June 13, 2021

Law and Gospel

“The Law” is huge in the history of Jesus’ people.  Few words were ever given with such fanfare (fire, storms, stone tablets, big bearded guy in robe) and few words have ever been cherished as the words of the law have been (“When your words came, I ate them,” writes one prophet).  Such love makes the Apostle Paul’s cautionary words about the law very striking.  It turns out that people have a tendency to use the law to accomplish things it was never intended to do (i.e. making people right with God and changing their behavior).  Some mistakes don’t matter but this one has disastrous consequences, even to the point of distancing people from Jesus.  “Hence, whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture,” says Martin Luther.  Let’s take a minute and distinguish what the law is for:

The three uses of the law*
Fence.  The law is an external restraint against evil, which would otherwise run rampant in our world.  Romans 13:1-7
Mirror.  The law shows us what we really look like by pointing out exactly how we fall short of God’s plan for our lives.  This isn’t to beat us up, it is to break us and make us ready to receive God’s grace. Romans 7:7
Railroad.  The law shows us where we are going (we’re turning into people who don’t covet, for example) but it contains no power to get us there.  Romans 13:10

Notice what is missing.  You can’t restore a person’s relationship to God through the law.  Grace alone works for that.  You also can’t change yourself by using the law as a billy club .  Turns out, you need grace for that too.  To put it another way, if you are trying to win God’s favor by living out the law you are not a Doctor of Holy Scripture yet.  If you are trying to change yourself by going to the woodshed for a good law flogging, you are not a Doctor of Holy Scripture yet.  But if you have begun to focus your energy instead on soaking in your new identity in Christ and if you have begun to submit yourself to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, well, now you are on your way.  The law is good, because it got your attention, but grace will take it from here.

*This threefold description dates back to the 1500’s and can be found both in the Lutheran Formula of Concord and Calvin’s Institutes.  If you want to define the uses with bigger words, here they are: “civil,” “pedagogical” and “didactic.”