Friday, September 08, 2006

Guest Blog: Properly Dividing Law & Gospel

by Frank Marron (Lutheran)

While many sermons on Sunday may teach the orthodox Christian faith, most are not proper because they do apply the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the lives of believers. Sure, you may leave church after hearing the truth concerning both the Divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ – that He is both man and God, but most likely you will not have heard the Gospel applied to your everyday life. Here is a case study illustrating this fact, based on a recent broadcast of Law & Gospel by Pastor Tom Baker. All names are fictitious.

Ann is a middle-aged woman who recently lost her husband in an automobile accident, where a drunk driver was responsible. She is a member of a mainstream Christian church denomination where her fellow members and pastor all encourage her to forget and forgive because the bible tells her she must do so. After all, we read such commands in the bible. Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St Paul writes:

Ephes. 4:32
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Jesus Himself states:

Matthew 6:14-15
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, [15] but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Grieving over the loss of her life’s companion, Ann is naturally confused. When asked, she forcefully testifies she is not angry with God, but instead angry with the drunk driver who caused her pain and suffering. Her pastor and church friends are uncomfortable being around Ann and continue to encourage her to forgive the drunk driver and get on with her life. But Ann cannot simply do this. She thinks she is in a good church home and has heard the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But has she really?

Most Christian denominations believe that “if the bible says it, then that settles it - I believe it”. Sadly, such a viewpoint is prominent throughout Christianity and demonstrates a profound ignorance of the Word of God. There are two methods God speaks in His Word: Law and Gospel. “Law” is shorthand for the will of God, usually understood in the context of the ten commandments. In the above Scripture quotations, these verses are definitely Law. It is the will of God that we forgive one another, just as stated in the Lord’s Prayer(e.g. Matthew 6:12). All religions of the world are Law based, believing that the way a person gets right with God is by doing the will of God. Such people are referred to as those who live under the Law. Although Ann’s denomination professes belief in Jesus Christ, this church is not really different from all other religions of the world because it encourages it’s members to live under the Law. Ann is terribly burdened by her loss and under condemnation for failing to forgive the drunk driver who killed her husband. Instead of comforting Ann, her church burdens her with the full weight of the Law: Ann must forgive. This is a classic example of the failure to properly distinguish between Law and Gospel.

The bible is riddled with passages of Scripture that are either Law or Gospel. In fact, many verses can be understood as either one, depending upon whether one lives under Law or under the Gospel. Most denominations fail to understand that the primary purpose of the Law is to reveal and magnify sin, not to present a challenge for a man to keep the will of God(Romans 3:20;5:20). The Law of God is good in that it reveals the will of God, but it only condemns a person and does not enable him to keep it. The Law is a mirror showing us how imperfect and sinful we really are and is a tutor pointing to Christ(Galatians 3:24). Most denominations know the Law well and rather than emphasize the scriptural purpose for it, they encourage members to try to keep it, often believing that the Holy Spirit will empower people to do this, thus pleasing God. Such encouragement is a confusion of Law and Gospel and even attempts to use the cross of Christ as Law rather than Gospel! Such denominations believe that the purpose of the bible is to present “right rules for living”. Unfortunately, this is not Christianity, but rather exactly what all other man made religions of the world teach, such as Buddhism, Mormonism, or Islam.

Romans chapters 7 and 8 illustrate the apostle Paul’s understanding of Law and Gospel, sin and Grace. Romans 7:9 shows how the Law created awareness of sin for Paul and the inner turmoil over failure to keep it. Paul says that even though the Law is good, it caused death for him. In verse 15 Paul states that he does the exact opposite of the will of God, despite his desire to do otherwise! Verse 24 shows Paul exclaiming what a wretched man he is, finally realizing that the only solution to his dilemma is Jesus Christ. Paul is no different than any other man: All have sinned and fallen short of the will of God(Romans 3:23). The good news is that there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus(Romans 8:1). Most denominations don’t seem to understand why there is no condemnation of believers such as Ann, who professes belief in Jesus Christ. Instead, such churches place Ann on another guilt trip for failure to keep the Law completely. Such denominations read Romans 8:1-6 as those who live under the Law, believing that walking according to the flesh refers to continuing to sin and walking according to the Spirit as ceasing from sinning. But this is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Such churches should be embarrassed and ashamed at failing their members. Ann’s denomination does not heed the Scriptures, which plainly state that the Law reveals sin to those secure in their sins, as shown above, but that the Gospel is to be given to those terrified of their trespasses. Jesus came to fulfill the Law perfectly for all men, including Ann(Matthew 5:17). Jesus did what no other man was capable of – He was the Representative Man. Jesus came not for the righteous, but sinners(Matthew 9:13), including Ann. As a believer, Ann is concerned over her failure to forgive, which is a sin of omission, not commission(e.g. James 4:17). The Gospel is that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the entire world, which includes Ann(John 3:16). Jesus did not die for y those who kept the will of God perfectly throughout their entire lives, but for sinners. Only Christ lived the perfect, sinless life. This is the GOOD NEWS, the Gospel, which is rarely preached from the pulpits of most denominations. The Gospel is not that God forgives your sins and sends the Holy Spirit to enable you to keep the Law of God. The Gospel is 100 percent gift: God forgives your sins because the Son of God took the punishment for your sins. God gives you the gift of Faith in which to receive this blessing and also the seal of the Holy Sirit(Ephesians 1:13-14). Jesus Christ exchanges His Righteousness for your sins so that we become adopted children of God through absolutely no merit of our own. Being aware of her sins and failure to forgive the person who killed her husband, instead of being burdened with more Law, Ann should have been comforted with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ann should be encouraged to continue to walk by the Spirit, confessing her sins and receiving the forgiveness of sins and the peace of God through Jesus Christ her Savior, which is living under the Gospel. Jesus Christ lived the perfect life of obedience under the Law for Ann. Jesus Christ received the full wrath of God for Ann’s sins. In the eyes of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, Ann is considered perfect, sinless, and righteous(2Cor 5:21). This is the Gospel. This is the comfort and peace which is sorely lacking in Christian preaching today.

1 comment:

James Swan said...

I agree that many churches teach "law" and completely miss the Gospel, and don't even realize it. I have a catch phrase for sermons that are "law" driven- I call them "TRY HARDER!" sermons. Sometimes I'll hear them when i'm watching Christian TV or visiting a church.

On the other hand, Luther’s distinction of law and gospel also has a function in the ongoing life of the church and of the individual believer.

The law is usually understood to have 3 aspects. The first: It shows our sin, second it drives us to Christ.

In the third use of law, the law is used in the Christian life to understand and contribute to Christian decision-making. It is not though, the motivating factor for a Christian. Christians do good works out of a free and merry spirit. We love because He first loved us. The law comes as information to Christians motivated by the gospel.

The gospel functions as a gift from God allowing us to stand in his presence. It is our justification. It is His favor and love directed toward us based solely on Christ.

Many people who first begin to hear about the distinction between law and gospel, think that this distinction is an abolishment of the law, a liciense to sin, and antinomianism.I would say that the emphasis is to distinguish between law and gospel, to realize that our justification is completely Christ's righteousness.

On the other hand, this righteousness actually gives us the freedom to do good works! One does them out of thankfulness to God. One doesn't do works in order to be accepted by God. This was one of the key concepts that the Reformation recovered. Indeed, the Christian is "free".

Here are some "choice" Luther quotes:

“I have often said that there are two kinds of faith. First, a faith in which you indeed believe that Christ is such a man as he is described and proclaimed here and in all the Gospels, but do not believe that he is such a man for you, and are in doubt whether you have any part in him and think: Yes, he is such a man to others, to Peter, Paul, and the blessed saints; but who knows that he is such to me and that I may expect the same from him and may confide in it, as these saints did? Behold, this faith is nothing, it does not receive Christ nor enjoy him, neither can it feel any love and affection for him or from him. It is a faith about Christ and not in or of Christ, a faith which the devils also have as well as evil men…That alone can be called Christian faith, which believes without wavering that Christ is the Saviour not only to Peter and to the saints but also to you. Your salvation does not depend on the fact that you believe Christ to be the Saviour of the godly, but that he is a Saviour to you and has become your own. Such a faith will work in you love for Christ and joy in him, and good works will naturally follow. If they do not, faith is surely not present: for where faith is, there the Holy Ghost is and must work love and good works.” [Sermons of Martin Luther 1:21-22]

“What Augustine says is indeed true: He who has created you without yourself will not save you without yourself. Works are necessary for salvation, but they do not cause salvation; for faith alone gives life. For the sake of hypocrites it should be said that good works are necessary for salvation. Works must be done, but it does not follow from this that works save… Works save externally, that is, they testify that we are just and that in a man there is that faith which saves him internally, as Paul says: ‘With the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation’.” [What Luther Says 3: 1509]

“We must therefore most certainly maintain that where there is no faith there also can be no good works; and conversely, that there is no faith where there are no good works. Therefore faith and good works should be so closely joined together that the essence of the entire Christian life consists in both.” [Martin Luther, as cited by Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963], 246, footnote 99]

Works are a certain sign, like a seal on a letter, which make me certain that my faith is genuine. As a result if I examine my heart and find that my works are done in love, then I am certain that my faith is genuine. If I forgive, then my forgiving makes me certain that my faith is genuine and assures me and demonstrates my faith to me.” [Martin Luther, as cited by Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963], 247, footnote 106]

“Works assure us and bear witness before men and the brethren and even before our own selves that we truly believe and that we are sons of God in hope and heirs of eternal life.” [Martin Luther, as cited by Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963], 247, footnote 106]

“Love is evidence of faith and gives us firm and certain confidence in the mercy of God; thus we are commanded to make our calling certain by good works (II Peter 1:10). When works follow it becomes apparent that we have faith…” [Martin Luther, as cited by Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963], 247, footnote 106

“True faith is not idle. We can, therefore, ascertain and recognize those who have true faith from the effect or from what follows.” [LW 34:183

“But as faith makes a man a believer and righteous, so faith does good works. Since, then, works justify no one, and a man must be righteous before he does a good work, it is very evident that it is faith alone which, because of the pure mercy of God through Christ and in his Word, worthily and sufficiently justifies and saves the person.” [LW 31:361]

“This is why St. Luke and St. James have so much to say about works, so that one says: Yes, I will now believe, and then he goes and fabricates for himself a fictitious delusion, which hovers only on the lips as the foam on the water. No, no; faith is a living and an essential thing, which makes a new creature of man, changes his spirit and wholly and completely converts him. It goes to the foundation and there accomplishes a renewal of the entire man; so, if I have previously seen a sinner, I now see in his changed conduct, manner and life, that he believes. So high and great a thing is faith.”[Sermons of Martin Luther 2.2:341]