Somewhere recently I came across a question about whether or not the resolutions that Jonathan Edwards made could have been a sign of legalism.
17. Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.
47. Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to deny whatever is not most agreeable to a good, and universally sweet and benevolent, quiet, peaceable, contented, easy, compassionate, generous, humble, meek, modest, submissive, obliging, diligent and industrious, charitable, even, patient, moderate, forgiving, sincere temper; and to do at all times what such a temper would lead me to. Examine strictly every week, whether I have done so.
(Etc; see the rest of the list here.)
Legalism in this context was referring to attempts to obey the law of God in a way that would make the attempted obedience contribute to the reason for God favouring you – something to be avoided, because the spirit of the gospel is, in contrast, that the only reason for God to treat anyone favourably is on the basis of the person and work of Christ, representing them.
When you consider that a continuously impeccable life is only what’s expected from us, as accountable moral beings, in the first place, it’s clear that it is only right and proper that we should make a personal commitment to pursuing holiness and sinlessness both across the board and in all the areas where we are most conscious of failures and shortcomings of our own.
Although this could easily degenerate into (or I suppose equally spring from) a spirit of legalism, it needn’t be at all legalistic to resolve and purpose to live a holy life – a life in keeping with the most comprehensive and searching demands of the ten commandments – and I don’t think it was legalism in Edwards’s case.
It would be legalistic, for one thing, if a person tried to live up to these standards by their own efforts, forgetting that sanctifying grace comes from the same source as justifying grace, and on the same terms. Or, if adhering to the resolutions and fulfilling them was becoming a means of consolidating or contributing to your salvation, that would be inconsistent with the spirit of the gospel too. As would, I think, feeling or acting as if our perceived successes or failures according to either self-imposed or scriptural benchmarks have any bearing on the safety or wellbeing of our souls.
Any of these things are damaging to the health of the Christian’s soul – and followed through, they would make it impossible for anyone to be converted to start with, never mind grow in grace. But purposing holiness while avoiding and repudiating these tendencies is not legalistic. A firmer grasp of the completeness of Christ’s work for his people and its implications as the sole basis of hope for sinners would, as they say, make us much less prone to put our hopes and comfort in the work of God in us, while at the same time providing a much happier motivation for fervently pressing towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
As God has said, … I will be their God, and they shall be my people. … Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world, looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.