Law-Death and Gospel-Life (Ralph Erskine)

[Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) , Scottish divine, brother of Ebenezer Erskine (q.v.), was See also: BORN, IGNAZ, EDLER VON (1742–1791) born on the 18th of March 1685 . After studying at the university of Edinburgh, he was in 1711 ordained assistant minister at Dunfermline . He homologated the protests which his brother laid on the table of the assembly after being rebuked for his synod sermon, but he did not formally withdraw from the establishment till 1737. He was also present, though not as a member, at the first meeting of the associate presbytery . When the severance took place on account of the oath administered to burgesses, he adhered, along with his brother, to the burgher section. He died after a short illness on the 6th of November 1752. His works consist of sermons, poetical paraphrases and gospel sonnets . The Gospel Sonnets have frequently appeared separately . His Life and Diary, edited by the Rev . D . Fraser, was published in 1842. (Online Source)]

[The following excerpt is taken from a series of sermons by Ralph Erskine. Sermons 24-27, from which this excerpt has been taken can be read online for free at For any interested readers, I have also included a PDF version of the sermons for download here.]

“I through the law, am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.” Galatians 2:19.

A godly life is what we are all obliged to live, especially if we have been at the Lord’s table; but it is a mystery that very few understand in their experience, if they will judge their experiences, by comparing them with this of Paul in our text, “I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.”

Our apostle, in this epistle, is vindicating himself from the base aspersions cast upon him by the false apostles: with respect to his calling, as if he had been no apostle: and with respect to his doctrine, as if it had been false and erroneous. From the beginn­ing of this chapter, to verse 11, he tells us what he hid at Jerusalem; how strenuously he opposed the false brethren, that he might main­tain the truth of the gospel, which they sought to overturn. From the 11th verse to the 17th, the apostle tells us what he did at Antioch: how zealously he opposed and reproved even Peter himself, for his dissimulation, in compelling the Gentiles to Judaize; giving thereby such offence, that the Jews were confirmed in their Judaism; “Other Jews dissembled with him, and Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation,” (v. 12); and hereby occasion was given both to Jews and Gentiles, to desert Christ, to deny grace, to return to the law, and seek justification by the works thereof. So that we may see here, that great and good men may dissemble, and do much hurt by their dissimulation, both among ministers and people. We have here a wonderful example of it in the greatest of men, and such as were pillars of the church: but it would seem that Peter and Barnabas, and other Jews here, did not see their fault and sin, but thought they did right enough; but Paul saw it; “When I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel,” (v. 14) &c. This might seem a very bold and imprudent attempt, for Paul, the youngest of all the apostles (I mean, of whom Christ was last seen, as of one born out of due time) for him to take upon him to accuse and condemn Peter as well as Barnabas, and the Jews for their practical error, not walking according to the truth of the gospel. But we see, that as people may have the gospel, but not the truth of the gospel; so these that have the truth of the gospel, may be guilty of not walking accord­ing to the truth of it, even as Peter, Barnabas, and others here, whose dissimulation did not consist with the truth of the gospel, which they preached, but tended to establish the law, and so to overturn the gospel. But God hath sometimes very few witnesses to stand up for the truth of the gospel; here Paul was alone, Peter was against him, and Barnabas, his own intimate associate, was drawn away with the dissimulation; Jews and Gentiles were in­fected, and therefore Paul alone must fight against them all, for the cause of Christ, and the doctrine of the gospel, which was endangered, “I said unto Peter before them all,” &c. Not by teach­ing of any erroneous doctrine did Peter err, for that is a principle we maintain, that the apostles never erred in teaching, or in their doctrine delivered to the church; but his error was in practice, compelling the Gentiles to Judaize; whereby he gave them oc­casion to think, that the observation of the law was necessary to justification: whereas he adds, “We that are Jews by nature,” &c., (vv. 15,16). We apostles, might he say, though Jews by nature, yet we seek not justification by the works of the law; and there­fore we ought not to drive the Gentiles to the observation of the law, that they may seek righteousness and justification thereby. Why? because, 1. We know that a man cannot be justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Christ. 2. Because therefore having renounced the law, in point of justification, we have em­braced Christ by faith; that through him we may be justified. 3. Because by the deeds of the law, no flesh can be justified.

Now, from verse 17 and downward, the apostle returns to the Galatians; having told how he reproved Peter, and what he said to him concerning justification without the works of the law, he now comes to show this doctrine to be nowise opposite to the doctrine of sanctification, but of absolute necessity to true holiness, (vv.17,18, q.d.). If we Jews, who lived formerly under the law, and now seek righteousness in Christ alone, are thus accounted as sinners, when we followed the law, it would seem that Christ did disapprove the law, and approve sin: “God forbid,” says the apostle; this he denies, and rejects with abhorrence.—To object thus, might he say, against the doctrine of free justification, were egregious blasphemy against the Son of God, as if he were the minister of sin, who came to destroy sin, and to destroy the works of the devil; and by this gospel which I preach, might he say, Christ is held out as the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world; not to take away righteousness, truly so called, unless it be that false vizard [mask or disguise] of legal self‑righteousness with which we formerly covered and masked ourselves: nay, he came to bring in everlasting righteousness, a true and perfect righteousness for justi­fication; he came to make an end of sin by the sacrifice of himself, and thereby to purchase the Spirit, as a Spirit of holiness and sanctification, to destroy the power of sin and corruption; and, therefore, it is a base calumny to say that this gospel‑doctrine does open the door to sin and licentiousness; this he proves by two arguments, 1. Because the faith of Christ does not destroy itself, “I, through the law, am dead to the law, that I might live unto God,” (v. 18). Sin is like an old house which I have razed and destroyed by my doctrine of free justification by faith, and not by works of the law, for by this doctrine I preached freedom from sin through Christ; and, therefore, if I should build up these old wastes of sin again, it is not Christ, but I that would be the sinner, or minister of sin; nay, I would be a madman, to build with one hand what I destroyed with the other. 2. Because liberty to sin is contrary to the very scope of the gospel, and to the design of this doctrine of justification by faith, without the works of the law; “For I, through the law, am dead to the law, that I might live unto God,” (v. 19).

This is a very strange and wonderful text, that flesh and blood can hardly hear without suspecting that it savors too much of a new scheme of doctrine; and, if it were not the divinely‑inspired words of the apostle, it would hardly escape being taxed as an Antinomian paradox. I remember Luther upon the text says, “The false apostles taught, unless you live to the law, you cannot live to God;” and therefore Paul here must be the most heretical of all heretics; his heresy is unheard‑of heresy, reason and human wisdom cannot receive it, that, if we will live to God, we must be dead wholly to the law: yet so it is here, he declares it of himself, and in the name of all believers in Christ, yea, as the very doctrine of faith, “I, through the law, am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.”


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involve yourself

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