on Lawlessness and Righteousness

The next message in our series on legalism is prompted by a section in David Hesselgrave’s paper, referenced earlier, where he begins: ‘As for lawlessness, in the case of born-again Christians, it is an impossibility.’

In order to understand what Hesselgrave is saying, you need to gain an understanding of a difficult passage, 1 Jn 3.2-10, and 3.24. The apostle John’s words can be very troubling to the believer, especially words like this: ‘Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God’ (v. 9). As you work through the passage, beginning in v. 2, you will see that John is contrasting two sorts of people: the ones born of God and the ones sinning. Of the ones born of God, he says that we will be like Christ when he appears, but what we are now doesn’t make that apparent. Nevertheless, the believer is purifying himself because of his hope, while the one who is doing sin (the unbeliever) is also doing lawlessness. John makes a point of identifying the sin of the unbeliever as lawlessness. The rest of the passage is repetitive, contrasting the two classes of people and emphasizing the great gulf between them.

The key to understanding the passage is the emphasis concerning the sin that the unbeliever is doing, lawlessness. The unbeliever is ‘without law’, lawless, an outlaw. Hesselgrave illustrates it this way:

“For example, if I were to be stopped for speeding while driving in our neighboring state of Wisconsin, I might be willing to admit that I had indeed been driving 80 miles an hour in a 65mph zone. That would be tantamount to admitting that I am a ‘lawbreaker.’ But suppose I simply disregard the speed limit and respond to the officer by saying something like, ‘You can’t give me a ticket. I’m from Illinois. Your Wisconsin laws don’t apply to me and you have no right to arrest me.’ At that moment, I become something other than just a lawbreaker. I become an ‘outlaw.’ I become ‘lawless.'”

The unbeliever shouts to God, in effect, ‘You can’t tell me what to do.’

On the other hand, the believer, purifying himself, asks God, ‘Please tell me what to do.’

This attitude illustrates the difference between a spiritual heart and a rebellious heart. Our basic human nature chafes at rules, restrictions, directions, and authority. Ultimately, this is a remnant of our enmity with God, even in believers. If we are walking in the Spirit, we will put down the flesh and submit to God, asking for his guidance, direction, and rejoicing in the freedom from sin and guilt that God’s restraints provide.

I concluded the message with this:

“The heart of the Christian is that he is under the Law of Christ. He wants to please Christ, not himself.

“How about you? Who do you want to please?’

UPDATE: Here are the sermon notes if you are interested.

In our afternoon service, I preached a communion message from Lev 1.1-4. We considered first the context of God’s instruction – not from Mt Sinai, but from the Tabernacle, in the midst of the people, just as God’s final solution to sin is Emmanuel, God with us, the incarnate God among the people, bearing with them and bearing their sin. We considered two concepts required for the sacrifice, the concept of cost and the concept of excellence. We compared that with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish. We considered the consequence: atonement, a substitute dying the death the worshipper deserved. This indeed is what Christ did for us.

Hallelujah, what a Saviour.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3


  1. Jerry Bouey says:

    That paper by Hesselgrave was interesting. Thanks for posting the link to it at the start of your series.

    This passage was a blessing to my heart, as I was meditating on Hebrews 11:6.

    “He also says that the Old Testament heroes of faith were so convinced of the veracity of God’s promises and the reality of things not yet seen, that they staked their lives on that conviction; and in so doing they received the commendation of God himself. What we have here is complete trust in God—that he exists and rewards those who trust him.”