Getting What I Deserve
It was the same discussion we had many times before. He argued for God’s goodness and our utter depravity. As a good Calvinist, I couldn’t deny either. So my frustration mounted. “I know God is good and that I am wicked in myself. But to say that even my best and good deeds are—without Christ’s merit—no better than filthy rags seems a little extreme. Can’t I just get a little credit? Does all of the glory and praise have to go to God?” We always wound our way to the same answer: God both gets and deserves all the glory while we—of ourselves—deserve only hell. Though I accepted this truth, I was not satisfied with it. There always remained a grain of anger and confusion. How could God claim for himself any and all good in me? What I didn’t realize then was that my anger stemmed from pride, rooted in legalism. What I didn’t realize was the freedom that comes from embracing these truths.
Many of us house legalistic tendencies in our hearts, living them out, without realizing it. This legalism leads to pride, mistrust of God, and despising of neighbor. But what exactly is legalism and how does embracing the truth of total depravity free us from its poisonous effects? It is my aim to answer these questions that we may not end up angry and confused as I was for so long.
What Is Legalism?
Sinclair Ferguson defines legalism as “a peculiar kind of submission to God’s law, something that no longer feels the personal divine touch in the rule it submits to” (italics in original).1 This definition requires some unpacking. First, we need to understand the law. The Bible teaches that God gave us the law to teach us to love as Christ did (thus fulfilling the law) (Whole Christ, 119). He did so because he is our God and Redeemer (see WSC, answer 44). In other words, the law is a good gift from a God who voluntarily united himself to us in covenant love and gave us the tools to love him out of the love he freely gave to us. Contrarily, a legalist views the law as a set of rules given by God to teach us how to earn his favor. He operates under the assumption that God’s love is conditional upon his fulfilling the law’s demands—and that he is able to do so. Or as Ferguson wrote, “Legalism begins to manifest itself when we view God’s law as a contract with conditions to be fulfilled and not as the implications of a covenant graciously given to us” (Whole Christ, 115).
This may sound rather heady and academically removed from real life. What does legalism look like in the everyday man or woman’s life? If you are searching your own heart, how can you determine if what you find is legalism or something else? There are a few telltale signs that legalism has roots in your heart—even if you are a believer. Ferguson writes, “The instinct to [look down on another person] is one of the most obvious telltale signs of a heart from which legalism has not yet been fully or finally banished; for it implies that we have merited grace more than another” (Whole Christ,124). Another sign is anger. Timothy Keller describes the anger and motivation behind it well: “When your life doesn’t go as you want, you aren’t just sorrowful but deeply angry and bitter. [Legalists] believe that if they live a good life they should get a good life, that God owes them a smooth road if they try very hard to live up to standards.”2 Other signs include jealousy, coveting, or fear-based motivation to obey. The legalist acts out of joyless fear because he thinks of God as an avenging Judge, rather than a compassionate friend (Whole Christ, 128). Legalism taints our view of God, the law, and ourselves. The doctrine of total depravity corrects our vision.
Understanding the Doctrine of Total Depravity
Legalism thrives on the false belief that we can, in some way, merit God’s favor—thereby earning salvation—by following laws (mostly of our own making). The doctrine of total depravity flies in the face of this belief. Total depravity is the doctrine that stems from the truth of original sin: we fell with Adam and are, therefore, born into an estate of sin and misery. We exchanged our holiness and happiness for sin and misery; “the glory of the incorruptible God” and the “truth of God” for “the lie” (Rom. 1:23–26, New King James Version). We exchanged our ability not to sin with the inability to do anything other than sin3 Like a full bathtub into which a vial of ink is spilled, every part of our being is tainted by sin (Machen). In sum, as a result of original sin, “we sin because we are sinners, born with a nature enslaved to sin.”4
Total depravity, then “signifies a corruption of our moral and spiritual nature that is total in principle, although not in degree (for no one is a bad as he or she might be)” (Study Bible, 781). Here is where total depravity specifically undermines legalism’s lie. For, given our slavery to sin and the corruption of our nature, we are utterly unable to earn God’s favor. To do so would require (in part) perfectly keeping God’s law. However, as slaves to sin (which is breaking God’s law), we are constantly doing the opposite (see Rom. 3:9–23). Indeed, even our good deeds are no better than filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). To believe otherwise is to be self-deceived. The doctrine of total depravity turns on the lights, showing us that the only thing we have earned is God’s wrath, curse, misery, death, and hell (WSC, question and answer 19). For man “hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto” (WC IX.3). Into the dark reality of total depravity, God speaks.
Living in the Freedom of the Gospel
The Westminster Shorter Catechism question 20 asks: “Did God leave all mankind to perish in that estate of sin and misery?” The answer of a legalistic heart is No, God did not leave us to perish because we are able, through law keeping, to earn his favor. Contrarily, the catechism answers: “God, having out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.” That is the beauty of the gospel. God exchanged our unrighteousness and condemnation with Jesus’ righteousness and commendation which “was constituted by His entire life of obedience and His wrath-embracing sacrifice on the cross, where He was made a sin offering.”5
Where we deserved death, Jesus gave us his life (Rom. 5:6–8). Where we deserve God’s wrath, Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath for us (Jer. 25:15; Luke 22:42). Where even our best deeds are tainted with sin, Jesus clothes us with his righteousness (Isa. 64:6; Rom. 8:3). “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4, English Standard Version). “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5, italics added). This is the great exchange. And “in response to the great exchange that has been accomplished for us in Christ, there is an exchange accomplished in us by the Spirit: unbelief gives way to faith, rebellion is exchanged for trust” (Christ Alone, 42). Out of this faith and trust, we can walk no longer as slaves but as free.
The more we embrace the twin truths of our total depravity and the rich and free gift of salvation from Christ, the more peace and freedom we will know. For, when we realize that all we truly deserve is God’s wrath, God’s rescuing, redeeming, and remaking us will leave us with nothing but gratitude. When we realize “all is of God; the only thing of my very own which I contribute to my redemption is the sin from which I need to be redeemed” (Christ Alone, 42), we can do naught else but praise he who surrendered all for a wretched sinner. With hearts freed from the curse of the law, made new through the work of the Holy Spirit and overflowing with gratitude, we will desire to keep God’s good law as a means of better loving him and neighbor. Rather than proudly prattling about how much money we donate each year, we will cheerfully give because all has been given to us. Rather than tossing and turning at night, wondering if we measure up as a spouse, parent, or employee, we will sleep soundly knowing that Christ has cleansed our works and forgiven our failures. Rather than blowing up when things don’t go our way, we will learn to give thanks in all circumstances knowing we deserve hell but have been given heaven.
I rejoice that God has given me eyes to begin to see how great my sin and how much greater his salvation. I pray he would open the eyes of our hearts more and more: replacing the lies of legalism with the glorious truths of his full and free salvation from our total depravity. May the words of this great hymn seal these truths to your heart.Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee; Let the water and the blood, From Thy wounded side which flowed, Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure. Not the labor of my hands Can fulfill Thy law’s demands; Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears forever flow, All for sin could not atone; Thou must save, and Thou alone. Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling; Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless, look to Thee for grace; Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die. While I draw this fleeting breath, When my eyes shall close in death, When I rise to worlds unknown, And behold Thee on Thy throne, Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee. –Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages” (1776)
1 Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 83.
2 Timothy Keller, Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 56–57.
3 John Hendryx, “Not Able Not to Sin,” May 26, 2017, Monergism, https://www.monergism.com/blog/not-able-not-sin.
4 “Original Sin and Total Depravity,” in The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version, ed. R. C. Sproul (Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 2005), 781.
5 Sinclair B. Ferguson, In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel-Centered Life (Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007), 41.
Mrs. Elisabeth Bloechl is a member of Orthodox Presbyterian Church Hammond, is a house cleaner and aspiring writer in Griffith, IN.