The Gospel Between Two Thieves

I am astonished that you are…turning to a different gospel. Galatians 1:6

Tertullian (155-240 AD), a Church father from Carthage in North Africa, is reputed to have said, “Just as Jesus was crucified between two thieves, so the gospel is ever crucified between two errors.”  To understand what he meant by the two errors, it’s helpful to remember what the gospel is.

Bad News

Knowing the bad news helps us understand the good news.

Like Adam and Eve before us, we are a fallen people alienated from God (Genesis 3). The consequences are devastating: read the headlines and we see the obvious truth of Romans 1:29-30 — people are willfully and continually evil. The root cause of all the misery in the world is humans’ fallen nature and a broken relationship with God. Being perfectly holy, God cannot stand sin. In fact, God’s wrath towards sin is the greatest problem in the world, and there’s absolutely nothing incurably sinful people can do about it.

Good News!

God Himself solved the problem of fallen human nature through Jesus Christ who exchanged His holiness for human sin, and completely restores the believer’s relationship with God. Through the new birth, the Holy Spirit miraculously regenerates the believer who is given a new nature, becoming a new creation who is immediately and fully placed in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). The believer has passed from death to life. (1 John 3:14). This is an immediate and permanent change: believers have been switched from ‘off’ to ‘on’. There are no in-between states: you are either in Christ or you are not; you are either forgiven and accepted forever or you are not; you either have eternal life or you don’t. The new believer may be astonished, humbled and overwhelmed by Christ’s embrace given how utterly sinful and undeserving he is, for there is absolutely nothing he could have done to earn salvation. Salvation is a free gift available to all who accept it — and that’s very good news!

Two Errors

But there are two errors that destroy the beauty of the gospel and rob it of its life-transforming power; and it is to these errors that Tertullian refers. These two errors are Legalism (or moralism) and License[1] (or relativism). Simply put, Legalism says we have to be good to be saved; License says because we’re saved we don’t have to be good. 

These two errors are human corruptions of Biblical truth that steal from the gospel. In its authentic form given by God in the Bible, the gospel has a wonderfully miraculous, life-changing impact. However the Holy Spirit cannot be expected to anoint a gospel message with life changing power if it’s been corrupted by either of these two errors.

Warning Against Legalism

Jesus pointed out that legalists of His day shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces (Matthew 23:13). Later, using some of the strongest language in the Bible, Paul castigated the Galatians for drifting away from the gospel towards legalism:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting…the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel… But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:6-8)…You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace (Gal 5:4).

Warning Against License

Jesus called His followers to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). So Paul is aghast at the tendency to think that because we’re saved we’re free to sin:

Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! [You] have become slaves of… righteousness leading to sanctification…[You] have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:15-23)

It’s clear here that spiritual regeneration is a free gift that puts a new believer on a trajectory of sanctification.

What do Legalism and License look like today?

A legalistic attitude says that to be saved we must stop drinking and smoking, go to church, read the Bible, join a small group and obey the Ten Commandments. No! None of this earns salvation. Scripture makes it clear that there is nothing we can do to be saved. God has done the work of salvation through Christ. Salvation is a free gift.

An attitude of license says that since you’re saved, you don’t have to bother with church or reading the Bible or obedience to Christ. No! Scripture makes it clear that being saved changes your life — the authentic gospel does not leave people wallowing in sin: it changes lives.

The Gospel-Transformed Life

Through the gift of new birth, believers are given a new nature. He or she is a new creation as evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit taking root in the life of the believer. To regenerated believers, Christ is precious: they love Christ, love to grow in Christ, and long to see Christ’s kingdom flourish. They love to study the Scriptures because it is the Word of Jesus; they love to pray because it is communion with Jesus; they desire purity because Jesus is pure; they love people because Jesus loves people; they share the Good News because it is the good news of Jesus! Lives changed by the gospel are attractive — they organically draw others to Christ. “Follow Me,” said Jesus, “And I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).

By contrast, neither legalism nor license can change lives or draw people to Christ. James makes it clear that faith without works is dead, useless and fit for demons. (James 2:17 – 20, 26). License leaves a man in hell; legalism makes him a child of hell (Matthew 23:15).

So as we move into 2020, let’s tip our hats to Tertullian from Carthage, and take care not to rob the gospel by drifting towards either legalism or license. Let’s appreciate the Good News just as God gave it, and take delight in the Good News Maker!

Jesus, thank You for being our Good Shepherd who guides us along paths of truth and grace to springs of living water. Protect us from spiritual drift — whether towards the coldness of legalism or the irrelevance of license. Instead, keep us firmly rooted in gospel truth as You embody it. It is through Your great love in the gospel that we have everything we need for life and godliness. Thank you, Jesus, Amen.

Acknowledgements

  1. Greear, J.D. Gospel. B&H, 2011.
  2. Keller, T. Gospel Theology. Zondervan, Undated.
  3. Murray, I.H. Revival and Revivalism. Versa, 2017.

Written by Warwick Alcock, Director of Strategic Operations, VSB.


[1] Another word for license is Antinomianism  –  a belief that one is released by grace from the obligation to live morally. The word licentious is derived from the word license. License includes reading the Bible any way you like; and it encompasses relativism or pragmatism — doing what works for you, even if it contradicts Biblical truth.

The Gospel Between Two Thieves

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