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‘Finding Joy: A Radical Rediscovery of Grace’ – A Response

Category Book Reviews
Date January 30, 2007

This article is a response to a book by Marcus Honeysett, Finding Joy – a Radical Rediscovery of Grace, published by IVP in 2005.

The author worked for ten years with UCCF among students in London. The book arose out of what he believed to be a lack of joy amongst Christians, which he attributed to an essentially legal approach to the gospel. His remedy is the abolition of the law from the Christian life, leading to a new appreciation of grace and of joy in Christ. It is attractively written and will appeal to young Christians experiencing the growing pains of new life in Christ. Nevertheless it is a dangerous book. Dangerous because Honeysett’s main thesis on grace and law is wrong. It is simply antinominanism in a new dress, which since the days of the Reformation has appeared again and again, and which has always been rejected by evangelical leaders of the time.

Honeysett may well be right in his observation of a lack of joy and assurance amongst Christians – especially in a younger age group – and he may even be right, at least in part, in putting this down to a failure to grasp the practical implications of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. But his understanding of how law and grace co-operate in the New Testament is seriously at fault.

The main thesis of the book can be summarized as follows: many Christians today have replaced grace with legalism. By legalism Honeysett means giving to the law of God any place at all in the Christian life. Obedience to commands is simply foreign to a life lived in grace. Grace and law are in every sense incompatible, and failure to understand this dishonours God and robs Christians of their joy. Our fathers in the faith would unhesitatingly have regarded such teaching as “doctrinal antinomianism”, as distinct from “practical antinomianism” which left the believer free to sin – a position which Honeysett vigorously rejects. At this point I would warmly recommend Robert Oliver’s book History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1771-1892: From John Gill to C. H. Spurgeon.1

Here then is a brief response to Honeysett’s teaching on grace and law.

1. Grace does not wholly abolish law

I begin with two things which the law cannot do, and this I believe is common ground between Honeysett and myself.

i] The law cannot justify the sinner
“For by the works of the law no human being [‘flesh’ Greek] will be justified in his sight since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20), or again “… we know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). This was the Galatian heresy: to faith in Christ they added obedience to the law as the grounds of salvation, and in so doing they undermined grace and abandoned the gospel. The ground of our justification is the obedience and blood of Christ; here we rest our faith.

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress.

ii] The law has no power to sanctify us
We are not justified by grace and sanctified by law. Both our justification and sanctification are fully provided in Christ. “… Christ Jesus, whom God has made our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Jesus Christ is all our salvation. All the grace needed to make us holy is provided in Christ and funnelled down to us by the Holy Spirit. It is by our union with Christ that we have died to sin and are now alive unto God.

Thus far we agree, but – and here is the rub – Honeysett’s conclusion is that the law, therefore, has no place whatever in the life of the Christian. Support for this view he draws largely from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Any kind of law-keeping or obedience to commands is ruled out as legalism. “… we are not saved to keep the law, we are saved from the law” (p.59). To give the law any place in the Christian life is to come under the apostle’s anathema (Galatians 1:8,9). But is this the teaching of Galatians? For many centuries, not least since the days of Luther, Christians have thought otherwise. Luther, of all men, loved the Letter to the Galatians and championed the doctrine of Justification by Faith, but he did not believe that the law was therefore entirely abrogated.

So was Luther a legalist? Surely not! What then was the nature of the heresy that Paul was combating? It was a heresy propounded by professing Hebrew Christians (Judaisers), who added to faith in Christ for salvation the works of the law and so insisted on circumcision and the ceremonial law of Moses. Such an addition nullified the gospel. Paul calls it “another gospel” (Galatians 1:6). “If justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose” (Galatians 2:21). Paul’s stress in Galatians is on the negative aspect of the law, what the law cannot do, but to conclude that Paul is therefore teaching the total abolition of the law and its inability to serve the cause of grace in the Christian in any way is going far beyond the apostle’s intentions, and would bring this letter into conflict with Paul’s plain teaching on the law elsewhere in the New Testament. Even within the Galatian letter there are indications of a positive role for the law in the believer, e.g. Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'” In loving others we fulfill the law – in other words, we still bear a relationship to the law. We have been set free from its yoke of slavery – see Paul’s analogy of Hagar and Sarah – “… we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 4:31-5:1). We have been freed from the law as a yoke of slavery. Our acceptance with God depends not on our obedience to the law, but upon Christ who kept the law for us and endured its penalty in our place. But more than this, the law is no longer an external standard against which our unregenerate hearts rebel; rather it is now written within us and God has given us a new heart which finds joy in obedience. To come back to Galatians 5:14, love is our motivation, and the law and the commands of God show us how love behaves. The law of God is his revealed will summarized in the moral law of Exodus 20, and wonderfully expounded in the Sermon on the Mount.

The rest of the New Testament confirms this. Jesus made it clear that he did not come “to destroy the law”, but to “fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17-20). Our Lord is speaking here of the moral law, as distinct from other aspects of the law of Moses, and these verses make it abundantly clear that this law will not pass away. In Romans 7 Paul says, “… I agree with the law that it is good … For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (16, 22). I admit that the exegesis of these verses is not straightforward, but it is clear enough that

when Paul describes his innermost characteristic self – the self that is united to Christ in the virtue of his death and the power of his resurrection – he describes himself as delighting in the law of God and serving the law with his mind.2

In Romans 13 Paul quotes four of the Ten Commandments and clearly has the whole decalogue in view – the words “and any other commandment” (v.9) confirm this. “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” John Murray comments helpfully here:

We are not to regard love as dispensing with law or as displacing law as if what has misleadingly been called ‘the law of love’ has been substituted under the gospel for the law of commandments or precepts. Paul does not say that the law is love but that love fulfills the law and law has not in the least been depreciated …3

We return to our point that keeping commandments is not necessarily legalism. In John 14:15 we hear our Lord saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”, and again in vs. 21 and 23. In 1 John 2:3: “By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments”. James points us in the same direction in James 2:8: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to scripture ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, you are doing well. But if you show partiality” – the earlier part of the chapter makes clear what James means by ‘partiality’ – “you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point, has become accountable for all of it. For he who said ‘Do not commit adultery’ also said ‘Do not murder’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” It is not law without love, which was very much the position of the Pharisees, but rather it is love fulfilling the law. Here is something higher and richer; not simply a man avoiding the sin of adultery, but a man loving his wife with all the richness that love brings into the relationship. Nor is it simply not committing murder, but lovingly and earnestly and sacrificially seeking the good of others. And all under the canopy of God’s love in Christ.

2. The obedience of faith is not legalism

Honeysett is right to warn us against legalism and to remind us that legalism is essentially joyless. It is his definition of legalism which needs to be challenged. There is a difference between the legalism found in the Galatian church, which Paul calls “another gospel”, and a legal spirit which may sometimes appear amongst evangelical Christians. For instance, a church which insists on the threat of church discipline that all its members tithe their income, or wear sombre clothes to Sunday services is guilty of a legal spirit. However much sympathy we may have for tithing or “Sunday clothes”, to insist on them for church membership is legalism. We must not lay burdens on men’s consciences which our Lord himself has not laid. But Honeysett goes far beyond this and insists that all obedience to commands is legalism. “Obeying the law is not the way to grow in [holiness].” (p. 36) How, then, do we grow in holiness? By “submission to the Spirit rather than obedience to law.” Again he says, “… Paul taught that the ethical standard for Christian believers is not the law, but our relationship with Christ.” (p. 62) For Scripture support for such radical views we are directed to Romans 6 and 7, and its glorious teaching on our union with Christ and our freedom from sin’s dominion. The crucial question is, what is Paul saying here about the law? In 6:14 he says, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Once again we are faced with what the law cannot do (see Romans 8:3, 4). The law cannot justify us nor can it free us from the bondage of sin – in fact it “accentuates and confirms the bondage”.4 The person who is under the law, that is, under its demands for righteousness and its condemnation, is the slave of sin. To be under grace is to be released from the slavery of sin and of law. All the virtue and power that flows from the death and resurrection of Christ is at work in those who are under grace, and all the resources of redeeming love. The fountainhead of all such “amazing grace” is Jesus Christ, and not the law. Yet for all this, Paul could still write in Romans 7:22, “I delight in the law of God in my inner being.”

How then can we, who rejoice in the grace of God, strive to keep God’s commands and to walk in his ways, without falling into legalism? The answer is, Christian obedience is the obedience of faith. It flows from faith in Christ and draws its motivation and power from Christ. I quote Honeysett again: “Living under grace rather than law does not lower the bar on holy living (the standard is still there) but it is the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us rather than our feeble attempts to obey the law.” (p. 36). But what if our obedience is the fruit of the Spirit’s indwelling and is strengthened by his power, motivated by his love and acceptable to God through the merit of Calvary? What then?

In Ephesians chapter 6 Paul has no hesitation in reminding his readers of the fifth Commandment: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise)”. This would make no sense if the law had no claims whatever on the Christian or if all obedience to commands is legalism.

One of the problems which Marcus Honeysett has to face of course is that if holiness is not promoted in the believer by obedience to the Lord’s commands, then how is it promoted? The answer is given, “It is not obeying the law that brings sanctification for Christians, but rather living by the Spirit …” (p. 147), or again, “… we are not controlled by the rules, but by the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (p. 66). But is this not finding opposition where there is co-operation? Word and Spirit work in harmony together; the Word guides us by example, precept and command, whilst the Spirit works in us a heart of obedience and love. The only infallible guide we have to the will of God is Scripture. Our inward desires, promptings and convictions are at best frail, and need the Word of God to instruct and correct. Walking in step with the Spirit means walking in the light of God’s Word and in obedience to God’s commands. J. I. Packer puts it, “Law is needed as love’s eyes; love is needed as law’s heartbeat. Law without love is pharisaism; love without law is antinomianism.”5

3. Christian obedience to God’s law does not bring us back under the old covenant

Honeysett speaks of the law as “the Old Testament law”, and to insist on obedience to God’s commands as “Old Testament religion” (p. 33). Two issues are involved here:

i] Honeysett makes no distinction between the moral law and the rest of the Mosaic legislation, i. e. laws governing ceremonies and civil law. However, such a distinction can be seen both in the writings of the prophets and in the New Testament itself. For example, when David confesses his sin to God, he says, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering” (Psalm 51). He recognizes that the outward form of worship in the ceremonial law is of far less significance than the moral law which he has broken. That distinction can be observed in several of the prophets.6

ii] The New Testament regards the moral law as of paramount obligation. Evidence for this has been observed already. Honeysett’s view is that “We can have either the law and Old Testament religion, or we can have Christ. But we cannot have both. Trying to have righteousness by good works and religion is opposed to Jesus because it makes us trust ourselves” (p. 41). These words, in the context of Honeysett’s book, are, to say the least, confusing. Those who adhere to the traditional evangelical view of law and grace, as, for example, C. H. Spurgeon did, cannot be charged with trying to establish their own “righteousness by good works and religion”. Honeysett quotes Galatians 5:4, “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Those who take the theological position advocated by this article surely cannot be charged with the Galatian heresy of legalism.

4. The law has a proper place in gospel proclamation

For Honeysett, the law has no place at all in our evangelism, and for this reason: Christ has fulfilled the law and so our business is not to point to the law but to Christ. In the Old Testament the law was used to bring conviction of sin, but now it is unnecessary – why rely on “the shadow when the reality is present!” “Therefore I conclude that we do not need to teach the law for non-Christians to be convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit and for evangelism to be effective” (p. 71).

Such a radical position seems hardly sustainable when the New Testament evidence is surveyed. We read of Paul preaching before Felix: “And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgement, Felix was alarmed …” How could the apostle have possibly done this without declaring the righteousness of God and of his law? Paul himself was brought to a deep conviction of sin by God sending the arrow of the tenth Commandment into his heart and conscience. “… if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said ‘You shall not covet” (Romans 7:7). And Romans 3:2 confirms this: “For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” I do not argue that conviction of sin comes only by a direct application of the law. The preaching of Christ and his cross becomes, under the Spirit’s power, deeply wounding. When I see what it cost the Saviour to take away my sin and guilt, my heart is melted and broken. Yet even so, the cross cannot be rightly understood apart from the demands and sanction of the divine law. So to abolish the law from our proclamation of the gospel of grace is not supported by Scripture, and would leave people without a true sense of conviction of sin.

We gladly agree that the New Testament majors on grace and not on law. The chief glory of the gospel is Jesus Christ, the Saviour of sinners. We are not wanting to shift the balance from Christ to the law. And yet we are deeply disturbed by Honeysett’s thesis that law has no place whatever in the Christian gospel or the Christian life. Sinclair Ferguson, in his book The Sermon on the Mount7 says,

In Paul’s words, the requirements of the law will be fulfilled as we walk according to the Spirit. Rather than contradict the gospel, the law of God, properly understood, goes hand in hand with it.

The grace of God profoundly changes our relationship to the law, not only in the sense of freeing us from its condemnation but “writing it upon our hearts by the ministry of the Spirit, so that God’s law is no longer an external rule that we find burdensome, but God has given us a new heart committed to him and his ways.”

The emphasis on joy in Honeysett’s book is refreshing and much needed. Indeed, there is a great deal in the book with which we heartily concur, yet not with its teaching on law and grace, nor, perhaps, with his analysis that the chief cause of loss of joy amongst Christians today is legalism.

Notes

    • History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1791-1892
      price £16.50

      Description

      This article is a response to a book by Marcus Honeysett, Finding Joy – a Radical Rediscovery of Grace, published by IVP in 2005. The author worked for ten years with UCCF among students in London. The book arose out of what he believed to be a lack of joy amongst Christians, which he attributed […]

  1. John Murray, Principles of Conduct.
  2. John Murray, Commentary on Romans.
  3. Ibid., on ch. 6, v. 4.
  4. J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken, 1979.
  5. See Maurice Roberts, “Three forms of Law”, The Banner of Truth magazine, Dec. 2006.
    • Sermon On The Mount

      Kingdom Life in a Fallen World

      by Sinclair B. Ferguson


      price £5.00

      Description

      This article is a response to a book by Marcus Honeysett, Finding Joy – a Radical Rediscovery of Grace, published by IVP in 2005. The author worked for ten years with UCCF among students in London. The book arose out of what he believed to be a lack of joy amongst Christians, which he attributed […]

Neil Richards retired from the pastorate of Wheelock Heath Baptist Church, Cheshire, in 2001.

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