates the filthy rags of his own righteousness. He has been made to see and feel himself so condemned by the Law as to know there is no help in himself. He has been brought to realize that his soul is sick unto death—and that none but the great Physician can do him any good. He now knows himself to be a pauper, utterly dependent upon Divine charity—and therefore the Gospel of the grace of God is most suited to his need and most glorious good tidings unto his heart. It is as truly welcome to him as food to a starving man, as a cup of cold water would be to one who was suffering the fires of Hell.

Wherever an understanding has been Divinely enlightened, wherever a heart has been opened to receive the Gospel of God—there an "evangelical spirit" prevails. The language of such a one is, "You O Christ are all I want—more than all in You I find. Your righteousness prevails to justify me before God. Your holiness is my sanctification. Your blood removes my foulness. Your merits meet my unworthiness. Your power is sufficient for my weakness. Your riches supply all my need. I have heard Your voice, Lord Jesus, tell me not of anything beside. I have seen Your face, Lord Jesus—all my soul is satisfied."

Such a one has been accepted in the Beloved, accorded a standing before God which neither the Law nor Satan can challenge, and made nearer and dearer to God than are the holy angels. Tell such a one that something else is still required from him, before God can regard him with approbation—that the redemption of Christ must be added to, by his own good works—and he rejects such an aspersion with the utmost abhorrence, as the Devil's lie!

It is, however, to be pointed out that whereas all "evangelical spirit" is the opposite of a "legal" one, it is also the very reverse of a "licentious" one. Christ saves His people "from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). That is, He saves them from the love and dominion of them—as well as from their pollution and penalty. The Gospel announces the amazing grace of God—but His grace is not exercised at the expense of righteousness, rather does it "reign through righteousness" (Romans 5:21). The very grace which proclaims a free and full salvation, without money and without price—also works mightily and transformingly in its recipients, "teaching us (effectually, not theoretically) that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world" (Titus 2:12). The Gospel is very far from inculcating lawlessness. When the Apostle asked, "Do we then (by preaching salvation by grace alone) make void the Law through faith?" he answered, "Absolutely not! On the contrary, we uphold the law" (Romans 3:31), for the believer is "under the Law to Christ" (1 Cor. 9:21).

The more the Gospel works effectually in those who believe—the more are they conformed, both inwardly and outwardly, unto the image of Christ. And the Lord Jesus declared, "I delight to do Your will, O My God; yes Your Law is within My heart!" (Psalm 40:8). This, too, in their measure, is the experience and acknowledgment of each one saved by Him. Said the Apostle, "I delight in the law of God after the inward man" (Romans 7:22), which was the voicing of an essential element in an "evangelical spirit." Where the heart beats true to the Gospel, the possessor is not only delivered from legality or self-righteousness, but he is also preserved from spiritual lawlessness. While no sinner is or can be saved on account of his own doings—so far from the Gospel and salvation by grace being the enemy of good works, it inculcates them: "For we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10 and cf. Titus 2:14).

An "evangelical spirit," then, is one which cleaves to the happy means between two evil and fatal extremes: legality and lawlessness; self-righteousness and self-pleasing. Against these two evils, the Christian needs to be constantly on his guard both in doctrine and practice, for while on the one hand there is ever a tendency in him to "frustrate the grace of God" (Galatians 2:21), to "fall from grace" (Galatians 5:4), which is done whenever we bring in anything of our own as the ground of our acceptance with God. On the other hand we are ever prone to "turn the grace of our God into a license for sin" (Jude 4), which is done when we presumptuously give license to the flesh and follow a course of self-will, on the pretext that this cannot jeopardize our eternal security in Christ. To counter the uprisings of the spirit of legality, we must constantly remind ourselves that we have nothing good but what God has wrought in us, and therefore we have no cause for boasting— that we are what we are—by the grace of God. To oppose the workings of licentiousness, we must continually ponder the fact that we are not our own—but "bought with a price" and that we most glorify Christ as we follow the example He has left us.

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