Activism and Legalism

As I’m systematically laid low by sin in my life, I’m learning to take refuge in the writings of those fathers known as the “Marrow Men” in particular, Ralph Erskine here. Of the many wonderful insights he elucidates, one in particular stands out to me as relevant to the sort of observations and distinctions we like to make here at the outhouse; Erskine explains that it is particularly true of legalism that it seeks to war with “sins of conversation” or what we might define as common, knowable, behavioral manifestations of “badness.” Drunkenness, debauchery, theft, lying, murder, fornication et al. Anyone who reads even that brief list would I’m sure agree that any moralist, of any particular stripe, would include such things on their list of “bad things”. Now, here’s where the rub comes for the Christian, while they’d doubtless agree that such behaviors are “sinful” our charge is not to war so much against these manifestations, but to strike much deeper at the root.

Erskine writes;

the true believer should desire to fight as the Syrians got orders, that is, neither against great nor small, so much as against the King himself, even against original corruption.

Whoa, hoss. Where do I do that? Does original corruption have a political platform? Which group/s or behaviors should I vilify and raze on the way to rooting this sucker out ?

Again Erskine provides direction;

“Gospel and legal mortification differ in their principles from which they proceed. Gospel mortification is from gospel principles, viz. the Spirit of God [Rom. 8. 13], ‘If ye through the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live’; Faith in Christ [Acts 15. 9], ‘Purifying their hearts by faith’; The love of Christ constraining [2 Cor. 5. 14], ‘The love of Christ constraineth us.’ But legal mortification is from legal principles such as, from the applause and praise of men, as in the Pharisees; from pride of self-righteousness, as in Paul before his conversion; from the fear of hell; from a natural conscience; from the example of others; from some common motions of the Spirit; and many times from the power of sin itself, while one sin is set up to wrestle with another, as when sensuality and self-righteousness wrestle with one another. The man, perhaps, will not drink and swear. Why? Because he is setting up and establishing a righteousness of his own, whereby to obtain the favour of God here is but one sin wrestling with another.”

It appears that the legalist is aptly suited to waging war in the public square, for there he finds not only an object, but an audience, and a victim and a perpetrator, and the weapons for his warfare. But, What about the Christian? What happens when your faith declares to you that you are the perpetrator, you’re the villain? Will writing my congressman help? How about boycotting Disney? Certainly there’s something corrupting and sinister about R.O.U.S.'(rodents of unusual size, for the uninitiated ). Yet, the Gospel seems to insist that the problem is not “out there” and I’m not likely to find the remedy to my malady or justice for my cause, either right or left of center. Rather, the scriptures keep pointing me to the preaching of Christ and the foolishness of the cross. How silly is that!

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16 Responses to Activism and Legalism

  1. Zrim says:

    Political legalism is perhaps the final frontier for even those who can easily spot the usual suspects (e.g. substance use). Funny how the Presbie with a stogie in one hand and Drambuie in the other, laughing, will almost invariably be the same guy who is some sort of values-voter or another.

  2. sean says:


    Yeah, I fear it’s gonna be one of those blind spots that because we’re people of our times we probably won’t ever get clear of. I don’t know, where does Hart’s Lost Soul rank on Amazon, or better yet even, Westminster book store.

  3. Rana says:


    i actually was blessed with a sermon along these lines on Sunday, an OT prof from Calvin Sem, Korean man -preached out John on Nicodemus.

  4. Zrim says:


    We had a Korean preacher from CC on Sunday night preach on the Good Samaritan. Let’s just say it, predictably, needed some more “Marrow.” I have gone from being amazed at how often the point of that text is missed for the “Do Better” take and have moved on to being amazed that when someone thinks he’s given us anything original.

  5. Rick says:

    The ‘point’ of parables is often missed, which is sad considering Matt. 13:10-11.

    If your computer has ears, I highly recommend two sermons on parables by Dr. Brian Lee (Christ Reformed D.C.) preached at my church a few years back.

    MP3’s HERE and HERE

    In the first one he makes a plea for how to read and understand parables. Good stuff.

  6. Lori says:

    Tim Keller has a great sermon on the Good Samaritan as does Dick Lucas from St. Helen’s Bishopsgate. Michael Horton’s sermons on the parables, including the Good Samaritan are available on the Christ URC website and are excellent. You are right that most sermons and Sunday School teachers (especially) seem to miss the point. When I have shared Keller, Lucas, and Horton sermons with friends most of them say that they have never heard a message like that. Amazing.

  7. kazooless says:


    Q. 24. What is sin?

    A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature.

    Another type of “legalism” is the endeavor to only work on your own personal sins only and bring attention to others (via a blog for instance) that it is self-righteous to be concerned about other’s sins. I wonder if you think #’s 7 & 8 should be taken out of the Westminster Larger Catechism’s answer to question 99 based on your post above.

    Q. 99. What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the ten commandments?

    A. For the right understanding of the ten commandments, these rules are to be observed:

    7. That what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places to endeavour that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places.

    8. That in what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them; and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them.


  8. sean says:


    I think the catechism’s use of numbers to delineate answers to catechetical questions is a proper use of numbers. Sorry if my post brought that into question.

  9. kazooless says:


    Sometimes I am a little slow on the uptake where humor is concerned. Is that last comment of yours toward me just meant to be funny? Cause I don’t think I was saying anything about the actual use of numbers but what #’s 7 and 8 actually contained. Seems that what they tell us of the Christian’s attitude toward the moral law is at odds with your assertions in your post.

    Am I just completely misunderstanding you?


  10. Ron Smith says:

    Sean, when you say that the Church’s “charge is not to war so much against these manifestations [of sin], but to strike much deeper at the root,” Do you make that claim as a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, or as a citizen of Man’s Kingdom?

  11. sean says:


    1) Depends.

    2) Hmm, Does it seem that way? That’s interesting.

    3) Don’t know



  12. Ron Smith says:

    I assume by “yes” you mean both, but I am most interested in your speaking as a member of Christ’s Kingdom.

    How can you as a citizen of Christ’s Kingdom say that members of Christ’s Kingdom ought not wage war on sin in the cultural realm? By asserting this, are you saying it is a *sin* to wage war on sin in the cultural realm? If not, then isn’t it legalistic of *you* to say we not permitted to do wage war on sin in the cultural realm? And if waging war on sin in the cultural realm is a sin, aren’t you waging war on *that* particular sin in the cultural realm, thus contradicting yourself?

    Have fun with that. 🙂

  13. kazooless says:

    Okay, I’ll try to make it easier for you Sean:

    In context of your post here that we are discussing, how do you see yourself in compliance with WLC Q99, A7 & A8?


  14. sean says:


    See it’s much easier when we don’t do the whole passive-aggressive thing and just let it fly. Boy, you got me, you win.

  15. sean says:


    Look, you seem like a nice enough guy. You’re a theonomist of one stripe or another. I’m not. I disagree with your approach presuppositionally much less propositionally. I’m trying to save us both a lot of time and energy. If we were to really hash this out, I’d spend most of my time denying your presuppositions and you mine. We’d argue over how the confession has been received since the american revision, the nature of the kingdom, the nature of the moral law, what is the moral law, the truth of promise-fulfillment yada, yada. I’ve spent a lot of time on this merry-go-round in the past, and I’m just not interested in doing it again. Even now, I’ve said too much and you’ll be tempted to dissect what I have said and we run the risk and likelihood of ending this dialogue with such witty retort as; “no I didn’t, yes you did, no, I didn’t”. I’ve sat under Roger Wagner and if he couldn’t bring me around probably no one can.

  16. kazooless says:

    I luv Roger. Actually planning to see him in a little while. I guess I’d have to agree that if he couldn’t bring you around, then yes, you’re hopeless, er uh, I mean I won’t be able to either. 🙂

    And you’re right, I am a nice guy!

    But, for the purpose of this and all further discussions we find ourselves in, I am perfectly happy to stipulate the definitions found in either one of the Westminster Standards, so feel free to correct me if I get something wrong wrt the standards.

    And, good job at actually evading my question twice. No wonder Roger didn’t get anywhere with you. 😉


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