William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

The Difference Between Legal and Gospel Mortification

by Ralph Erskine

1. Gospel and legal mortification differ in their principles from which they
proceed. Gospel mortification is from gospel principles, viz. the Spirit of God
[Rom. 8. 13], 'If ye through the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall
live'; Faith in Christ [Acts 15. 9], 'Purifying their hearts by faith'; The love
of Christ constraining [2 Cor. 5. 14], 'The love of Christ constraineth us.' But
legal mortification is from legal principles such as, from the applause and
praise of men, as in the Pharisees; from pride of self-righteousness, as in Paul
before his conversion; from the fear of hell; from a natural conscience; from
the example of others; from some common motions of the Spirit; and many times
from the power of sin itself, while one sin is set up to wrestle with another,
as when sensuality and self-righteousness wrestle with one another. The man,
perhaps, will not drink and swear. Why? Because he is setting up and
establishing a righteousness of his own, whereby to obtain the favour of God
here is but one sin wrestling with another.

2. They differ in their weapons with which they fight against sin. The gospel
believer fights with grace's weapons, namely, the blood of Christ, the word of
God, the promises of the covenant, and the virtue of Christ's death and cross
[Gal. 6. 14] 'God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of the Lord
Jesus Christ, by whom [or, as it may be read, 'whereby,' viz. by the cross of
Christ,] the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.' But now the man
under the law fights against sin by the promises and threatenings of the law; by
its promises, saying, I will obtain life; and win to heaven, I hope, if I do so
and so; by its threatenings, saying, I will go to hell and be damned, if I do
not so and so. Sometimes he fights with the weapons of his own vows and
resolutions, which are his strong tower, to which he runs and thinks himself

3. They differ in the object of their mortification. They both, indeed, seek to
mortify sin, but the legalist's quarrel is more especially with the sins of his
conversation, whereas the true believer should desire to fight as the Syrians
got orders, that is, neither against great nor small, so much as against the
King himself, even against original corruption. A body of sin and death troubles
him more than any other sin in the world; 'O wretched man that I am! who shall
deliver me from this body of death?' [Rom. 7. 24]. His great exercise is to have
the seed of the woman to bruise this head of the serpent.

4. They differ in the reasons of the contest. The believer, whom grace teaches
to deny all ungodliness, he fights against sin because it dishonours God,
opposes Christ, grieves the Spirit, and separates between his Lord and him; but
the legalist fights against sin, because it breaks his peace, and troubles his
conscience, and hurts him, by bringing wrath and judgment on him. As children
will not play in the dust, not because it sullies their clothes, but flies into
their eyes, and hurts them, so the legalist will not meddle with sin, not
because it sullies the perfections of God, and defiles their souls, but only
because it hurts them. I deny not, but there is too much of this legal temper
even amongst the godly.

5. They differ in their motives and ends. The believer will not serve sin,
because he is alive to God, and dead to sin [Rom. 6. 6]. The legalist forsakes
sin, not because he is alive, but that he may live. The believer mortifies sin,
because God loves him; but the legalist, that God may love him. The believer
mortifies, because God is pacified towards him; the legalist mortifies, that he
may pacify God by his mortification. He may go a great length, but it is still
that he may have whereof to glory, making his own doing all the foundation of
his hope and comfort.

6. They differ in the nature of their mortification. The legalist does not
oppose sin violently, seeking the utter destruction of it. If he can get sin put
down, he does not seek it to be thrust out; but the believer, having a nature
and principle contrary to sin, he seeks not only to have it weakened, but
extirpated. The quarrel is irreconcileable; no terms of accommodation or
agreement; no league with sin is allowed, as it is with hypocrites.

7. They differ in the extent of the warfare, not only objectively, the believer
hating every false way; but also subjectively, all the faculties of the
believer's soul, the whole regenerate part being against sin. It is not so with
the hypocrite or legalist; for as he spares some sin or other, so his opposition
to sin is only seated in his conscience; his light and conscience oppose such a
thing, while his heart approves of it. There is an extent also as to time; the
legalist's opposition to sin is of a short duration, but in the believer it is
to the end; grace and corruption still opposing one another.

8. They differ in the success. There is no believer, but as he fights against
sin, so first or last he prevails, though not always to his discerning; and
though he lose many battles, yet he gains the war. But the legalist, for all the
work he makes, yet he never truly comes speed; though he cut off some actual
sin, yet the corrupt nature is never changed; he never gets a new heart; the
iron sinew in his neck, which opposes God, is never broken; and when he gets one
sin mortified, sometimes another and more dangerous sin lifts up the head. Hence
all the sins and pollutions that ever the Pharisees forsook, and all the good
duties that ever they performed, made them but more proud, and strengthened
their unbelieving prejudices against Christ, which was the greater and more
dangerous sin.

Thus you may see the difference between legal and gospel mortification, and try
yourselves thereby.


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