Fine, Let’s Get Theological

First off, read this.

If you’re a Lutheran, this article might make some sense to you as you’ve probably been raised with some awareness of Law & Gospel.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with this distinction, let me summarize it.
Martin Luther saw in Scripture two major forces at play – the Law and the Gospel.  The Law is the will of God.  The Law has three functions – and which function it plays may differ based on circumstances. 
The first use of the law is as a curb – it restrains us from following our natural, broken, sinful urges to their logical conclusions.  It restrains our behavior.  What I might be inclined to do because it feels good, I don’t do because I know that despite the good feeling, it’s wrong.  I might wish to strangle my neighbor that chooses to practice the tuba at 3am.  But I do not.  Not because it wouldn’t be enjoyable, but because it would be wrong.  
The second use of the law is that of a mirror.  It shows me my sinfulness.  Whenever I start to feel pretty good about myself, whenever I start to think that God must be awfully pleased with me, the law stands there and shows me my faults.  All of them.  And it reminds me that pleasing God isn’t a matter of being graded on a curve.  It’s strictly a pass-fail arrangement, and either I score 100% or I don’t.  Scoring a 98% isn’t good enough.  As far as God is concerned, it’s no better than scoring 2%.  
The third use of the law is as a guide.  It shows me the way God wants me to live.  It is sort of the converse of the first use of the law in that the emphasis is positive rather than negative.  This use of the law makes sense particularly to those who profess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  But it also plays out in what is sometimes referred to as natural law.  Because God created everything, He knows best how it ought to work.  We find some of this expressed in the 10 Commandments.  However someone who never heard of the 10 Commandments likely would recognize them immediately because there is an equivalent moral code in their own culture.  In other words, God’s Law doesn’t just work for Christians, it works for everyone.  
The Gospel is the good news that what I can’t do on my own (which the second use of the law always reminds me), God has done for me.  While I can never be righteous on my own, God has sent his Son to become one of us, to live and teach and work wonders and ultimately suffer and die not for anything He did wrong, but for everything you and I have done wrong.  That his perfect obedience becomes credited to us through faith and trust in him.  Rather than seeing all the ways I fail every day, when God looks at me He sees me as his own son.  He sees the death of Jesus that pays the penalty for my brokenness, and – miracle of miracles! – I am declared innocent.  Clean.  Righteous.  Not because of me, but because of Jesus.
That’s the Law and Gospel.  Everything in Scripture falls into one of those categories, more or less.  And the role of a good Lutheran pastor is to be able to distinguish which of those categories the given texts for a Sunday fall into, and preach on them appropriately.  
The author of the little essay I linked you to above is pointing out how this can be perceived as a bait and switch.  We tell our neighbor that Jesus loves them and died for them and that if they simply trust in that, they are made right with God.  There’s nothing they have to do, nothing they have to add (indeed, nothing they can do or add!).  What a miraculous message!  And to someone wracked with guilt, what a powerful message!
They joyfully come to church and get baptized, but as they come Sunday after Sunday, they get hit with the Law over and over again when the Pastor preaches.  How they’re failing here and failing there.  How they need to change their lives in this way and that way.  That they ought to do this and not that.  But wait a minute, our neighbor says, I thought that I couldn’t do anything, that I didn’t have to do anything to please God?  I thought I was forgiven and made righteous in the blood of Jesus?  So why am I being told how to live my life?  Aren’t I set free from the Law?  Now that I have the Gospel, shouldn’t I never hear the Law again?  The Law did its work in accusing me and showing me my need for Jesus.  Mission accomplished.  It is now irrelevant to me!  
And our neighbor is right, as is the author of the essay above.
To a point.  After a fashion.  Sort of.
This was the subject of the seminar I attended last week.  The topic was “The Two Kinds of Righteousness”.  The presenter was one of my seminary professors, Dr. Joel Biermann.  His point was that we often limit the Law to the Second Use – that of condemning us.  We see it only as that which shows us our shortcomings and brings us to Christ, and therefore once we are in Christ it has no purpose.  Only the Gospel should predominate for the Christian.  
But the Law is more than that.  And we have more concerns than pleasing God (although that is our highest priority!).  Jesus summarized the law as love God and love your neighbor.  We live in two realms, two relationships.  The first relationship is to God the Father who created us.  The second relationship is to everyone and everything around us – all the rest of creation.  What is expected of me depends on which relationship I’m considering.
In my relationship to God, there is nothing I can do on my own to affect it.  My relationship with God is fully determined by whether or not I trust what He has done for me through his Son Jesus Christ.  I either trust and accept that, or I reject it.  If I trust and accept that (by the power of the Holy Spirit), then I’m in right relationship to God.  There is no Law, only Gospel, only good news.  If I reject what God has done for me, I am not in right relationship with God.  Nothing I can do or say will alter that, other than repenting and placing my trust in him.  By faith empowered and created by God the Holy Spirit in God the Father’s love and grace through God the Son’s sacrifice, I am declared righteous.  
But in my other relationship, the one with my neighbor and all of creation, how am I righteous?  What makes my neighbor declare me righteous in my relationship with him?  Well, primarily it depends on how well I’m fulfilling the law.  The law of being a good neighbor.  What does that law entail?  Stuff like don’t steal my neighbor’s stuff.  Don’t obsess over my neighbor’s nicer lawn.  Don’t make passes at my neighbor’s wife.  Don’t do anything that might harm my other neighbor’s perceptions of my neighbor.  Ten Commandment type stuff.  First and third use of the law type stuff.
In this fashion, the Law is not a strictly Christian thing.  The Law is a creation thing.  It’s how God created the world to work best.  When we are living out that law properly, things work better.  When we don’t, things don’t work so well.  That holds true whether the person is a Christian or a Buddhist or an atheist or a Muslim.  Being a righteous neighbor is not contingent on the Gospel but on the Law. &nbsp
;The Law still plays a huge role in the life of the Christian.  
So when the blog author complains that people feel tricked, he is on to something.  Not because they’re really being tricked, but because Christians aren’t clear in how we talk about the Law – and many pastors aren’t clear on it from the pulpit.  
Part of this problem as I see it is that we often times don’t tell the full story.  The full Biblical story of what God is doing in his creation that has run amok.  We talk in terms of Jesus saving us from hell, and this is true.  We talk of Jesus taking us to heaven when we die, and this is true.  But that’s where we often leave it.  Us in heaven.  There’s judgment in there somewhere, but the important thing is that we are in heaven.  And that’s where we stay, floating on clouds with harps and singing Michael W. Smith songs for eternity.
What about 2 Peter 3:13?  What about Isaiah 11, or Isaiah 65?  When does this all happen?  How does this all fit in?  Is it all part of the story?
I believe that it is.  I believe that passages like these show us our ultimate eternal destiny – not with harps and clouds, but living on a re-perfected earth, doing what Adam and Eve were originally charged with.  Tending to creation, which is what we were created to do.  But doing so perfectly.  Righteously.  And what does that mean?  Doing it according to the Word of God, the Law of God.  The two kinds of righteousness that the Christian deals with now, between God and between neighbor, will be brought together.  There will only be one kind of righteousness lived out perfectly.  
All of this points to an expanded purpose for the Law.  The Law doesn’t just accuse me of my sins so that I repent and turn to Jesus.  The Law guides and instructs me.  Not just for this life, but for all eternity.  I begin learning better here and now what it will be to live perfectly there and then.  I’m not following the Law for no reason, I’m following it because it is my reason, my raison d’etre.  This makes perfect sense of all those passages that John records where Jesus talks about love and obedience (John 13:31-35; 15:1-17, etc.).  He clearly sees that we are created for obedience, and that perfect obedience is perfect love of both our God and our neighbor.  Law and Gospel come together in Jesus.
So, is it bait and switch to get people to come to church with the Gospel and then have them hear the law?  No.  But Christians (and particularly pastors) need to be aware of how they speak of these two elements.  Not as separate, contradictory, anti-thetical things, but as two parts of a whole that will only be reassembled in the Day of our Lord.  Until then, they are separate and each must play its role.  But they both have a role in the life of faith, we just need to refine how we talk about those roles.

One Response to “Fine, Let’s Get Theological”

  1. Doug Vossler Says:

    Good article and post, Pastor Nelson! The comments were interesting too. My thought is that Luther’s explanations for the third article of the Apostles Creed (sanctification) provide a helpful way to avoid the perception of a “bait and switch”. The Holy Spirit, by the Gospel, sanctifies us not only by creating redeeming faith in Christ, but also by renewing our life so that we try to overcome sin and do good works. We still fall far short of keeping the Law (thank goodness Christ has done that for us!) and need to be reminded of our sinfulness, but can, in faith, do good works that are pleasing in God’s sight.

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