Misuses of the Law

Misuses of the Law

by Anthony Burgess

Knowing the Law is good, if a man use it lawfully. - 1 Timothy 1:8-9

In these words, you have heard two points: First, the affirmation, "The Law is good." Second, the condition, "If a man use it lawfully."

Now, let it be known in general that this does not diminish the Law's importance as something good, which can be misused (just as God, Christ, the Gospel, or Free-grace can be misused). All these blessings can be turned into bitterness; even an Antinomian may elevate his preaching of grace to an exalted work and trust in it more than in Christ. I must acknowledge Chrysostom's words, where he speaks of the love of God in Christ, and, being filled with wonder, exclaims, "Oh, I am like a man digging in a deep spring: I stand here, and the water rises up upon me; I stand there, and still the water rises upon me." Such is the experience of the love of Christ and the Gospel; it offers unsearchable treasures to the broken heart. Yet, this should not be used to disregard the importance of the Law.

Consider this as an armed prologue to all that I shall say: the fact that the Law can be misused does not lessen its significance any more than the Gospel's. The whole land will be in woe for misusing the Gospel, as it has become the cause of death for many. Now, let me present the general ways in which the Law can be abused:

  1. In these verses, the Apostle primarily addresses the issue of turning the Law into unfruitful and unprofitable disputes. We should question the purpose and benefit of any dispute about the Law (Cui bono?). As I undertake this exercise, I must avoid engaging in frivolous or unprofitable disputes, as that would be an improper use of the Law. Ministers must be cautious not to be like the schoolmen, who were compared to someone eating hard stone while good bread was available. Preaching the Law unprofitably involves not only obscuring it with obscure questions but also failing to teach Christ through it. Ministers may feel humbled if they realize that they have emphasized religious duties without exalting Christ, resulting in people being content with performing duties and sacraments devoid of Christ's presence. Just as all vessels in the Temple were to be made of pure gold, our duties should be centered solely on Christ for acceptance. Tertullian said of Cerinthus, "Legem proponit, ad excludendum Evangelium," meaning that he preached the Law to exclude the Gospel. Hence, there may be legal preachers who are deserving of reproof. The Apostle warns against being teachers of the Law who introduce many fables about it, such as the imagined dialogue between God and the Law before the world was created, or that God made the world for the sake of the Law.
  2. Another misuse of the Law occurs when men handle it with a focus on carnal and worldly aspects. This is also an improper use of the Law. For instance, the Priests and the Jews used it to gain a livelihood and seek temporal blessings. Sadly, the doctrine of Christ has been abused in similar ways. There are those who can be likened to "Christ-merchants" and "Christ-hucksters," hoping to achieve carnal ends through Christ, much like Judas did. It is essential that we handle both Law and Gospel with a godly love and zeal for truth, not to create divisions or seek applause. There was an honest complaint from a Popish writer who admitted to handling the Scriptures merely to sustain and clothe themselves. We should strive to follow the example of Paul, who tirelessly preached night and day with great affection, desiring nothing of monetary value from his listeners. Chrysostom aptly called him an "Angelus terrestris" and said, "Cor Pauli est cor Christi" (Paul's heart is Christ's heart).
  1. Another misuse of the Law occurs when men seek to completely overthrow or deny it. This was the error of ancient groups like the Marcionites and Manichees, as well as some more recent ones, albeit for different reasons. Their mistake is rooted in the interpretation of various Scripture passages that seem to deny the validity of the Law. Admittedly, understanding the true meaning of these passages requires diligence. As Augustine pointed out, it is not so much the simple who are deceived but the negligent. Chrysostom aptly compared understanding Scripture to the way a friend familiar with a friend can grasp the meaning of a letter or phrase that would elude a stranger. Those who hold such views must consider two things: Firstly, while there are passages that may seem to undermine the Law, there are many others that confirm it. The Apostle himself raises objections against it only to strongly reject such notions. Secondly, one must interpret the Apostle's words in the particular sense he intends. The principle "Quaelibet res eâ capienda est parte, quâ capi debet" applies here: just as you don't take a sword by the edge but by the handle, or a vessel by the body but by the ear, so you must grasp the doctrine of the Law not in every part but where the Apostle intends it.

  2. Ill interpretation of the Law is another misuse. In this regard, many Popish authors deserve reproach, as they excessively limit its spiritual meaning and restrict it to external acts, much like the Pharisees. Jesus, in Matthew 5, did not introduce new commands or counsels as some Popish interpreters suggest. Instead, he purged all the false interpretations that had accumulated over time. Paul himself took a long time to fully grasp the strictness of the Law, which revealed a vast amount of sin in him that he had been unaware of. The Papists unlawfully use the Law by corruptly glossing it as being partially obligatory and partially advisory. They make man's power the ruler of his duty, whereas Scripture clearly states that the measure of grace given to a person is not commensurate with the duty commanded. It is true that Jerome argued that it was blasphemy to claim that God commanded something impossible, but the impossibility he referred to was absolute, meaning that man could never fulfill it.

  3. Another form of misuse is when the Law is set in opposition to Christ. This was a fundamental error of the Jews, and the Apostle discusses it in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. Although they attempted to combine Christ and the Law, this synthesis created opposition. Just as there cannot be two suns in the sky, there cannot be two justifying forces; therefore, the reconciliation of the Law and Christ cannot involve blending them for the purpose of justification. Nevertheless, one is antecedent and subordinate to the other and should not be pitted against each other; instead, they should be seen as the means and the end, respectively. It is not surprising that the Law might be opposed to Christ due to misconceptions, just as Christ can be opposed to Christ in certain contexts, as seen in the teachings of some in the realm of Popery. For instance, they oppose Christ as the justifier when they claim that our graces justify us, as they believe that Christ's sanctifying work makes us holy, and this holiness justifies us. Such an opposition within their teachings reveals the importance of advancing Christ and grace in a scriptural manner, rather than based on human assumptions, as the Papists do.

  1. Another misuse of the Law is when people seek justification through it. This is a dangerous and desperate error, prevalent in Popery, and it lurks in the hearts of all by nature. They lack an understanding of Gospel-righteousness and turn to the Law in the hope of being their own saviors. Perhaps God permits this Antinomian error to grow for two reasons: first, to humble ministers who have not fully exalted Christ and grace in all their glory. Bernard expressed his reluctance to read Tully (Cicero) because he couldn't find the Name of Christ there. Likewise, in many sermons and ministries, the primary aim is not to advance Christ. Secondly, this error provides an opportunity to emphasize important truths. Just as the Arians prompted discussions on the deity of Christ, and the Pelagians on grace in predestination and conversion, the Papists and Antinomians challenge us to delve deeper into the grace of justification. At first, Luther emphasized these doctrines, but when he saw how they were misused, he spoke out against the Antinomists. Unfortunately, many have fallen into a formal understanding of these truths, so it's crucial to uplift Christ.
    1. This misuse of the Law undermines the very nature of grace. It rejects not only works of the Law but all works of the Gospel and even the works of grace. The opposition here is between works and grace. The Apostle clearly contrasts them, though the Papists may argue otherwise. Grace is often used in Scripture to denote God's favor extended to us, not any merit within us. Though the word [grace] can also refer to its effects, such as inherent holiness, its primary meaning is God's favor. The Papists' emphasis on inherent holiness as the saving grace is due to their misunderstanding of the term [grace]. The troubles and doubts experienced by godly hearts, feeling unworthy, stem from this misinterpretation. The word [grace] carries a comprehensive meaning, implying no merit or causality on our part for acceptance; in fact, it implies the opposite. To experience God's grace is even greater than experiencing His love. Adam, if he had remained righteous, would have received the gift of life, but it wouldn't be as grace strictly defined since he was not in a contrary condition to life. We need to distinguish between different senses of grace, as even the Pelagians spoke of grace but did not uphold Scriptural grace. Merely talking about grace doesn't mean they advocate Scripture-grace. When they claim that patience or hope is grace and therefore we are saved by grace, we should respond that this is not the Gospel-grace, the Scripture-grace that pardons sins and saves us.
    2. It opposes Christ in his fullness, creating a half-Christ. Just as false Apostles made Christ void and departed from Him, it is inadequate to claim that the Apostle refers only to the ceremonial law. As we mentioned earlier, he goes beyond that hypothesis to include all works, even those of Abraham and David, excluding them from justification. If works were our righteousness, Christ would lose his significance, as the righteousness by faith in Christ opposes Paul's own righteousness. This is known as the righteousness of God, and it is made righteousness unto us. If works justify, then what need is there for Christ? Can your graces replace Christ?
    3. It destroys the true doctrine of Justification. We won't delve deeply into this topic now, but consider how Scripture speaks of justification, not as infusing perfection but forgiving imperfection. For instance, in David's words, "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no sin." We won't debate whether justification has two parts, one positive (the imputation of Christ's righteousness) and one negative (not accounting sin). For now, we emphasize that justification means not having our holiness accepted but our sins remitted. It's a comforting plea for a humble soul to say, "Lord, it's not about my goodness but about your willingness to forgive my wrongs." If this doesn't satisfy your soul, what will? As Chrysostom said, it's like standing on a spring rising higher and higher.
    4. It completely undermines justifying faith. When Christ and grace are rejected, faith also falls. Three main causes contribute to our justification: God's grace as the efficient cause, Christ as the meritorious cause, and faith as the instrumental cause. Though the efficient cause is more excellent than the instrumental cause, all are equally necessary for justification. We take it for granted that faith instrumentally justifies. While Antinomians may argue that faith comes before justification, claiming that the argument from Infants supports their view, we will refute this at the appropriate time. For now, it's enough to recognize that the Scriptures attribute an instrumental role to faith: "By faith in his blood" and "By faith in his Name" and "Justified by faith." Though the word "faith" is never used as if it held merit, "through faith" is used. To promote works is to oppose faith, as the Apostle argues. Therefore, faith, as a work, opposes itself as an instrument of justification.
    5. It completely discourages a broken-hearted sinner, removing peace with God, the effect of justification, and the ability to glory in tribulations. In Romans 5, it is evident that peace comes through justification by faith in God. No amount of patience, repentance, religious duties, or good heart can bring peace with God. Only through justification can peace with God be attained. As for glorying in tribulations, how is this possible if all glory is self-centered? Shouldn't every affliction remind you of your sin?
    6. It leads people inward, which is very dangerous. A person may not only exclude Christ from their soul through gross sins but also through self-confidence. "You are they which justify yourselves," said Jesus, and the Jews refused to submit to their own righteousness. Paul feared being found in his own righteousness. Beza emphasized the word "found," implying that justice, the Law, and God's wrath pursued and sought after man. If this is the case, where can you find anyone who doesn't offend God and transgress His Law? Rather than seeking righteousness in ourselves, we should seek it in Christ.
    7. It undermines the doctrine of imputation and reckoning righteousness to us, as spoken of in Romans 4 and other places. If righteousness were in us and properly ours, there would be no need for righteousness to be reckoned and imputed to us. The Papists make imputative, putative, and imaginary all the same. However, Christ's righteousness is genuinely ours, though not inherent. They differ in the manner of being ours, not in reality. Both Antinomians and Papists misinterpret this doctrine, drawing absurd conclusions like "If Christ's righteousness is ours, then God doesn't see sin in us, and we are as righteous as Christ."
    8. It keeps a person in a servile, insecure state in all their duties. Such an individual is constantly tossed around, finding no peace beyond the works of grace. Humility can easily turn into pride, and a heavenly heart can become earthly when relying solely on one's own works. Scripture strongly discourages doubts and fears, considering them the canker-worm that devours our duties. Therefore, the Bible presents words that oppose this Evangelical disposition of being sons, such as "Be not afraid, but believe" and "Why doubted ye?" The latter term implies being in doubt, unable to decide which path to take, carried up and down like meteors in the air. True confidence and boldness come from faith, but faith's object is Christ, not anything of our own. When we become sons, our first word should be to cry, "Abba, Father."
    9. One may as lawfully include saints or angels in their mediation with Christ as graces. The doctrine of making angels and saints mediators and intercessors is condemned because it associates Christ with others in that significant role. Yet, when you join your love and grace with Christ's obedience, you do the same. If graces could speak, they would say to trust in Christ alone, for only He has borne our sins to take them away. Just as gross idolatry makes the works of God a god, subtle idolatry makes the works of Christ a Christ.
    10. It undermines the grace of hope. When faith is destroyed, so is hope. The grace of hope is a great support for Christians. If hope is placed in Christ and the promises, it is as firm as faith. On the other hand, if hope is rooted in ourselves, it will often lead to disappointment. Augustine wisely said, "Do not hope in thyself, but in God; for if you hope in yourself, your soul will never find a secure foundation." The Papist's distinction, claiming they may have a certainty of hope but not of faith in matters of salvation, is incorrect. Both hope and faith share the same certainty. Faith presently receives the promised things, while hope keeps the heart steadfast in the face of difficulties until those promises are fulfilled. The Papist's definition of hope as partially coming from God's grace and partially from our merits is destructive.
    11. It takes away the glory due to God in the work of justification. If we rely solely on God for our physical needs, shouldn't we also seek pardon of sin from Him? Abraham believed and gave God glory. Believing in Christ should be acknowledged as giving glory to Christ. We may mistakenly think that performing pilgrimages or mortifying our bodies is a likelier way for salvation, but that glorifies man more than God. The wretched Monk's blasphemous words before dying, "Pay me eternal life, which thou owest," demonstrate this misguided belief.
    12. It magnifies sin and the first Adam for condemnation more than Christ for salvation. The Apostle in Romans 5 establishes an opposition, showing that the gift of salvation is far greater than the transgression. Thus, while sin may be significant in its damning effects, Christ is infinitely more wonderful as the saving Christ. If we claim the guilt of sin to be infinite, that is only in an objective sense. However, Christ's merits and obedience are infinitely meritorious, having infinite worth due to the dignity of His person. Therefore, just as sin is exceedingly sinful, Christ is exceedingly Christ, and grace is exceedingly grace.
    13. It undermines the true doctrine of sanctification, which acknowledges that it is inchoate and imperfect. Our faith contains much unbelief, our best qualities have dross, and our wine has much water. Both Papists and Antinomians share the error that because sin is covered, there can be no sin in the godly. However, Paul in Romans 7 refutes this notion. The Papists' blasphemous direction for dying men to pray for their obedience to be joined with Christ's sufferings for them, and the doctrine that good works are more meritorious for eternal life than evil works, are both absurd.
    14. It disregards the true doctrine of the Law, suggesting it is possible to keep it. Works could not justify us unless they were in line with the righteousness that God commands. Yet, Christ has fulfilled that which was impossible for the Law, as stated in Romans 3.
    15. It undermines the true consideration of a person while they are justified. People may view someone as godly, but Scripture regards them as ungodly. The verse in Romans 4 speaks of justifying the ungodly, which refers to those who are not perfectly godly. Abraham is presented as an example of an ungodly person in this context.

Use 1. For Instruction. It is uncharitable and false to accuse our godly Ministers of being merely Justitiaries and Legal Preachers. In truth, all sound and godly Ministers present Christ, His righteousness, and the way of justification. Our Protestant authors also firmly uphold this truth, which distinguishes us from Heathens, Jews, Papists, and others. These teachings are heard daily in our Sermons.

Use 2. Not every denial of the Law and emphasis on Christ and Grace constitutes Antinomianism. Luther, in his commentary on Genesis, mentions a so-called Fanatic who denied that Adam could sin because the Law is not given to the righteous. Some, like Bellarmine, may label this as Antinomianism based on Lutheran principles. But more on this later.

Use 3. Beware of using the Law for our justification. It is an unwarranted approach that cannot bring comfort. Instead, focus on Christ as the source of righteousness and comfort more than before. Just as the posts not sprinkled with blood were destroyed, so too are those persons and duties without Christ. Christ is the propitiation, akin to the Hebrew word used for covering and propitiating sin in Genesis 6. This imagery of the pitch or plaster sealing the Ark illustrates the atonement made by Christ, which covers us and shields us from God's wrath. Do not underestimate the power of believing in Christ; it is not due to the dignity of faith but rather through Christ Himself. Just like the humble Hyssop used to sprinkle the blood, faith may appear insignificant, but it represents great deliverance.


Source: VINDICIAE LEGIS: OR, A Vindication of the MORAL LAW AND THE COVENANTS, From the Errors of Papists, Arminians, Socinians, and more especially, Antinomians by Anthony Burgess