Antinomianism Is Not the Antidote for Legalism

PILL

We can rejoice that Sinclair Ferguson succumbed to years of pressure to turn his three (now somewhat famous) Marrow Controversy lectures into a book, and the book is done and launches soon from Crossway under the title, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance — Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters.

[Download the original audio files here: part 1, part 2, part 3.]

Yes, this old Scottish theological debate matters, and Ferguson’s three lectures proved life changing for me. I doubt I will ever forget the place I was walking when I first heard Ferguson explain why antinomianism is not the antidote for legalism, and why legalism is not the antidote for antinomianism. One deadly poison cannot cure another deadly poison, but each poison calls for the counterpoison of grace.

Here’s how he says it in the new book (pages 151–170):

Perhaps the greatest misstep in thinking about antinomianism is to think of it simply as the opposite of legalism. . . .

Antinomianism and legalism are not so much antithetical to each other as they are both antithetical to grace. This is why Scripture never prescribes one as the antidote for the other. Rather grace, God’s grace in Christ in our union with Christ, is the antidote to both. . . .

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. This leads to a new love for and obedience to the law of God, which he now mediates to us in the gospel. This alone breaks the bonds of both legalism (the law is no longer divorced from the person of Christ) and antinomianism (we are not divorced from the law, which now comes to us from the hand of Christ and in the empowerment of the Spirit, who writes it in our hearts). . . .

In some ways the Marrow Controversy resolved itself into a theological version of the parable of the waiting father and his two sons.

The antinomian prodigal when awakened was tempted to legalism: “I will go and be a slave in my father’s house and thus perhaps gain grace in his eyes.” But he was bathed in his father’s grace and set free to live as an obedient son.

The legalistic older brother never tasted his father’s grace. Because of his legalism he had never been able to enjoy the privileges of the father’s house.

Between them stood the father offering free grace to both, without prior qualifications in either. Had the older brother embraced his father, he would have found grace that would make every duty a delight and dissolve the hardness of his servile heart. Had that been the case, his once antinomian brother would surely have felt free to come out to him as his father had done, and say: “Isn’t the grace we have been shown and given simply amazing? Let us forever more live in obedience to every wish of our gracious father!” And arm in arm they could have gone in to dance at the party, sons and brothers together, a glorious testimony to the father’s love.

But it was not so.

It is still, alas, not so.

Santa Christ

What follows is Sinclair Ferguson’s article, “Santa Christ,” as published in Tabletalk Magazine, December 1997.


I took the hand of my toddler son (it was two decades ago) as together we made our way into the local shop on the small and remote Scottish island where earlier that year I had been installed as pastor.

It was Christmas week; the store was brightly decorated and a general air of excitement was abroad. Without warning, the conversations of the customers were brought to a sudden halt by a questioning voice from beside me. My son’s upraised index finger pointed at a large cardboard Santa Claus: “Daddy, who is that funny looking man?” he asked.

Amazement spread across the faces of the jostling shoppers; accusing glances were redirected to his father. Such shame—the minister’s son did not even recognize Santa Claus! What likelihood then of hearing good news in his preaching at this festive time?

Such experiences naturally encourage us to bewail the fact that the western world is given over annually to its Claus-mass or Commerce-mass, a reworked pagan Saturnalia of epic proportions whose only connection with the incarnation is semantic. Santa is worshiped, not the Saviour; pilgrims go to the store, not to the manger. It is the feast of Indulgence not of the Incarnation.

It is always easier to lament and critique the new paganism of secularism’s blatant idolatry than to see how easily the church—and we ourselves—twist or dilute the message of the incarnation in order to suit our own tastes. But, sadly, we have various ways of turning the Saviour into a kind of Santa Claus.

For one thing, in our worship this Christmas we may varnish the staggering truth of the incarnation with what is visually, audibly, and aesthetically pleasing, thus confusing emotional pleasure with true adoration. For another, we may denigrate our Lord with a Santa Claus Christology. It is alarming to see how common it is to manufacture a Jesus who is the mirror reflection of Santa Claus. Christmas time demands clearer thinking on our part!

A Pelagian Jesus emerges under Santa’s influence. Like Santa he simply adds something to lives that are already in fairly respectable order. Christmas dinner is simply a better dinner for the well-nourished. Jesus thus becomes an added bonus who makes a good life even better.

Or, perhaps, it is the slightly more sophisticated Jesus who, Santa-like, gives gifts to those who have already done the best they could! Thus Jesus’ hand, like Santa’s sack, opens only when we can give an upper-percentile answer to the none-too-weighty probe, “Have you been good this year?” Heaven, like Santa, helps those who help themselves. The only difference from medieval theology here is that we do not use its Latin phraseology facere quod in se est (to do what is in one’s self).

For yet others, this is the time of year for the mystical Jesus who, like Santa Claus, is important because of the good experiences we have, irrespective of the details of historical reality. As long as we have the experiences, all is well.

But Jesus is not to be identified with Santa Claus; worldly thinking—however much it employs Jesus-language—is not to be confused with biblical truth.

The Scriptures systematically strip away the veneer which covers the real truth of the Christmas story. Jesus did not come to add to our comforts; He did not come to those who were already helping themselves.

Those whose lives were bound up with the events of the first Christmas did not find His coming an easy and pleasurable experience. Mary and Joseph’s lives were turned upside down; the shepherds’ night was frighteningly interrupted, and their futures potentially radically changed; the Magi faced all kinds of inconvenience and separation; and our Lord Himself, conceived before wedlock, born probably in a cave, would spend His early days as a refugee from the bloodthirsty and vindictive Herod.

There is, therefore, an element in the Gospel narratives which stresses that the coming of Jesus is a disturbing event of the deepest proportions. And that by necessity, since He did not come merely to add something extra to life, but to deal with our spiritual insolvency and the debt of our sin. He was not conceived in the womb of Mary for those who have done their best but for those in whose flesh there dwells no good thing. He was not sent to be the source of good experiences but the One who was destined to suffer the pangs of hell in order to be our Savior.

The Christians who first began to celebrate the birth of the Savior saw this. They were not, contrary to what is often mistakenly said, simply adding a Christian veneer to a pagan festival—the Roman Saturnalia—any more than Christians who mark Reformation Day are adding a Christian veneer to the paganism sometimes associated with Halloween. In fact they were committing themselves to a radical alternative to the world and its Saturnalia, refusing to be squeezed into its mold. They were determined to fix mind, heart, will and strength exclusively on the Lord Jesus Christ. There was no confusion in their minds between the world and the Gospel, Saturnalia and Christmas. They were citizens of another Empire altogether.

Indeed, such was the malice evoked by their other-worldly devotion to Christ that during the Diocletian persecutions of 300 A.D. a number of them were murdered as they gathered to celebrate Christmas. Their offense? Worship of the true Christ—incarnate, crucified, risen, glorified, and returning—who that day demanded, and had, their all.

One Christmas eve, in my teenage years, I opened a book given to me as a present, and found myself so overwhelmed by its teaching on my recently-found Savior that I began to shake with emotion at what had dawned on me: The world did not celebrate His coming but crucified Him. Doubtless I was an impressionable teenager. But does not the world still crucify Him in its own, often subtle ways? Unless the significance of what He did at the first Christmas shakes us we can scarcely be said to have understood much of what it means, or of who He really is.

Who is He in yonder stall
At whose feet the shepherds fall?
‘Tis the Lord, O wondrous story,
‘Tis the Lord, the King of Glory.

Let us not confuse Christ with Santa Claus. Let us find ways this Christmas, of making Him known in all His incarnate wonder.

Accustomed grace, how stale the sound

From Sinclair Ferguson’s latest By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me (Reformation Trust, 2010), page xiv:

“A chief reason for the weakness of the Christian church in the West, for the poverty of our witness and any lack of vitality in our worship, probably lies here: we sing about ‘amazing grace’ and speak of ‘amazing grace,’ but far too often it has ceased to amaze us. Sadly, we might more truthfully sing of ‘accustomed grace.’ We have lost the joy and energy that are experienced when grace seems truly amazing.”