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There is great freedom in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are justified by grace alone through faith alone and are accepted by God into His family. The gospel of grace is, unfortunately, easily corrupted. Generally, it is corrupted in one of two ways. The first way is the way of the antinomian—that obedience to the law of God is not required for the Christian. As John Gerstner used to riff on an old gospel song: “Free from the law, oh happy condition. I can sin as I please and still have remission.” This is the view that Paul rebukes in Romans 6:1–2: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
Unfortunately, this corruption of the gospel of grace never entirely goes away. It was one of the charges that the Roman Catholic Church leveled at the Protestants, that if justification is by grace alone through faith alone, it opens the door for antinomianism. Of course, the gospel rightly understood is not a recipe for antinomianism but rather a recipe for holiness. Yet even today we see in many professing Christians a tendency toward antinomianism that is a blot on the gospel and the church and a blight on their own lives. Antinomians rightly recognize that the debt of sin has been paid. But they think that this allows them to go back into debt to the flesh, a view that Paul rebukes in Romans 8:12: “We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” Instead, we are to put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13). We are to put to death what is earthly in us (Col. 3:5). We are to put off our old self, which is corrupt through its deceitful desires, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:22–24). Careful attention to the teaching of the Scriptures on this point is a solid cure for antinomianism, and sound Reformed teachers have always been diligent on this point.
But there is a second corruption of the gospel of grace that I think is at least as dangerous and perhaps even more insidious than that of antinomianism. It is commonly called legalism. Legalism recognizes that the Christian is not free to sin but thinks that our right standing before God is maintained by our obedience to the law. This legalism comes in two forms. The first form is the easy form to recognize. It is the one that makes up its own rules in place of the law of God. It is the form that says, “I am in right standing with God because I had my quiet time this morning and I go to church twice on Sunday.” Or perhaps, “I am in right standing before God because I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I don’t watch Game of Thrones.” This is a Christian life that has failed to see that the gospel of grace means that right standing before God is not earned, particularly not by following a set of rules that we have made up in place of the really difficult requirements of God’s law—that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. This form of legalism, while being easy to recognize, is hard to stamp out. But it must be stamped out by a faithful preaching of what it means to walk in the Spirit.
The second form of legalism is harder to recognize and thus harder to combat. How many times have we sung “Come Thou Fount” and blithely repeated the words, “Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be”? Or perhaps we have read Augustus Toplady’s statement, “Grace finds us beggars, and always leaves us debtors,” and nodded in agreement. While there is truth in these statements, there can also be found here a subtle misdirection away from the gospel of grace. The truth in these statements is that we are indeed recipients of an incalculable mercy and that daily we depend on that mercy. The subtle misdirection is in placing us as recipients of grace in the position of debtors. The problem for debtors is that the debt must be repaid. If we see ourselves as debtors to grace, the temptation will be to attempt to pay off that debt. All labor then becomes an attempt at repayment. This kind of legalist finds himself, perhaps unconsciously, slaving away with the fear, even the dread, that the work done will never be enough. This dread can then breed a resentment against the grace that has been received and result in a Christian who is full of a terror of God and a resentment against God. The result is Martin Luther’s anguished cry, “Love God? I hate Him!”
The key to identifying and ridding oneself of this sort of legalism is found in that word debt. The only place in the Bible that speaks about the Christian’s debt is in Paul’s statement, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” (Rom. 8:12). One might expect that Paul would continue in the discourse by saying something along the lines of “but we are debtors to grace.” This he does not do. This leads us to conclude that perhaps Paul is saying, in an emphatic way, “We are not debtors to the flesh; therefore we have no business living according to the flesh.” The other places where the New Testament speaks of debt, as it relates to the gospel, always speak in terms of the cancellation of debt. In the parable of the wicked servant, the master says: “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt” (Matt. 18:32). In the story of Simon and the woman who was a sinner, Jesus uses a story in which two debts are canceled (Luke 7:36–50). Paul says explicitly concerning our indebtedness that God has “forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us” (Col. 2:13–14). To indicate that the Christian is currently in a state of indebtedness before God is to misstate the case and to place an illegitimate burden on the believer.
Thinking of ourselves as in debt to grace or as debtors to the gospel is to turn things upside down. Once we were debtors. Now we are not. Once we owed God an incalculable debt. Now we do not. There is no indebtedness that needs to be worked off so that God is no longer our creditor.
Perhaps a better way of considering our current state as believers in Christ is to think of ourselves in terms of being friends of God, of being sons of God. Jesus said to the disciples, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). This identification is important for two reasons. First, because it lifts the believer out the status of being a mere servant and into the status of friend. And second, because once Jesus has been raised, He includes the disciples not just as friends but as brothers. It is no longer “my Father.” It is now “our Father” as well. Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene in the garden, telling her to go to the disciples and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17).
Particularly in Romans and Galatians, where Paul was dealing both with those who would stray into antinomian territory and with those who would stumble into legalism, he emphasizes the status of Christians as sons of God: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:14, 19). “For in Christ Jesus you are sons of God, through faith. . . . And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” (Gal. 3:26; 4:6).
Are Christians indebted to the gospel of grace? Certainly. But we are not in debt to the gospel of grace. The debt has been paid in full by Christ, and that payment has been credited to our account. Let us not then live as debtors, fearful, as it were, of calls from creditors. And let us not live as if we were indebted to the flesh, for we have been redeemed from its tyranny. Instead, let us live in the freedom of the sons of God, being conformed to the image of the Son of God, walking in the power of the Spirit given us in the gospel of grace.