On Legalistic Preaching

Yesterday I spent the day researching in the main reading room at the Library of Congress. Reading there is really one of the coolest experiences a nerd could ever blog about. Mainly I was there to kick around some ideas I have for a potential book project and the purpose of my trip was really not much more than acclimating myself to a number of 18th century writers that I am only vaguely familiar. One of those writers is Ralph Erskine. Erskine wrote a book, indecisively titled Gospel Sonnets, Or, Spiritual Songs (Edinburgh: 1755). One of the chapters in the book is comprised of several sonnets that slap legalistic preachers around. This sonnet was too good not to post (pp. 49-51):

Hell cares not how crude holiness be preach’d,
If sinners match with Christ be never reach’d;
Knowing their holiness is but a sham,
Who ne’er are marry’d to the holy Lamb.
They mar true holiness with tickling chat,
To breed a bastard Pharisaic brat.
They woefully the gospel-message broke,
Make fearful havoc of the Master’s flock;
Yet please themselves and the blind multitude,
By whom the gospel’s little understood.

Rude souls perhaps imagine little odds
Between the legal and the gospel roads:
But vainly men attempt to blend the two. …
The fiery law, as ’tis a covenant,
Schools men to see the gospel-aid they want;
Then gospel-aid does sweetly them incline
Back to the law as ’tis a rule divine.
Heav’n’s healing work is oft commenc’d with wounds,
Terror begins what loving-kindness crowns.

Preachers may therefore press the fiery law,
To strike the Christless man with dreadful awe.
Law-threats which for his sins to hell depress,
Yes, damn him for his rotten righteousness;
That, while he view the law exceeding broad,
He fain may wed the righteousness of God.

But ah! to press law-works as terms of life,
Was ne’er the way to court the Lamb a wife.
To urge conditions in the legal frame,
Is to renew the vain old cov’nant game.
The law is good when lawfully ’tis us’d,
But most destructive then it is abus’d.
They set not duties in the proper sphere,
Who duly law and gospel don’t sever;
But under lassy chains let sinners lie,
As tributaries, or to DO or DIE.
Nor make the law a squaring rule of life,
But in the gospel-throat a bloody knife.

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