Ebenezer Erskine On The Distinction Between Law And Gospel

This law of works or commandments requires and exacts of you what is impossible as a term or condition of life, and that is a perfect or sinless obedience. No mere man since the fall is able perfectly to keep the commandments of God; and yet this law will not abate one ace; it ‘requires brick, but gives no straw;’ it requires obedience, but gives no strength; yea it exacts as much service and obedience of a sick man, as, though he were perfectly sound, of fallen man, as though he was in his primitive integrity. It is a common foolish notion of many ignorant people, that if they yield sincere obedience, and do as well as they can in obedience to the commandments of God, God will accept of that in room of that perfect righteousness which the law required in innocence. But beware of hazarding your souls upon such a damnable delusion; for the law of God must have not only a sincere, but perfect and sinless obedience, or nothing; if you do not continue in all things written in the book of the Law to do them, the curse of the law takes place. Indeed, sincere obedience is admitted as a return of gratitude to God upon the soul’s closing with, and submitting to, the perfect righteousness of Christ, but not as a ground of acceptance before God, either in part or whole; and if you but imagine in your heart, that your own imperfect obedience, though never so sincere, will be a ground of acceptance, or a title to life, either in part or whole, you ‘become a debtor to do the whole law,’ Gal. v.3.

Ebenezer Erskine, (1680–1754), The Whole Works of the Late Rev. Ebenezer Erskine, 1:470 (HT: Inwoo Lee).


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  1. So what would Erskine say about the concept of a “gospel imperative” or a “gospel mandate”? This is not a trick question. It is espoused in NAPARC churches.

    • Probably something like this:

      “Others rely upon a mixed kind of righteousness: they will freely own, that their duties and performances will never exalt them into favour and acceptance with God; but, O, say they, it is Christ and our duties, Christ and our prayers, He and our tears and repentance, that must do it. But believe it, Sirs, Christ and the idol of self will never cement; these old rotten rags will never piece in with the white and new robe of righteousness of the Son of God: and if you adventure to mingle them together, ‘Christ shall profit you nothing,’” Ebenezer Erskine, 1:105–06 (Sermon on Psalm 89:16)

    • That all depends what is meant, if
      it’s referring to Unbelievers, those
      who are unregenerate & not Justified,
      Gospel exhortations to Believe the
      Gospel & Repent of your Unbelief,
      are considered as Law by a lot of
      Divines, whilst commands to those
      who are already Believers are also
      Law but come under Sanctification
      & the 3rd use of the Law.

  2. This what is so damning against those who tell us we must do our part to stand at the final judgment. It condemns them and their accepting hearers to eternal perdition, because if we look to our obedience as making us acceptable to God, in any way, we become debtors to the whole law. Christ is not our Saviour then, and we must look to be justified by our own obedience, which is impossible. The seriousness of this impossible to overstate, it is spiritual murder to preach final acceptance with God by doing our part.

  3. The reason I posted my original comment had to do with transpired at the PCA General Assembly in 2016. An overture was passed on Racial Reconciliation. It includes the phrase “Gospel imperative.” During the debate in the overtures committee the phrase “Gospel mandate” was also used but was dropped as the language was perfected by that committee.

    During the committee debate a ruling elder objected to the terms “gospel imperative” and “gospel mandate” on the grounds that they confused law and gospel. He suggested an amendment: substitute the word “biblical” for “gospel” to make it read “biblical imperative” and “biblical mandate.” I spoke in favor of his motion but our suggestions were flatly shut-down by both progressives and confessional folks alike. Sadly, after his amendment failed the guy next to him (a tall steeple pastor from a confessional church) leaned over to both of us and suggested that we both of read about The Marrow Controversy. It became very clear that he though that we antinomians.

    • I would hesitate to call someone ‘Confessional’ who thought the Marrowmen were antinomian. Perhaps I don’t know enough about the PCA, but from what I pick up here on the other side of the Atlantic, much of its current travail seems to amount to a turf war between the Right and Left Wings of the New Calvinism, leaving Confessionalism out in the cold.

  4. As a follow up, this ruling elder was so upset by the committee’s failure to properly distinguish between law and gospel that he did not return to the committee meeting. When the overture came to the floor of General Assembly, he voted against it, not because he was racist in any way, shape or form, but because of this failure to properly distinguish between law and gospel.

    For my part, I voted for the overture, believing that there was more good in it than bad. I still wished that we could have changed that terminology along with some other things in the overture, but neither the committee nor the General Assembly was willing to give ground. In all honesty, I felt like a fiscal conservative having to vote for an important bill that had a lot of pork attached to it.

    • Funny how “good intentions” cloud our judgment, leading to pragmatic compromise rather than obedience to God’s Word. I fear that such pragmatism is doing tremendous damage in the churches. Our twisted ideas about what is “loving” prevent us from dealing with the LBGQT, and issues like the FV as Scripture demands.

  5. Angela,

    Am not sure if you are criticizing me and my vote. Given the circumstances, I believed it was the right thing to do.

    The previous year the same issue was pushed by way of overture, that came to the floor, not through a presbytery but by a personal speech. The Overtures Committee deliberated for the better part of three days (maybe longer) on this issue and decided to send it back so that the language could be perfected. When the Overtures Committee report came to the floor of the General Assembly there was outrage and anger. The ensuing year saw multiple presbyteries pushing a perfected overture. The attitude in 2016 was that the General Assembly was going to pass something on racial reconciliation, come hell or high water.

    At one point in 2016 the Overtures Committee was deadlocked. A progressive minority threatened to publish its own minority report so that two reports would go to the floor of the General Assembly for consideration. It was the conservative folks, led by ruling Frederick “Jay” Niekirk, who extended the olive branch and found a way to craft an overture that both sides could support and recommend to the floor of General Assembly. Neither the progressives or the conservatives got everything they wanted.

    As I said, I thought that the overture was flawed because of the failure to distinguish law and gospel. There were other flaws too that couldn’t be remedied. But given the tense nature of the assembly and the history of racial issues in the PCA and its predecessor, the PC-US, voting for the overture seemed to be the best option, particularly in light of ordination vows seeking the peace, purity and unity of the church.

    In general, I agree with your comment about pragmatism doing damage to the church.

    • I have a lot of questions. Most importantly, did those who were concerned about distinguishing between law and gospel object because racial reconciliation was made a gospel issue, meaning that the gospel requires the addition of social action? Is that not confusing law and gospel? If it is, it seems to me that those who were outraged had a legitimate reason. It really is the same issue Paul faced in Galatians, because adding anything to the gospel makes it another gospel as opposed to the gospel of justification in Christ alone. It really is not something that can be reconciled with the addition of anything. I think it is a false peace to compromise on this issue, because unity can only be based on the true, uncompromised gospel. Those who pervert the gospel by adding to it are the ones who break the unity and purity of the church.

  6. Angela, you hit the nail on the head. And sadly, that confusion about adding to the Gospel was done by both conservatives and progressives.

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