Historical Fragments

This monthly blog series is a collection of historical extracts taken from confessional Baptists of the past. However, each article aims at showing the ongoing relevance of God’s word due to its eternal nature.

Legalist, Morality & Justification by Faith

In his travels to see where he can get a welcome, Benjamin Keach has True Godliness arriving at the house of Legalist. Legalist says that he already has a man called True Godliness in his home. The dialogue continues:

Godliness: ‘Sir, it is certainly a mistake; you have been greatly deceived.

Legalist: ‘What, do I not know True Godliness? This is strange! Sir, I assure you he and I converse together every day.

Godliness: ‘It is indeed true that there are one or two persons who go sometimes by my name; and it is very probable you may be acquainted with one of them. Pray, what are his manners? What instructions does he give you? For by these I shall know who your guest is…

Legalist: ‘Why, Sir, he teaches me to keep the commandments of God, to lead a righteous life, to do unto all men as I would they should do unto me.

Godliness: ‘O! Sir, that is my friend and honest neighbour Morality, one that I sincerely love; and I am sure it is great ignorance to take him for me… for though in some things we are alike, I teaching the same doctrine you mention, yet do we differ exceedingly in many things. First, we agree in saying you must keep God’s commands. Secondly, he says that you must be righteous; I say the like. And, thirdly, that you should do unto all men as you would have them do to you; I say the very same, it being my Master’s own doctrine…But we differ prodigiously on other points. He teaches you to seek justification by doing; but I teach you to seek it, by believing: he by keeping the law; I by God’s free grace through the merits of Christ. 

Legalist: ‘What is that, friend, you say? Are we not required to keep the law of God? 

Godliness: ‘Sir, you ought to keep it as far as you are able, though not as it is the law of works, but as it is the law of Christ. You must not look for righteousness and justification by your keeping the law in any sense…

Benjamin Keach

Benjamin Keach was a General Baptist pastor who became convinced of the truth of Calvinism. He pastored the church at Horsley-down in Southwark which became eventually the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

We must never give the impression while declaring the gospel that God does not care about righteousness or keeping of the law; else, we preach a false God. What their place is- where it comes in- is the crucial question. The dialogue continues:

Legalist: ‘I know I cannot perfectly keep the law, but I will do, by the help of God, what I can. And wherein I, through weakness, transgress the law, God is merciful, and I trust he will forgive me.

Here is someone whose view is: I try to keep God’s Law (the implication being that not all do) and God will forgive me. This belief is of salvation by sincerely-attempted obedience.

Actually, it is almost certainly a hope of salvation by a self-deception of sincerely-attempted obedience. Indeed, it is rare to find someone who really studies the law in its Biblical fullness and attempts to keep it- there are not many Gentile Saul of Tarsuses about! Keach continues:

Godliness: ‘Forgive you! Why, he hath said, “He will in no wise clear the guilty “. Moreover, “What the law saith, it saith to them that are under the law, that all mouths may be stopped, and the whole world become guilty before God.” Rom. iii. 19.

Legalist: ‘What do you say? Will not God forgive me, who am a penitent person? Oh! what a horrible doctrine is this! I believe he will not forgive the impenitent, and such guilty ones, that the Scriptures speak of.

So there we have it. It is considered a horrible doctrine that the guilty cannot be forgiven by God without faith in Christ- which Legalist has not mentioned. Godliness goes on to preach the gospel, and the response is:

Legalist: ‘Nay, Sir, do not mistake me neither! I do not think my righteousness justifies me any otherwise than through the merits of Christ.

So here is the Roman Catholic legalist: ‘I expect God to justify me by a mixture of my own righteousness and the merits of Christ.’ For denying this error, our fathers in the faith were martyred.

Yet it is to be feared that such views are also in the heart of many professed believers. They say that they trust in Christ, but they actually lean on their own righteousness. They have begun in the Spirit, as they think, by a profession of faith in Christ, but they are now seeking to continue in the flesh.

Reader, make sure that you are not of their number!

John Palmer

John Palmer

John was in local church ministry throughout England and Wales for nearly forty years, he is spending his retirement at Aughton Park Baptist Church in Lancashire, England.