I love teaching Bible class! Doesn’t matter the topic, book, subject, I’m there. By teaching I don’t mean a one-way monologue where I begin and end the time together. Rather I mean the interactive dialog among all participants. Questions, more questions, wrestling with the text, and having fun at the same time, even with serious topics.
Inevitably, a question arises that touches on a fundamental Lutheran hermeneutic: The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel. In fact, every month some aspect of this reveals a better, new understanding of the text—or the person.
See the diagram Law-Gospel
The Demand: Law
The Law reveals God’s desire for humans. In creation the Law was written in the heart, so that Adam and Eve knew God’s desires and will for them. Sin caused that Law understanding to be broken, distorted, even forgotten. In God’s work through history God revealed the Law this time through a written set of “words,” the giving of the commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20). Those commandments were given specifically to the Hebrews/Israelites.
The written Law can be applied today to Gentiles, because it reflects the Law written in the heart. We can fool ourselves into thinking that “if I can adjust the Law a little, then I am not that bad.” Jesus faced that in 1st century Judaism. Matthew 5:21-47 has the repeated refrain: “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you.” Jesus didn’t adjust the Law, rather He showed the extent and intent of the Law. The Law is not a friend that invites us to “try hard,” as if that is good enough. Rather, the Law is an awful task master.
[Jesus said:] Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48 NIV)
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10 NIV)
Those two passages are very offensive, if we are looking to see how good we are compared to others. The demand is not my highest good, but God’s demand for perfection —in thought, word, and deed, as we confess in our worship services. The second means that my one “little sin” of gossip puts me in the same category as someone who commits murder. And I don’t like that!
Left on our own, though, the only thing we have is our ability to try harder or give up in despair. It’s amazing how this reflects life within the church; the do’s and don’t’s become supreme. And they leave us on the outside, emotionally, but especially spiritually.
Life under the Law is not only a demand, it is devastating! Is there any hope? Under the Law, never! “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a NIV). Left on our own, the demand is overwhelming, a death sentence.
The gift is entirely different. Jesus came to provide the solution to this death sentence. He did it in two ways. First, in the demand for perfection, we read:
[Jesus said:] Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.(Matthew 5:17 NIV)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15 NIV)
So, notice that the same demand was on Jesus, but He lived under the demand to be perfect. According to Hebrews 4:15 he was.
Second, Jesus came to pay the punishment for our failure to live perfectly.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:18a NIV)
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2 NIV)
Notice that Jesus did this for “the whole world.” That is, his death was sufficient for the sins of every person who ever lived, not matter how detestable, or insignificant the sin. Jesus paid the full penalty of every sin ever committed.
The Divine Swap
Now, the really good news: What Jesus did is now credited to us as righteousness. This does not take place not by our effort, but God who makes us alive:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1 NIV)
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5 NIV)
And then God makes the divine swap: Christ for us—us for Christ!
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV)
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Romans 3:21-22 NIV)
and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:9 NIV)
Faith is not something I do, but faith itself is a gift receiving what Jesus has done (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Sometimes God speaks the Law and sometimes the Gospel. The challenge of all this is that we do not have the ability to see what we individually need to hear. In other words, for someone under the Law stiving for perfection, the person expects to hear a word of congratulations (“good news”), but needs to hear the law in its full severity.
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mark 10:17-22 NIV)
On the other hand, the one who is at the bottom of the Law heap, crushed by sin, recognizing that the wages of sin is death, expects to hear the Law, but needs to hear the Gospel. Notice that the question of the jailer is the same as the rich man. But the answer is entirely different.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” (Acts 16:25-31 NIV)
Law and Gospel and the proper distinction is a life-long activity. It is not easy, we make mistakes, we fail to properly distinguish between the two, and we apply them in the worst ways at times. If you have children, how often do you rightly do this with your children. Yeah, me neither. Enough said.
But God does apply Law and Gospel to us, and Jesus satisfies the demand and gives to us. Enough said!