In The Marrow of Modern Divinity, the author describes the chief difference between the covenant of grace as administered to the Old Testament people of God and that unto us as a difference of human construction. After having discussed the purpose of the republication of the covenant of works, Fisher turns his sights on this distinction, through his characters Antinomista and the pastor, Evangelista.
"Evangelista: Truly the opposition between the Jews' covenant of grace and ours was chiefly of their own making. They should have been drive to Christ by the law: but they expected life in obedience to it, and this was their great error and mistake.The law of God, being written on the hearts of man, is present with us always. In fact it is thoroughly reasonable to expect it to be hard, this sense of law and of justice being part and parcel with us, for men to think otherwise than that their righteousness must be established by their conformity to "right and wrong". Even in today's postmodern age, it is clear to most and embraced silently by many that there are "rights" and "wrongs", stated or unstated, though the existence of those absolutes contradicts their stated worldview. Conformity to those "rights" and "wrongs" is even taken as a standard of "righteousness" by which they are judged morally "upright" in an absolute sense.
Antinomista: And surely, sir, it is no great marvel, though they in this point did so much err and mistake, who had the covenant of grace made known to them so darkly; when many amongst us, who have it more clearly manifested, do the like.Evangelista: And, truly, it is no marvel, though all men naturally do so: for man naturally doth apprehend God to be the great Master of heaven, and himself to be his servant; and that therefore he must do his work before he can have his wages; and the more work he doth, the better wages he shall have." (p. 34, The Marrow of Modern Divinity)
This points to the natural tendency that we have as human beings having God's law written on our hearts - the grace of the Gospel is foreign to us; justification by another's righteousness and a fully gracious declaration of our Sovereign is wholly outside our natural ability to understand. We err naturally in expecting that we will be acceptable based on our conformity to God's standard. When God's Law was presented at Sinai, the natural tendency was to read it as being presented as a covenant by which justification unto life was granted, and presented as supplanting the promise. Fisher continues,
"the general opinion of men's reason throughout the whole world, that righteousness is gotten by the works of the law; and the reason is, because the covenant was engendered in the minds of men in the very creation, so that man naturally can judge no otherwise of the law than as of a covenant of works, which was given to make righteous, and to give life and salvation. This pernicious opinion of the law, that it justifieth and maketh righteous before God, says Luther again, "is so deeply rooted in man's reason, and all mankind so wrapped in it, that they can hardly get out; yea, I myself, says he, have now preached the gospel nearly twenty years, and have been exercised in the same daily, by reading and writing, so that I may well seem to be rid of this wicked opinion; yet, notwithstanding, I now and then feel this old filth cleave to my heart, whereby it cometh to pass that I would willingly have so to do with God, that I would bring something with myself, because of which he should give me his grace." " (p. 85-86, The Marrow of Modern Divinity)This natural tendency is a universal characteristic of men - from the days of Moses, and of the apostles - and of Luther, and Fisher - to today. Many, many were then and are now persuaded of their acceptance before God being dependent upon and measured by their conformity to the law. This being our tendency as humans, is understandable; though understandable, it is nevertheless a pernicious error.
"Antinomista: Sir, I am verily persuaded, that there be very many in the city of London that are carried with a blind preposterous zeal after their own good works and well-doings, secretly seeking to become holy, just, and righteous, before God, by their diligent keeping, and careful walking in all God's commandments; and yet no man can persuade them that they do so: and truly, sir, I am verily persuaded that this our neighbour and friend, Nomista, is one of them.So effectual is our natural tendency that we often forget the dictum given us by the Apostle Paul - Christ is the end of the law to those that believe. Christ's righteousness, and his alone, qualifies. Even as it is theoretically possible for any who absolutely is conformed to the Law of God to be declared righteous in God's eyes - no man has ever or will be so conformed (apart from Christ) both because of the weakness of the flesh we inherit naturally from Adam, and because of the condemnation we share in him already as his covenant posterity. We lie guilty under the law from the start - and even if we should perfectly live subsequently, we are already condemned.
Evangelista: Alas! there are thousands in the world that make a Christ of their works; and here is their undoing, &c. They look for righteousness and acceptation more in the precept than in the promise, in the law than in the gospel, in working than in believing; and so miscarry. Many poor ignorant souls amongst us, when we bid them obey and do duties, they can think of nothing but working themselves to life; when they are troubled, they must lick themselves whole, when wounded, they must run to the salve of duties, and stream of performances, and neglect Christ. Nay, it is to be feared that there be divers who in words are able to distinguish between the law and gospel, and in their judgments hold and maintain, that man is justified by faith without the works of the law; and yet in effect and practice, that is to say, in heart and conscience, do otherwise. And there is some touch of this in us all; otherwise we should not be so up and down in our comforts and believing as we are still, and cast down with every weakness as we are." (pp. 86-87, The Marrow of Modern Divinity)
But like dogs, we return to our vomit and seek to justify ourselves, fooling ourselves, deceiving each other. The truth of the Gospel must ever be before us. Enemies of Gospel truth must always be withstood, even in the same way as Paul withstood Peter to his face when Peter had succumbed to the pressure of the Judaizers of his day. Let us beware of the leaven that seeks to undo what Christ has done perfectly, and what Christ alone can grant.