Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. Isaiah 58:1-2
Ouch! Is that us he’s talking about? Unfortunately, the answer is yes! Wait a minute, you might say, that doesn’t sound like the gospel! And you’d be right. That passage from Isaiah is pure law.
If you’ve been attending the “Law and Gospel” Adult Bible study on Sundays in May and June, you’d know that Elder Steve Perko has been teaching us how to look at Bible passages and ask ourselves the important question: “Is this law? Or is it gospel?” Distinguishing law and gospel in the Scripture was so important to Martin Luther that he was “willing to place him who is well versed in the art of dividing the Law from the Gospel at the head of all and call him a doctor of Holy Writ.”
Why is this important? Doesn’t it sound like a job for theologians? What does this have to do with us ordinary Christians? Well, we’ve been learning that if you start to mix up the law and the gospel, you can run into some very serious errors.
The first thing we need to know is: What is “law”? and What is “gospel”? Take a minute and try to think of your own definitions of these terms. If I were to put it in my own words, I’d say that the law is “God’s requirements for what we’re supposed to do to be right with God (righteous).” On the other hand, the gospel is “what God does for us to make us righteous”. Or, if you want a shorter definition, you could just say Gospel = Jesus!
Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’ll admit that nobody really likes the law. The problem with the law is that we’re sinners and we just can’t manage to keep it, and God makes it pretty clear in the Bible that we ought to. You might ask: Now that we have Jesus, do we need the law anymore? Wasn’t the law the Old Testament, and now we have the gospel in the New? Well, Jesus himself had something to say about that.
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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices an teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20
There’s Jesus preaching law, right in the New Testament. What’s more, wherever Jesus talks about the law, he doesn’t make it less harsh. He makes it even harder!
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Matthew 5:21
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were really trying hard to keep God’s law and earn their way into heaven, and Jesus was unfailingly harsh to them. That doesn’t seem fair. But you see, they had made a terrible mistake. They thought they could be good enough for God. And well, with God, there just isn’t any “good enough”. You’re either perfect, or you’re not. The Pharisees were pretending they could be perfect, and Jesus knew better. What’s more, the Pharisees themselves should have known better. All through the Old Testament, God makes it clear that nobody has measured up.
Your iniquities have separated you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear…
For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us.
Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities…
Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.
The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. Isaiah 59:2, 12, 15
That’s because even though we know we ought to love God and love our neighbors, we keep failing. We can’t keep the law. You can’t get anywhere on your own. The Pharisees thought they were going to keep the law well enough without the gospel, and Jesus needed to wake them up to the reality of their own sins, just as Isaiah and the prophets had been trying to do for centuries. In Isaiah, God tells him to “Shout! Don’t hold back! Raise your voice like a trumpet!” And that’s to declare to the people their sins. No wonder the prophets kept getting stoned and run out of town…
When I look around me at our culture today, I see the same thing. Nobody wants to talk about sin, or guilt, or shame. We don’t want to damage anyone’s self-confidence. Let’s blame society, or poverty, or biology, or anything other than ourselves. Surely if God is good and loving, he won’t hold us to account for all these things we just can’t help? Surely if our intentions are good, that’s good enough?
Unfortunately, if you read the Bible, that’s not what God says. He is good and perfect, and to be with Him in heaven, you have to be good and perfect too. And you’re not. That’s what the law does for us – it tells us what we ought to be doing, and shows us that we aren’t good enough. And that, of course, is why it’s never a really popular sermon topic.
So how does that fit with the gospel? Gospel means “good news”. And while there’s plenty of law throughout the Old and New Testaments, there’s plenty of gospel too. Yes, even in the Old Testament. The gospel is what God does, not what we do. The gospel is where God comes in and saves the day. Saves us.
He [God] saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.
He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak…
“The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the Lord. Isaiah 59:16-17, 20
Right after Isaiah is shouting the law at the people, he’s declaring God’s promise of a redeemer – that God himself will save his people. That’s Gospel. That “Redeemer” who’s coming? That’s Jesus: God himself. So if God’s going to do the saving, what do we need the law for? The law is there to hit us over the head and tell us, “Hey! You’re not good enough! You need saving! You’re lost! Pull over and ask for directions!”
If we don’t realize that we need saving, then we don’t understand why the gospel is such great news. If you don’t realize that you need help, you keep driving in the wrong direction and don’t understand why God keeps interfering with your life (He’s a terrible backseat driver, you know – and about the only real cure for a backseat driver is to let them drive). If you haven’t understood the law, you can’t understand the gospel either. You can say things like, “Jesus was a wonderful moral teacher and we should all strive to follow his example.” Yikes!
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:10-13
It’s only once the law has shown us our sins in the mirror that we are ready for the gospel. If we don’t realize we’re sick, we won’t take our medicine. And when we’ve realized that we just can’t do it – that’s when we get the gospel to reassure us. Because the gospel is what God does – it doesn’t depend on us. Thank God!
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30
Jesus preached both the law and the gospel, according to what His hearers needed. The Pharisees and those who thought they were good enough needed law to wake them up to reality. Those who realized they were lost needed the gospel to take the heavy burden of the law off their guilty consciences.
When we start to read the Bible with an eye for law and gospel, much that seems contradictory at first makes sense. The harshness of the law and the sweetness of the gospel work together for our salvation. As Dr. C.F.W. Walther says in Thesis IV of his book, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, “The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book.”
What do you think? If you read the story of Jesus and the rich young man (below) looking for law and gospel, what do you find?
Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”
“Which ones?” the man inquired.
Jesus replied, ” ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
When the disciples hear this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:16-26
I find that the distinction between law and gospel shines a glorious light on this difficult passage. More importantly, we must rely on God’s Holy Spirit to open our ears that we may hear, and our hearts that we may understand. “As often as you attend these lectures, I want you to come breathing a silent prayer in your hearts that God may grant us His Holy Spirit abundantly: you, to the end that you may profitably hear; me, to the end that I may teach effectively. Let us, then, take up our task with firm confidence that God will bless both our own souls and the souls of those whom we are to rescue.” (Walther, p6)
If you want to learn more about God’s law and God’s gospel, please join us on Sundays in June at 9:30am in the sanctuary. In addition, see Steve’s post about the Law and Gospel study, which includes selected video lectures from Concordia Seminary as well as a link to the entire text of Walther’s book.
And may God grant us all His Holy Spirit abundantly as we study his Word together! In Jesus precious name, Amen.