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A Legal Strain of Doctrine


by Ralph Erskine
(1685-1752)



The following selection is taken from Erkine's Gospel Sonnets as found in "The Sermons and Practical Works of Ralph Erskine" (Glasgow: W. Smith and J. Bryce Booksellers, 1778) vol. 10, pp. 85-95. The original title appears as follows: "Arguments and Encouragements to Gospel-ministers to avoid a legal strain of doctrine, and endeavor the sinner's match with Christ by gospel means." The electronic edition of this text has been newly type set and edited by Shane Rosenthal for Reformation Ink. In numerous cases antiquated characters have been replaced and the spelling has been modernized. In some instances sections have been edited for clarity. This particular version therefore is not in the public domain. It may be copied and distributed only for personal or educational use.


 

F E A T U R I N G :
Section I. A Legal Spirit the Root of Damnable Errors.
 
Section II. A Legal Strain of Doctrine Discovered and Discarded.
 
Section III. The Hurtfulness of Not Preaching Christ, and Distinguishing Duly Between Law and Gospel.
 
Section IV. Damnable Pride and Self-righteousness, So Natural to All Men, Has Little Need to be Encouraged by Legal Preaching.
 
Section V. The Gospel of Divine Grace the Only Means of Converting Sinners; and Should be Preached Therefore Most Clearly, Fully, and Freely.
 
 
 
 
 
SECTION I.
A Legal Spirit the Root of Damnable Errors.
 
Ye heralds great, that blow, in name of God,
The silver trump of gospel-grace abroud;
And sound, by warrant from the great I AM,
The nuptial treaty with the worthy Lamb:
Might ye but stoop th' unpolish'd muse to brook,
And from a shrub an wholesome berry pluck;
Ye'd take encouragement from what is said,
By gospel-means to make the marriage-bed,
And to your glorious Lord a virgin chaste to wed.
 
The more proud nature bears a legal sway,
The more should preachers bend the gospel-way:
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 nat'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 proud Soncinians set their reason high,
'Bove ev'ry precious gospel-mystery,
Its divine author stab, and without fear
The purple cover of his chariot tear.
 
With these run Arian monsters in a line,
All gospel truth at once to undermine;
To darken and delete, like hellish foes,
The brightest colour of the Sharon Rose.
At best its human red they but decry,
That blot the divine white, the native dye.
 
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.
 
Yea, hence spring Antinomian vile refuse,
Whose gross abettors gospel-grace abuse;
Unskill'd how grace's silken latchet binds
Her captives to the law with willing minds.
 
* The Baxterian Scheme Opposite to the Gospel Doctrine
The Baxterians tell us that God hath made a new law with mankind, and, that obedience to this new law and its commands is our righteousness; and that, this obedience gives us a title to heaven, and a title to Christ's blood, and to pardon; and that the act of faith is our righteousness, not as it accepts of Christ's righteousness, but as it is an obedience to this new law. The very act and work of faith is, according to them, the 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. (From "The Beauties of Erskine").
 
 


SECTION II.
A Legal Strain of Doctrine Discovered and Discarded.
No wonder Paul the legal spirit curse,
Of fatal errors such a feeding nurse.
He, in JEHOVAH's great tremendous name,
Condemns perverters of the gospel-scheme.
He damn'd the sophist rude, the babbling priest
Would venture to corrupt it in the least;
Yea, curst the heav'nly angel down to hell,
That daring would another gospel tell.
Which crime is charg'd on these that dare dispense
The self-same gospel in another sense.
 
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.
The king commanding holiness they show,
More than the Prince exalted to bestow;
Yea, more on Christ the sin-revenger dwell,
Than Christ Redeemer both from sin and hell.
 
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.
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.
The law's but mock'd by their most graceful deed,
That wed not first the law-fulfilling Head;
It values neither how they wrought nor wept,
That slight the ark wherein alone 'tis kept.
Yet legalists, DO, DO, with ardour press,
And with prepost'rous zeal and warm address,
Would seem the greatest friends to holiness:
But vainly (could such opposites accord)
Respect the law, and yet reject the Lord.
They shew not Jesus as the way to bliss,
But Judas-like betray him with a kiss
Of boasted works, or mere profession puft,
Law-boasters proving but law-breakers oft.
 
 
 


SECTION III.
The Hurtfulness of Not Preaching Christ, and Distinguishing Duly Between Law and Gospel
Hell cares not how crude holiness be preach'd,
If sinner's match with Christ be never reach'd;
Knowing their holiness is but a sham,
Who ne'er are marry'd to the holy Lamb.
Let words have never such a pious shew,
And blaze aloft in rude professor's view,
With sacred aromatics richly spic'd,
If they but drown in silence glorious Christ;
Or, if he may some vacant room supply,
Make him a subject only by the by;
They mar true holiness with tickling chat,
To breed a bastard Pharisaic brat.
They wofully the gospel message-broke,
Make fearful havock of their 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;
They differ more than Christ and Moses do.
Moses, evangelizing in a shade,
By types the news of light approaching spread;
But from the law of works, by him proclaim'd,
No ray of gospel-grace or mercy gleam'd.
By nature's light the law to all is known,
But lightsome news of gospel-grace to none.
The doing cov'nant now, in part or whole,
Is strong to damn, but weak to save a soul.
It hurts, and cannot help, but as it tends
Through mercy to subserve some gospel-ends.
Law-thunder roughly to the gospel tames,
The gospel mildly to the law reclaims.
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.
Heaven'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 men with dreadful awe.
Law-threats which for his sins to hell depress.
Yea, damn him for his rotten righteousness;
That while he views the law exceeding broad,
He fain may wed the righteousness of God.
 
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.
 
 
 


SECTION IV.
Damnable Pride and Self-righteousness, So Natural to All Men, Has Little Need to be Encouraged by Legal Preaching.
The legal path proud nature loves so well,
(Though yet 'tis but the cleanest road to hell)
That, lo! e'en these that take the foulest ways,
Whose lewdness no controlling bridle stays;
If but their drowsy conscience raise its voice,
'Twill speak the law of works their native choice,
And echo to the rousing sound, "Ah! true:
"I cannot hope to live, unless I DO."
No conscious breast of mortal kind can trace
They myst'ry deep of being favor'd by grace.
Of this nor is the nat'ral conscience skill'd;
Nor will admit it, when it is reveal'd;
But pushes at the gospel like a ram,
As proxy for the law, against the Lamb.
 
The proud self-righteous Pharisaic strain
Is, "Blest be God I'm not like other men;
"I read and pray, give alms, I mourn and fast;
"And therefore hope to get to heav'n at last:
"For though from ev'ry sin I be not free,
"Great multitudes of men are worse than me.
"I'm none of those that swear, cheat, drink, and whore!"
Thus on the law he builds his Babel tow'r.
 
Yea, ev'n the vilest cursed debauchee
Will make the law of works his very plea;
"Why, says the rake, what take you me to be?
"A Turk or infidel (you lie) I can't
"Be term'd so base, but by a sycophant;
"Only I hate to act the whining saint.
"I am a Christian true; and therefore bode,
"It shall be well with me, I hope in God.
"An't I an honest man? Yea, I defy
"The tongue that dare assert black to mine eye."
Perhaps, when the reprover turns his back,
He'll vend the viler wares to an op'ned pack,
And with his fellows, in a strain more big,
"Bid damn the base, uncharitable whig.
"These scoundrel hypocrites (he'll proudly say)
"Think non shall ever merit heav'n but they.
"And yet we may compete with them; for see,
"The best have blemishes as well as we.
"We have as good a heart (we trust) as these,
"Though not their vain superfluous shew and blaze.
"Bigotted zealots, whose full crimes are hid,
"Would damn us all to hell; but, God forbid.
"Whatever such a whining sect profess,
"'Tis but a nice, morose, affected dress.
"And though we don't profess so much as they.
"We hope to compass heav'n a shorter way;
We seek God's mercy, and are all along
"Most free of malice, and do no man wrong.
"But whims fantastic shall not our heads annoy,
"That would our social liberties destroy.
"Sure, right religion never was design'd
"To mar the native mirth of human kind.
"How weak are those that would be thought non-such!
"How mad, that would be righteous o'ermuch!
"We have sufficient, though we be not cram'd:
"We'll therefore hope the best, let them be damn'd."
 
Ah! horrid talk! yet so the legal strain
Lards ev'n the language of the most profane.
Thus devilish pride o'erlooks a thousand faults,
And on a legal ground itself exalts.
This DO and LIVE, though doing pow'r be lost,
In ev'ry mortal is proud nature's boast.
How does a vain conceit of goodness swell
And feed false hope, amidst the shades of hell?
Shall we, who should by gospel-methods draw,
Send sinners to their nat'ral spouse the law;
And harp upon the doing string to such,
Who ignorantly dream they do so much?
Why, thus, instead of courting Christ a bride,
We harden rebels in their native pride.
 
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 make the pillars of their pride to shake,
And damn their doing to the burning lake.
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;
Denouncing Ebal's black revenging doom,
To bast their expectation in the bloom;
'Till once vain hope of life by works give place
Unto a solid hope of life by grace.
The vig'rous use of means is safely urg'd.
When pressing calls from legal dregs are purg'd;
But most unsafely in a fed'ral dress,
Confounding terms of life with means of grace.
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.
 
 
 


SECTION V.
The Gospel of Divine Grace the Only Means of Converting Sinners; and Should be Preached Therefore Most Clearly, Fully, and Freely.
 
They ought, who royal grace's heralds be,
To trumpet loud salvation, full and free;
Nor safely can, to humour mortal pride,
In silence evangelic myst'ries hide.
What heav'n is pleas'd to give, dare we refuse;
Or under ground conceal, least men abuse?
Suppress the gospel-flow'r, upon pretence
That some vile spiders may suck poison thence?
Christ is a stumbling-block, shall we neglect
To preach him, lest the blind should break their neck?
That high he's for the fall of many set
As well as for the rise, must prove no let.
No grain of precious truth must be suppress'd,
Though reprobates should to their ruin wrest.
Shall heaven's corruscant lamb be dimm'd, that pays
Its daily tribute down in golden rays?
Because some, blinded with the blazing gleams,
Share not the pleasure of the lightning beams.
Let those be hardned, petrify'd, and harm'd,
The rest are mollify'd and kindly warm'd.
A various favour, flowers in grace's field,
Of life to some, of deat to others yield.
Must then the rose be vail'd, the lily hid,
The fragrant favour stifled? God forbid.
 
The revelation of the gospel-flow'r,
Is still the organ fram'd of saving pow'r
Most justly then are legal minds condemn'd,
That of the glorious gospel are asham'd:
For this the divine arm, and only this,
The pow'r of God unto salvation is.
For therein is reveal'd, to screen from wrath,
The righteousness of God, from faith to faith!
The happy change in guilty sinners case
They owe to free displays of sov'reign grace;
Whose joyful tidings of amazing love
The ministration of the Spirit prove.
The glorious vent of the gospel-news express,
Of God's free grace, thro' Christ's full righteousness,
Is Heaven's gay chariot, where the Spirit bides,
And in his conqu'ring pow'r triumphant rides.
The gospel-field is still the Spirit's soil,
The golden pipe that bears the holy oil;
The orb where he outshines the radiant sun,
The silver channel where his graces run.
Within the gospel-banks his flowing tide
Of lightning, quickning motions sweetly glide.
Received ye the Spirit, scripture saith,
By legal works, or by the word of faith?
If by the gospel only then let none
Dare to be wiser than the wisest one.
 
We must, who freely get, as freely give
The vital word that makes the dead to live.
For ev'n to sinners dead within our reach
We in his living name may most successful preach.
 
The Spirit and the scripture both agree
Jointly (says Christ) to testify of me.
The preacher then will from his text decline,
That scorns to harmonize with this design.
Press moral duties to the last degree;
Why not? but mind, lest we successless be,
No light, no hope, no strength for duties spring,
Where Jesus is not Prophet, Priest, and King.
No light to see the way, unless he teach;
No joyful hope, save in his blood we reach;
No strength, unless his royal arm he stretch
Then from our leading scope how gross we fall,
If, like his name, in ev'ry gospel-call,
We make not him the First, the Last, the All!
 
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;
To draw the golden chariot of free grace,
The darkned shades with shining rays to chase,
'Till Heaven's bright lamp on circling wheels be hurl'd,
With spark'ling grandeur round the dusky world;
And thus to bring, in dying mortals sight,
New life and immortality to light.
We're charg'd to preach the gospel, unconfin'd,
To ev'ry creature of the human kind;
To call, with tenders of salvation free,
All corners of the earth to come and see:
And ev'ry sinner must excuseless make,
By urging rich and poor to come and take:
 
Ho, ev'ry one that thirsts, is grace's call
Direct to needy sinners great and small;
Not meaning those alone, whose holy thirst
Denominates their souls already blest.
If only those were call'd, then none but saints;
Nor would the gospel suit the sinner's wants.
But here the call does signally import
Sinners and thirsty souls of every sort;
And mainly to their door the message brings,
Who yet are thirsting after empty things;
Who spend their means no living bread to buy,
And pains for that which cannot satisfy.
Such thirsty sinners here invited are,
Who vainly spend their money, thought, and care,
On passing shades, vile lusts and trash, so base
As yeilds the immortal souls no true solace.
The call directs them, as they would be blest,
To choose a purer object of their thirst.
All are invited by the joyful sound
To drink who need, as does the parched ground,
Whose wide-mouth'd clefts speak to the brazen sky
Its passive thirst, without an active cry.
 
The gospel-preacher then with holy skill
Must offer Christ to whosoever will,
To sinners of all sorts that can be nam'd;
The blind, the lame, the poor, the halt, the maim'd,
Not daring to restrict th' extensive call,
But op'ning wide the net to catch 'em all
No soul must be excluded that will come,
Nor right of access be confined to some,
Though none will come till conscious of their want,
Yet right to come they have by sov'reign grant;
Such right to Christ, his promise, and his grace,
That all are damn'd who hear and don't embrace:
So freely is th' unbounded call dispen'd,
We therein find ev'n sinners unconvinc'd;
Who know not they are naked, blind, and poor,
Counsell'd to by, or beg at Jesus door,
And take the glorious robe, eye-salve, and golden store.
This prize they are oblig'd by faith to win,
Else unbelief would never be their sin.
Yes, gospel-offers but a sham we make,
If ev'ry sinner has not right to take.
 
Be gospel-heralds fortify'd from this
To trumpet grace, howe'er the serpent hiss.
Did hell's malicious mouth in dreadful shape
'Gainst innocence itself malignant gape;
Then sacred truth's devoted vouchers may
For dire reproach their measures constant lay.
With cruel calumny of old commence'd,
This sect will ev'ry where be spoke against.
While to and fro he runs the earth across
Whose name is ADELPHON KATEGOROS.*
In spite of hell be then our constant strife
To win the glorious Lamb a virgin wife.
 
* The Accuser of the Brethren (Rev. 12:10)
 


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