The Rush to Judgment

…or the proper application of Law and Gospel in a current situation. Let’s consider the sweep of emotions regarding the trial of Casey Anthony. Notice that the trial was not for the purpose of determining who killed Caylee; rather the trial was to determine whether there was evidence that Casey killed her. I am rather surprised, almost shocked, at the responses to the Casey Anthony trail. More narrowly, my shock relates to Christians, some who have posted that they hope “Casey Anthony rots in hell” (and other assorted sentiments).

This is an appropriate time to step back a moment and consider how we as Christians can respond. When I teach the seminary class on Law and Gospel and when I teach this in congregations, I set before them a hypothetical situation to see what their responses as Christians will be. To do this here, I will set up the scenario and then see how this might suggest a response to what has happened in the Anthony case. Note: this is not a commentary on the verdict nor on any legal issue, but only a Christian perspective of the current situation.

Definitions

Law: tells us what to do and not do; threatens punishment when we fail to live up to the Law’s demands

Gospel: tells us what God has done for us in Jesus Christ

This seems rather straight forward and is relatively easy to take a Scriptural text and determine whether it is Law or Gospel. It only seems that way because it is not as straight forward as we would like. But for the purposes here, we will leave it as it is.

Law always:

Accuses
Condemns
Threatens punishment

Gospel always:

Forgives
Restores
Renews
Promises
NEVER accuses, condemns, or threatens

Law Gospel Diagram

Application

So how does this work in practice of properly applying each? Let’s look at two Biblical examples

Mark 10:17-21 NAS

As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.”

Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have atreasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.

Some might be confused by the question, thinking that since it speaks about “eternal life” it must be a Gospel question. However, the question is a Law question: “what shall I do…” As such, Jesus answers with a Law answer: “Do these things…”

Acts 16:25–31 NAS

But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.

But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!”

And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Sounds like almost the same situation. The question has an appearance of Gospel because it mentions “Saved”, but the question asked is “what must I do…” hence it is a Law question. We would expect Paul and Silas to reiterate the Law’s demands just as Jesus had done in Mark 10. Instead, it is the Gospel “believe in the Lord Jesus” (note that “believe” is an invitation that extends what it offers, much like a starving person is invited to eat).

So, why the difference? Looking back at the diagram, the man in Mark 10 is trying to achieve eternal life/salvation by what he can do, climbing the Law ladder. On the other hand, the Philippian jailer is at the bottom of the Law ladder with no hope (“about to kill himself”). Thus, the one climbing the Law ladder in Mark 10 expects the Gospel, but needs to hear the Law. The Philippian jailer expects the Law, but needs the Gospel.

Just from these two examples, it should become clear that we often are the least capable of determining what we need to hear. But it is also true that we often cannot determine what the other person needs. Let’s consider an example, keeping in mind Matthew 6:15 [Jesus said:] “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” What about a parent whose daughter was raped and murdered and the parent screams, “I will never forgive that man!!!!”

So, now the question is: does this parent need Law or Gospel? It’s amazing how the discussion will evolve, some very strongly advocating “Law!” And others equally vocal, “Gospel.” So what’s the correct answer? The answer is: We don’t know enough to determine whether the person needs Law or Gospel.

Now back to Casey Anthony. Regardless of the legal decision and questions about that, many are wanting to immediately proclaim Law to her, and not just Law, but God’s eternal judgment on her. My concern is the same as above: we don’t know enough to determine what she needs. We don’t even know if she committed those crimes.

So, as Christians, what can we do? Let’s pray that God raises up the right person to lovingly speak both Law and Gospel to her in a loving way, so that she might have a right relationship with God. Let’s pray that there are those who are not afraid to love her even when it seems impossible or when the general public opinion wants to cast her aside.

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About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
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11 Responses to The Rush to Judgment

  1. Sue Scott says:

    Appreciate your blog on this. It is personally helpful to me because I have reached out to a 20 year old gal who is my next-door neighbor. In April she was driving while under the influence and hit some bicyclists, critically injuring a middle-aged man who remains in the sub-acute care unit down the street from Trinity. I have been troubled by the entire situation and unsure how to proceed in ministering. Pray for all involved, please!

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    • exegete77 says:

      @Sue: Yes, indeed, you are right in the midst of this very kind of circumstance. It is difficult when faced with this kind of personal ministry. I know that your pastor is there for your support, but if you want to discuss further off-line, too, feel free to email me or call.

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  2. Steve Kurtzahn says:

    Whether it’s Ms. Anthony or any other sinner, we all need both Law and Gospel, with the Gospel having the predominance, as Walther said in his fantastic book. There are times, though, when a person needs to hear mostly Law–like someone who is expressing impenitence, but we still need to share some Gospel. He or she may never hear it again. There are also times when a person needs to hear mostly Gospel, like a dying cancer patient who is on his or her deathbed. There is still Law to be shared, but that person really needs to hear about the forgiveness of Jesus earned on the cross for lost sinners.

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  3. Kevin S. says:

    When we don’t know whether a person needs Law or Gospel, I don’t know if both L&G proclaimed together (as in a sermon) would be appropriate in this case?

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  4. DJ says:

    I wasn’t there when Caylee died. I don’t know who did it, and neither do most people. However God sees all and knows all. He knows. And He will judge fairly. It isn’t my decision. Enjoyed the comments Pastor Rich. God bless!

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  5. exegete77 says:

    I appreciate the comments, and they seem to verify that until we are in actual contact with, and ministering to, a person we cannot determine which is needed and how.

    @Kevin: I think that is the difference between a sermon/Bible class and one-on-one ministering to a person. In the larger setting, we can pray that the right words are touching the hearts that need to hear it. In a personal setting, there are many other clues and extended interaction by which we can better focus either Law or Gospel.

    @Stephen: Your words “Whether it’s Ms. Anthony or any other sinner…” catches my point. From a Christian perspective, there is no difference between which she needs to hear and what I need to hear.

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  6. Dawn Hardy says:

    It always amazes me, how Christians and non-Christians alike, feel the need to express their outrage to everyone; what they believe should or should not happen to Casey Anthony, as well as what she “needs to hear”. Understanding God’s will is beyond me, because I am a sinner: just as understanding what is in Casey Anthony’s heart is beyond me, because only God truely knows what is written in someone’s heart. When this is kept in mind, peace fills the heart and mind, and then God is able to speak through you. So, not only Casey Anthony needs prayers, but all people that struggle with their outrage.

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  7. administrator says:

    Your outline of the differences between the law and the gospel speaks volumes as a reminder of the Gospel message which is so easily forgotten. I am one of two Lutheran laity the ELCA’s Southeastern Pa Synod has chosen to sue over a property dispute in a vicious, three-year and counting legal feud. As church leaders attack our congregation — targeting individuals within the congregation, thus intimidating most members (and clergy) from living their faith and hoping to get even more money than the church property and assets can provide — they are remarkably comfortable employing the full force of legal tactics available. Total destruction of Christian community and individual faith is little more than collateral damage as they attempt to acquire property and assets to fund their deficits. All the while, they claim the First Amendment puts them above the law or at least outside the law. The gospel of love, forgiveness, atonement, reconciliation is so easily brushed aside. Our situation and the Casey Anthony verdict reaction are reminders that we are never far from returning to the days of the Inquisition. The only thing preventing it may be an occasional reminder of how we Christians are supposed to be thinking. Thanks!

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  10. B Parks says:

    One thing to think that I think you have excluded is the positive side of the Law. You mention the Law always condemns. This isn’t true. The Law never condemns the innocent. The Law is only “bad news” to those who are against the law, or guilty as sinners. Once we have accepted Christ and embraced the grace of Calvary, the Law defends us. This is how David celebrates the law and sees the Law as beautiful. This is how the Law gives us “liberty” (James 1). The Law is holy and just. It isn’t the bad guy, it’s just doing it’s job.

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