erskine’s signs of a legal temper

Just a follow-up on one thought on my post ‘Both to will and to do‘ from the other day.

I said there that aiming for holiness would be legalistic, (i) if it was attempted on the strength of our own efforts, forgetting that sanctifying grace comes from the same source as justifying grace, and on the same terms, (ii) if it was undertaken as a means of consolidating or contributing to our salvation, and (iii) if we ended up 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.

I’ve now just discovered a note I had of Ralph Erskine saying the same sort of thing, under the heading ‘signs of a legal temper in believers.’ (Again, a legal temper is a tendency to resort to keeping the law as a basis of our hope of acceptance with God, and Erskine is exposing this harmful tendency in believers – people who have learned by experience that it is indeed harmful, but who still keep slipping back into that way of thinking and living.)

1. It is a legal temper, when the believer is under excessive discouragements, on whatever ground: it is an evidence he is too much under the law; for the law can give no encouragement, no settlement to the conscience; it is only Christ can give rest. ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

What is it that discourages a believer when he is under a legal temper? Sometimes he is discouraged when he performs duty, and cannot find that presence, that sensible help he would have; why then he is dispirited indeed. It is true he then hath ground of mourning, when the Lord is absent; he should be deeply humbled for the causes of it: but when he is so dispirited that he loses his confidence, and is beaten quite away from his faith and hope, questions his state and gives way to slavish fear that weakens his hands in duties and draws his heart from duty, it is a token, he is secretly hankering after the law; for the language of his heart is, O if I could pray with as much life, and hear with as much attention, and perform duty with as much vigour as I would be at! O then I would have good hope. And so it is not Christ so much as the law … that you desire to place your hope in, while you are under that legal frame. …

Sometimes their discouragements arise from this, that they dare not apply the promises, and why so? Because they think the promises are not for such as they are; but only for such as are more holy. What is this but a legal temper, apprehending that if you had such and such a legal rightousness then God would be some way induced to give you the promise. But O, is not grace to be glorified in this new and gospel way! And therefore the more of a gospel spirit you have, the more cheerfully will you embrace the promises for this end, that, having these promises, you may cleanse yourself, but [drawing virtue from] this promise.

2. It is a sign of a legal temper, when a person is more taken up with the gifts of Christ, than with Christ himself. When they get any sensible grace, and sensible good affections, melting of heart, melting of spirit, any inclination to what is good, any gifts or graces, whether common or special, they admire these, and are not so much taken up with Chrsit himself. But the person that is evangelical in his actings, by what he gets, he is led to the giver; if this be sweet, O he is infinitely sweeter that sent it. I embrace the token, and it draws out my heart the more after him from whom it came.

(It was the second paragraph under number (1) that made me think of that earlier post, but the rest is useful too.)

19 thoughts on “erskine’s signs of a legal temper

  1. Here in the States, those belonging to the “Federal Vision” movement (sometimes also known as the “New Perspective on Paul”) are into that very thing: they think that our good works will contribute to our “final justification” on the Last Day. They want to do what the Catholic Church does (and, indeed, some of them have gone over to Rome): they want to collapse sanctification into justification.

    Didn’t we have this fight 500 years ago? Do we have to have the Reformation all over again?


  2. Go on then, enlighten a benighted papist :-D Distinguish, according to your understanding, justification and sanctification.

    (am sitting on my hands to avoid sticking up allllll the questions I am dying to ask from genuine interest!)(no really. I *think* Cath will believe me that I really want to know)


  3. Justification is the ACT by which God declares a sinner to be righteous in His sight because of Christ’s death for that person’s sins on the cross, thereby making the sinner a child of God and fit for heaven.

    Sanctification is the PROCESS by which God trains His child in the ways of righteousness, weaning him from sin (over the course of the person’s lifetime – as this is a process, not an act). The saved sinner performs good works which have been determined for him by God. These good works have nothing to do with either making the person saved or with keeping him saved. They are performed by the saved person because he IS saved, out of gratitude and obedience to God.

    Again: one can’t perform any good works to either get saved or stay saved. Good works are performed post-salvation, and are the evidence that a person is, indeed, saved.


  4. “Justification is the ACT by which God declares a sinner to be righteous in His sight because of Christ’s death for that person’s sins on the cross, ” This is what Luther is talking about with his metaphor of the dungheap covered in snow?


  5. “Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputes the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification his Spirit infuses grace, and enables to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one does equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.” Westminster Larger Catechism.

    (Ps that paragraph in bold – was going to say something else but decided the post was long enough already – omitted to fix the formatting.)

    Thankfully i’ve only had to watch the FV/NPP thing from the sidelines – another exhausting controversy is the last thing we need, esp when it’s really not as if it’s a new or minor issue


  6. Well i was wondering. I think it probably is, but it’s a bit dodgy trying to decide, when you don’t really know where it’s coming from. Eg, it’s quite common to talk about a sinner being covered with the robe of Christ’s righteousness, and i suppose it fits with the idea of covering in yom kippur, the OT day of atonement which prefigured Christ’s atonement.

    The actual doctrine is that the sinner is declared to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s complete righteousness imputed to that sinner (declared to be righteous because his righteousness becomes theirs, when appropriated by faith). That’s justification. And the work of sanctification begins at the same time as the sinner is justified, when a new principle of grace implanted in the soul by the Holy Spirit .


  7. Justification never comes without sanctification (holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord). However at the very moment a person is saved (ok, don’t get me onto the order of rebirth, faith, repentance etc – because I’m very hazy on that), he is fully justified (because God looks at Jesus for our righteousness in his sight), whereas sanctification is just beginning. This too is a free gift of God, paid for by Jesus, but it involves our life and works (“which God has before prepared that we should walk in them”).

    But if a person is truly saved (as opposed to just believing in a surface way), he/she will receive the gifts of sanctification/perseverance. A final apostasy can only come to those who are only apparently, but not really, believers. That is why one can say that sanctification is necessary to salvation, without meaning that it in any way purchases it.

    Best wishes



  8. Well, lots of what yous have said is perfectly sensible. Jsutification never comes without sanctification.

    “And the work of sanctification begins at the same time as the sinner is justified, when a new principle of grace implanted in the soul by the Holy Spirit .” (with allowances for not quite knowing what you mean by “principle of grace”)

    Of course you are all right when you say all righteousness-int-the-eyes-of-God comes from God, and the fact that God accounts any man righteous is 115% due to the salvific sacrifice of the Cross. Entirely right.

    This priest I know used to say (probably still does!) that the only thing we have of our own are our sins.

    It just seems rather odd that you think God wants to surround Himself with whitened sepulchres.


  9. In a rush but can’t resist :)

    What the salvific sacrifice of the cross is might i think be critical to establish – if i said the fact that God accounts anyone righteous is due to his imputation to that person of the righteousness which Christ accomplished on the cross, would that still sound sensible?

    Don’t think we can talk about justification without imputation

    whited sepulchres?


  10. Imputation of righteousness just means God agrees to pretend you’re something that you’re not.

    Does it not strike you as a little improbable?

    Here you are, dead in sin, but that’s okay, God just puts a white garment of imputed righteousness over your dry bones…

    Nah. (you heard of the nah factor in argument?)

    Maybe it would be better to start with why Christ had to die for us – that is, what is it that has to be undone in us for us to be with God?


  11. Well but imputation is a real benefit, not a pretence. The complete righteousness of Christ is credited to the sinner at the point when the sinner is united to him. The sinner is dry and dead and corrupt before being united to Christ, but simultaneously when the sinner is brought into union with Christ the sinner has the righteousness of Christ imputed to him (ie imputation and regeneration are simultaneous). Imputation itself is laying to the sinner’s charge all the righteousness of Christ – he worked it out for them, and it becomes theirs, when they are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit.

    Why Christ had to die: not sure I’d construe it as what had to be undone, but done/accomplished rather – guilty sinners owing perfect and perpetual obedience to God’s law, unable and unwilling to perform it, and liable to the wrath and curse of God on account of that – obedience needs to be given on their behalf and the punishment due to them needs to be undergone, in order for us to be reconciled to God. (Or is that what you were getting at?)


  12. The world’s longest comment? Couldn’t make it shorter, and it’s too personal to post as a post. It’s a bit fragmentary, and so on, but it is late and it is long enough.

    “The sinner is dry and dead and corrupt before being united to Christ” – presumably therefore afterwards he is watered and alive and healthy? “For I will pour out waters upon the thirsty ground, and streams upon the dry land: I will pour out my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thy stock. And they shall spring up among the herbs, as willows beside the running waters.”

    What is this righteousness of which you speak? If my debt is paid, then I am no longer a debtor and good credit standing is not imputed to me, but I have it of myself. Why would imputation of non-debt heal a sinner of his dryness, deadness and corruption?

    God made us to know Him, love Him and serve Him. He made our first parents, and gave them the grace of living always as befits God’s children. This is the grace Adam threw away, this is the essential turning-towards-God that is a gift of God and without which we are all born. Rational creatures, in the likeness of God, turned away from Him. Christ made good the offence caused to God and purchased for us that grace that Adam lost for us – that change of our being so that we are once more Godward-turned. It is all the work of Christ, this change in us, and nothing of ours – it is not for us to glory save in the Cross of Christ. God does not disregard the fact that we have sinned – He loved us while we were still sinners. He does not want to pretend that we don’t hate Him, that we have our backs to Him – He wants that we should truly be loveable, and having made us, He wants to remake us, to make us partakers of the divine nature. “You shall be holy, as I am holy”.

    In some monasteries psalm 51, as you know it, is prayed every single day, sometimes seven or eight times a day (it loses none of its immediacy the seventh or eighth time in the day, at least, not for me):

    1: Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
    2: Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

    I cannot see that the blood of the Lamb can be ineffective. (You’re going say “but they washed their garments” and I’ll say “well if their garments are the righteousness of Christ then they didn’t need washing, so that can’t be it”) Have mercy on me, Lord, becuase I see my sin, I suffer because I see what I am, and what you are. Change me.
    3: For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
    4: Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.
    5: Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

    I am by fallen nature abhorrent to You, because I, your creature, am turned away from You. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost, Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” While we were still abhorrent to Him He loved us – that is why Jesus died for us, while we were still sinners. Born in sin, reborn in grace. Washed truly from guilt, and from a real sin, not merely some legal penalty, but a sinfulness in our very being.

    6: Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
    Does this sound as though God is going to be happy with pretending that everything is okay with us? Where is the truth in attributing to us a righteousness that we do not in fact possess? (I am not saying that we have anything good of ourselves – your emphasis on the fact that all life, supernaturally speaking, comes from Christ, that all grace is owed to His death, is right)
    7: Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
    Purge me, wash me.
    8: Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
    9: Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.
    Consider not what I deserve, but heal me, cure me.
    10: Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

    Again, a new creation. “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” Is the Holy Spirit going to dwell in a midden?
    11: Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
    12: Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.
    13: Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
    14: Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
    15: O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

    I love this verse. If God opens our lips, then we can praise Him. It’s why it’s so beautiful to pray the psalms – the words God puts into our mouths, the mouths opened by His grace, the song of the Bride.
    16: For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
    The works of the Law are no use.
    17: The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
    Contrition is all God asks (and even that, He gives us)
    18: Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
    19: Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

    *then*, when God builds up the broken city, pours life into the dead heart, will He accept the sacrifices offered with clean hands. Christ had no need, as Hebrews says, of sacrifice for Himself, His sacrifice was pleasing to God. The covering-by-Christ’s-righteousness is but a pale shadow of the truth – we are incorporated into Christ, our life is hidden in God with Christ – there is only one sacrifice, Christ’s – and we are Christ’s body. St Paul says “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” God in His mercy, in His good pleasure rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem, the heavenly city, the church, the Body of Christ, and is pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness offered therein.

    God bless, good night!


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