Poetic Polemics:: Warnings Against Legalism in the Gospel Sonnets of Ralph Erskine

Thursday, 05 Jul 2007

If God could have lowered his standards, why did Christ have to suffer in our place?

The name Ralph Erskine (1685- 1752) might not sound that familiar to modern ears but, in fact, this minister’s literary works were once so treasured that as late as 1879 they were still some of the best-selling religious books in London. (1) Most of Erskine’s published material consisted of his sermons, but his most popular selling volume was a collection of feisty poetic discourses entitled the Gospel Sonnets, first published in 1720 and which by 1793 had seen more than twenty editions (including American releases). (2)

Erskine was born in Monilaws, Northumberland, in 1685. His father was a minister there and was personally involved in the conversion and discipleship of noted Puritan Thomas Boston. Ralph entered Edinburgh University to study theology when he was fifteen and was old enough to be licensed as a preacher by 1709. In a short biography, G. Ella records that once Erskine was called to the ministry, he was filled with grave doubts as to his Christian witness and calling, and scoured the works of godly men to find comfort. On reading Boston on the covenant, he was able to plead the promises of God and regain peace of heart. Erskine’s view of himself as shown by his diary at this time is instructive. He writes, “This morning, after reading, I went to prayer, under a sense of my nothingness and naughtiness, vileness and corruption, and acknowledged myself a beast before God.” He could nevertheless add, “I was made to cry with tears, Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief. I was led, in some suitable manner, under a view of my nothingness, and of God’s all-sufficiency, to renounce all confidence in the flesh.” (3)

The Marrow Controversy

In addition to overcoming his personal struggles, however, Erskine was strongly motivated by his involvement in what became known as the Marrow Controversy. This was an early eighteenth century debate over the nature of law and grace in the role of salvation. There was in some of the Scottish churches of those days a popular tendency toward legalistic preaching. Certain critics of this movement feared that the neonomians, as they were called, had turned the gospel into a new law by demanding certain conditions be met before salvation could be offered. Thomas Boston, Ralph Erskine, and others felt that this threatened to obscure the doctrine of justification itself. The neonomians, on the other hand, accused these critics of antinomianism (see p. 31) for not encouraging true repentance of sin in the preaching of the gospel.

Boston attempted to resolve the issue by having Edward Fisher’s book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, republished, but this only seemed to make matters worse. The neonomians were offended by Fisher’s book and had Boston and others forced out of the General Assembly. Although Ralph Erskine was not a part of the original group to be forced out, he nevertheless believed after much internal struggle that he ought to identify himself with the minority outsider group. When he pulled out, the majority of his congregation pulled out with him and proceeded to build a new church facility.

Reading the Gospel Sonnets

A quick glance at the table of contents of the Gospel Sonnets will quickly reveal Erskine’s zeal in opposing the neonomian faction during the Marrow Controversy. Entire sonnets are listed under titles such as “Arguments and Encouragements to Gospel-ministers to Avoid a Legal Strain of Doctrine,” “The Hurtfulness of not preaching Christ, and Distinguishing Duly Between Law and Gospel,” or even “Damnable Pride and Self-righteousness, So Natural to All Men, Have Little Need to be Encouraged by Legal Preaching.” What is striking is how this author blends theological precision with his poetic talent. The result is a kind of literature that stirs its readers on multiple levels.

At the beginning of the Gospel Sonnets, Erskine presents the evangelistic enterprise as a “nuptial treaty,” and the evangelists are the heralds of the divine King in charge of announcing this heavenly arrangement, gathering suitable brides for the royal Lamb. But before these heralds set out to spread the word, Erskine bids them to stop for a moment to contemplate their task and to proceed only with a proper gospel methodology in order for them to make an appropriate match. This was not an easy task to accomplish because often there were times in which the legal emphasis was so pervasive that it actually obscured the liberating message of the gospel-such as was the case with the Romanists, the Arminians, and according to Erskine, now the neonomians.

Oft in the church arise destructive schisms
From anti-evangelic aphorisms;
A legal spirit may be justly nam’d
The fertile womb of ev’ry error damn’d.
Hence Pop’ry, so connat’ral since the fall,
Makes legal works like saviours merit all;
Yea, more than merit on their shoulder loads,
To supererogate like demi-gods.
Hence dare Arminians too, with brazen face,
Give man’s free-will the throne of God’s free grace;
Whose self-exalting tenets clearly shew
Great ignorance of law and gospel too.
Hence Neonomians spring, as sundry call
The new law-makers, to redress our fall.
The law of works into repentance, faith,
Is chang’d, as their Baxterian Bible saith.
Shaping the gospel to an easy law,
They build their tott’ring house with hay and straw;
Yet hide, like Rachel’s idols in the stuff,
Their legal hands within a gospel-muff. (4)

According to Erskine, legalism is the “womb” of all the errors and schisms he mentions. But what is most important is to notice how this author equates both Arminianism and neonomianism with Romanism. In other words, the two Protestant sects were in Erskine’s mind just as destructive as the Roman apostasy. It is also interesting to notice how our poet makes mention of the Baxterians in the midst of his critique of neonomianism. Erskine is thinking of the followers of Richard Baxter who argued in his day that God had published a new law, and that conformity to this new law had become one’s individual righteousness. In one of his sermons, he elaborates on the teachings of this group:

The Baxterians tell us that … the act of faith is our righteousness, not as it accepts Christ’s righteousness, but as it is an obedience to this new law. The very act and work of faith is, according to them, righteousness itself and this faith includes all kinds of works, namely, repentance, love, obedience, and ten or twelve duties of that sort; and all these together are our righteousness for justification. Really as one says upon this very head, if the Apostle Paul were alive he would excommunicate such ministers. (5)

Thus, when Erskine is critical of the neonomian camp, he probably has certain Baxterians in mind. In a later sonnet, he mentions one of the possible motives of the legalists who “Press moral duties to the last degree.” “Why not?” they say, “lest we successless be.” (6) In other words, the successful, with-it, and happening churches of Erskine’s day were churches characterized by moralistic preaching. Thus, in order to combat this popular legal emphasis, Erskine wisely suggests, “The more proud nature bears a legal sway, the more should preachers bend the gospel-way.” (7) This sliding-scale approach would serve to keep legalism in check by making sure that the gospel always got the upper hand. In his day, however, this was simply not the case:

Christ is not preach’d in truth, but in disguise,
If his bright glory half absconded lies.
When gospel-soldiers, that divide the word,
Scarce brandish any but the legal sword.
While Christ the author of the law they press,
More than the end of it for righteousness;
Christ as a seeker of our service trace,
More than a giver of enabling grace.
With legal spade the gospel-field he delves,
Who thus drives sinners in unto themselves;
Halving the truth that should be all reveal’d,
The sweetest part of Christ is oft conceal’d. (8)

Concern of Christian Introspection

It was the tendency of those in the neonomian camp to focus on what we do for Christ, rather than on what Christ did for us. This, Erskine thought, led sinners “in unto themselves” rather than to be thrust outside themselves to contemplate the work of Christ on their behalf. He is concerned that this type of preaching creates Christian introspection and ignores the sweet promises of the gospel so clear throughout the Scriptures. Thus he continues,

We bid men turn from sin, but seldom say,
Behold the Lamb that takes all sin away!
Christ, by the gospel rightly understood,
Not only treats a peace but makes it good.
Those suitors therefore of the bride, who hope
By force to drag her with the legal rope,
Nor use the drawing cord of conqu’ring grace,
Pursue with flaming zeal a fruitless chase
In vain lame doings urge, with solemn awe,
To bribe the fury of the fiery law:
With equal success to the fool that aims
By paper walls to bound devouring flames. (9)

Ministers of the Word of God or “suitors” as he calls them, make a serious mistake if they attempt with legal arts to present a bride for the Lamb. No matter how zealous they be, it is done in vain if it is not done in the grace of the gospel. Therefore in Erskine’s mind, those who preached a stern message of repentance from sin without the liberating message of the gospel were in danger of falling under the same criticism that Jesus offered to the Pharisees when he said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matt. 23:13). Without the gospel of Christ one simply does not have adequate protection from the divine curse, but rather must rely on “paper walls,” as Erskine eloquently puts it, to hold back the flames of God’s wrath. Just as Paul complained of the Jews that “they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own” (Rom. 10:3), Erskine was similarly concerned about the Judaizing tendency of the neonomian message:

But, ah! to press the 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 used,
But most destructive, when it is abused.
They set not duties in the proper sphere,
Who duly law and gospel don’t sever;
But under many 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. (10)

Law and Gospel Distinction

In these powerful lines, Erskine shows the inherent fallacy of legalistic preaching. It is a renewal of the old Mosaic covenant. Thus in keeping with a broad Reformation tradition, our author suggests that we make a careful distinction between law and gospel. The law for Erskine was not something to be set aside completely but rather to be used properly. Those who wished to use it as a means of salvation had made an obvious mistake, but those who intertwined the works of the law with the gospel message were even more dangerous because they had hidden a sharp dagger in gospel clothing. This is why Erskine is careful to present the law as strict and severe, while at the same time proclaiming a gospel that is totally free, sweet, and comforting: “Are law-commands exceeding broad? So is the righteousness of God,” (11) or elsewhere:

A rigid matter was the law,
Demanding brick, denying straw;
But when with gospel-tongue it sings,
It bids me fly, and gives me wings. (12)

Right out of the gate, therefore, Erskine gets to the heart of the issue. The biggest problem in the church of his day was that the requirements of God’s law were portrayed as if they were capable of being met. They were not “exceeding broad,” but were achievable moral duties. This is not to say that the neonomians of Erskine’s day actually thought they could keep the entire law of Moses. No, in their minds, God had revoked those laws with the coming of Christ. (Now all he expected was true repentance, sincere devotion, etc.) Erskine first characterizes, then criticizes this view:

But, says the legal, proud, self-righteous heart,
Which cannot with her ancient consort part,
“What! Won’t the goodness of the God of heav’n
“Admit of smalls when greater can’t be given?
“He knows our falls diminish’d all our funds,
“Won’t he accept of pennies now for pounds?
“Sincere endeavours for perfection take,
“Or terms more possible for mankind make?”
Ah! poor divinity, and jargon loose;
Such hay and straw will never build the house.
Mistake not here, proud mortal; don’t mistake;
God changes not, nor other terms will make.
Will divine faithfulness itself deny,
Which swore solemnly, Man shall do or die?
Will our great Creditor deny himself?
And for full payment take our filthy pelf?
Dispense with justice, to let mercy vent?
And stain his royal crown with ‘minish’d rent?
Unworthy thought! O let no mortal clod
Hold such base notions of a glorious God. (13)

The ultimate question Erskine addresses is whether or not God can put aside his justice for our sakes. Indeed he cannot. It is crucial that one does not err at this point because if one asserts that God now accepts repentance, sorrow, or even faith as if it were the keeping of the law (pennies for pounds), then he has established that God lowers his own standard of holiness for our sakes. But if this were the case, then God would cease to be God. In fact, it is the unrelenting holiness of God that points both to our guilt and to the awful justice poured out on Christ. If God could have lowered his standards, why did Christ have to suffer in our place? Did not Jesus ask of his father, “If you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42)? And what was the answer? The answer was that the second person of the trinity “was crucified, died, and was buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead.” Thus in Christ, God was able to remain perfectly holy and just, and yet love us as well.

Erskine reminds us, therefore, that the law could only “promise life to me if my obedience perfect be.” (14) He presents not an easy law but a “consuming fire,” in order that the gospel might be the only means to appease the “divine ire.” (15) He insists on an unambiguous presentation of the terror of the law so that no one will mistake it as a means of procuring acceptance with God:

Much rather ought we in God’s name to place
His great artill’ry straight against their face;
And throw hot Sinai thunderbolts around,
To burn their tow’ring hopes down to the ground.
To curse the doers unto endless thrall,
That never did continue to do all.
To scorch their conscience with the flaming air,
And sink their haughty thoughts in deep despair;
Oh! Dang’rous is th’ attempt proud flesh to please,
Or send a sinner to the law for ease;
Who rather needs to feel its piercing dart,
‘Till dreadful pangs invade his trembling heart;
And thither only should be sent for flames
Of fire to burn his rotten hopes and claims;
That thus disarm’d, he gladly may embrace,
And grasp with eagerness the news of grace. (16)

“What! would ye have us plung’d in deep despair?” Erskine rhetorically asks. “Amen; yea, God himself would have you there.” (17) Then he concludes, “You prize not heav’n, till he through hell you draw; Nor love the gospel, till ye know the law.” (18) Week after week, year after year, a minister’s responsibility is to preach the law in such as way so as to force sinners to flee to Christ (Gal. 3:24) rather than to the law for comfort and assurance. But, as the poet points out, it is not only our sinful actions that prevent us from being accepted by God on account of our works, but our so-called righteous acts as well (Isa. 64:6). According to Erskine, these “fig leaves” of our own making can never make us acceptable with God:

For sins of nature, practice, heart, and way,
Damnation-rent it summons thee to pay.
Yea, not for sin alone, which is thy shame,
But for thy boasted service too, so lame,
The law adjudges thee and hell to meet,
Because thy righteousness is incomplete.
As tow’ring flames burn up the wither’d flags,
So will the fiery law thy filthy rags.
Fig-leaves won’t hide thee from the fiery show’r,
‘Tis he alone that saves by price and pow’r. (19)

Erskine is careful, however, to separate the wheat from the chaff. While rejecting the neonomian doctrine that repentance, sorrow, or sincerity were the new “works” one had to perform to save oneself, he does not reject these qualities as unnecessary altogether, as was sometimes the case with various genuinely antinomian groups. Rather, Erskine explains that one must carefully distinguish the fruit of God’s grace with its cause:

Some make, though in the sacred page unknown,
Sincerity assume perfection’s throne:
How unadvis’d the legal mind confounds
The marks of divine favour with the grounds,
And qualities of covenanted friends
With the condition of the cov’nant blends?
Thus holding gospel-truths with legal arms,
Mistakes new-cov’nant fruits for fed’ral terms.
Sincerity’s the soul of ev’ry grace,
The quality of all the ransom’d race.
Of promis’d favour ’tis a fruit, a clause;
But no procuring term, no moving cause. (20)

Neonomians and Naturalistic Theology

By suggesting that sincerity, for example, could somehow be accepted as a fulfillment of the law of God, the neonomians had shown their predisposition toward a naturalistic theology. Here we can see why Erskine and the Marrow Men felt that these neonomians were closer to Rome than to Calvin’s Geneva or Luther’s Wittenburg. For it was the Council of Trent in 1564 that declared, “If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins … let him be anathema.” (21) Rome’s point was that men are saved by more than simple faith in the work of Christ. Thus by asserting that sincerity was a procuring cause of salvation, the neonomians had come dangerously close to the Roman error, if they hadn’t arrived there already:

Ah! many learn to lisp in gospel-terms,
Who yet embrace the law with legal arms.
Who faintly but renounce proud merit’s name,
And cleave refin’dly to the Popish scheme.
For graceful works expecting divine bliss;
And, when they fail, trust Christ for what’s amiss.
Thus to his righteousness profess to flee;
Yet by it still would their own saviors be (22)
They seem to works of merit bloody foes;
Yet seek salvation, as it were, by those.
Blind Gentiles found, who did not seek nor know;
But Isra’l lost it whole, who sought it so.
Let all that love to wear the gospel-dress,
Know that as sin, so dastard righteousness
Has slain its thousands, who in tow’ring pride
The righteousness of Jesus Christ deride;
A robe divinely wrought, divinely won,
Yet cast by men for rags that are their own.
But some to legal works seem whole deny’d,
Yet would by gospel-works be justify’d,
By faith, repentance, love, and other such:
These dreamers being righteous overmuch,
Like Uzzah give the ark a wrongful touch. (23)

Uzzah is the unfortunate character in 2 Samuel 6:6-7 who being zealous for the ark of the covenant attempted to rescue it from falling to the ground when an ox stumbled. God, however, considered this an “irreverent act,” because the dust of the ground was to be preferred above the sinfulness of Uzzah’s flesh. In like manner, many who are zealous for Christ give him a wrongful touch when they trust him only “for what is amiss,” rather than resting in him exclusively. So Erskine reminds them of the Pauline warning that if they start with the law, they are obligated to keep it whole:

Didst thou in pray’rs employ the morning-light,
In tears and groans the watches of the night,
Pass thy whole life in close devotion o’er;
‘Tis nothing to the law still craving more.
There’s no proportion ‘twixt its high commands,
And puny works from thy polluted hands;
Perfection is the least that it demands. (24)

Augustus Toplady in his famous hymn “Rock of Ages” writes similarly, “Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears forever flow; All for sin could not atone, Thou must save and Thou alone.” Erskine and Toplady both believed that zeal and tears were often appropriate responses to God’s gracious gift in Christ. But they were simply not to be mistaken with the cause of God’s grace.

Turning his attention to the objective work of Christ, Erskine then contemplates all that was involved for us in the incarnation, cross, and passion:

His errand, never-ending life to give
To them, whose malice would not let him live;
Himself he humbled, to depress her pride,
And make his mortal foe his loving bride.
Law-righteousness requir’d, must be procur’d,
Law-vengeance threatned, must be full endur’d,
Poor Bankrupt! all her debt must first be paid,
Her former husband in the grave be laid:
If all these things this Suitor kind can do,
Then he may win her, and her blessing too.
Hard terms indeed! while death’s the first demand:
But love is strong as death, to take the upper hand,
To carry on the suit, and make it good,
Though at the dearest rate of wounds and blood.
The burden’s heavy, but the back is broad,
The glorious Lover is the mighty God. (25)

In this remarkable section, it is as if we are given access to the heavenly courts to see the Father considering his Son’s holy mission. We also see how necessary it was for Christ to meet the standard of justice required by the law, and the awful death that same justice demanded of sinful man. It is interesting that throughout the Gospel Sonnets, Erskine has argued for a clear distinction between law and gospel, but in the lines, “The burden is heavy, but the back is broad,” we see a close union of the two in a single stanza. “The burden is heavy” because the law must have its due, and the fact that “the back is broad” is a rich description of God’s power and willingness to save. As Erskine puts it elsewhere, “Both law and gospel close unite … in fair Immanuel’s face.” (26)

O! unexampled love! so vast, so strong,
So great, so high, so deep, so broad, so long!
Can finite thought this ocean huge explore,
Unconscious of a bottom or a shore?
His love admits no parallel; for why,
At one great draught of love he drank hell dry.
The sword of awful justice pierc’d his side,
That mercy thence might gush upon the bride. (27)

Christ drank hell dry for us, when he took the cup of God’s wrath on our behalf on the Cross of Calvary. Thus, when the sword of God’s justice pierced his side, mercy “gushed” out onto the church that he might “present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27).

Christ’s Centrality in Erskine’s Writings

Ralph Erskine’s Gospel Sonnets are rich in imagery and weighty in content. They contain stern warnings about the harmfulness of legal preaching along with helpful directives about distinguishing law from gospel. They challenge us to evaluate our evangelistic methods, and they present us again and again with the centrality of Christ who alone secures our justification before a holy God.

Though weak in his faith at one time, Erskine found the message of the gospel to be of great comfort for his troubled soul. The Gospel Sonnets could only have been written by such a person. Having sailed the treacherous seas of introspection and self-doubt, Ralph Erskine arrived safely upon solid ground and spent the rest of his days making maps, as it were, for voyagers in similar waters. The great concern of the author of the Gospel Sonnets was that many pious Christians in his day were in danger of crashing against the rocks of legalism or even Romanism, rather than reaching the safe and comely shores of Christ. May this be our concern as well.

Our office is to bear the radiant torch,
Of gospel-light, into the darkened porch
Of human understandings, and display
The joyful dawn of everlasting day. (28)

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