Legal and Gospel Mortification

Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) was the brother of Ebeneezer Erskine and a defender of the Reformation doctrines of justification and sanctification against the neonomians and legalists of his day. Mortification is the old-fashioned way of saying, “dying to self.” In the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) the Reformed churches confess that the Christian life is a matter of daily dying to self and living, or being made alive, to Christ. There are two different ways of thinking and speaking about “dying to self.” Erskine wrote:

1. 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. Read more»

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