The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

September 7, 2014

“The Letter and the Spirit”

2 Corinthians 3:4-11


And we have such trust through Christ toward God.  Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?  For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory.  For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious. 2 Corinthians 3:4-11


Today we consider the two main teachings of the Christian religion: the law and the gospel.  Unless we can correctly distinguish between the law and the gospel we cannot understand the Holy Scriptures, we cannot know how to live, we cannot know what to believe, and we cannot find comfort and peace in Jesus our Savior. 


The law and the gospel are both from God.  God gave the law on Mt. Sinai, though it is taught throughout the whole Bible.  God revealed the gospel on Mt. Calvary, though it is the central teaching of the whole Bible.  Both law and gospel come from God.  But the law is the ministry of death while the gospel is the ministry of life.  St. Paul refers to the law as the letter because God personally wrote the law in letters engraved on stone when he gave it to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  He calls it the ministry of condemnation.  The letter kills.  The gospel is the ministry of righteousness.  It is the Spirit who gives us life.  He gives us life by reckoning to us the righteousness of Christ who alone has obeyed the law God gave to Moses.  The religion of the law condemns us.  The religion of the gospel saves us.  And here we are confronted with the most tragic irony of human existence: most people prefer the religion of the law to the religion of the gospel.  They prefer the religion that condemns them to the religion that saves them.


I know this to be true because the Bible teaches this.  Jesus said:


Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.  Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.


I know this to be true from history.  Consider how many more people belong to religious groups that promote salvation by our righteous works than belong to religious groups that teach we are saved by God’s gracious reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to us.  Even most folks who call themselves Christians believe that the road to heaven is paved with their own good deeds. 


I know this to be true from my own personal experience as a pastor.  I once talked to a lifelong Lutheran who belonged to the Masonic Lodge to try to persuade him to leave the lodge on account of its antichristian teaching.  The lodge teaches salvation by works.  Here, in the Mason’s own words, is what their white lambskin symbolizes:


It symbolizes that purity of heart and rectitude of conduct so essentially necessary in gaining admission to the celestial lodge above where the Supreme Architect of the Universe presides.


The lifelong Lutheran to whom I was speaking was scandalized – not by what the lodge teaches about gaining heaven by our pure heart and upright conduct – but by the fact that I denied it.  For him, my insistence that our good deeds don’t help get us to heaven was an offense.  He simply assumed that we become righteous before God by doing righteous deeds and that our good deeds were how we would get to heaven.


He was not alone.  Most people seek God in his law.  They look to the law to see their purpose in life.  They look to the law to see God.  They look to the law to find stability in a radically changing world.  They put their hope in the law.  They trust in it.


And what does the Bible say about the law’s purpose, power, and promise?  Its purpose is to kill you.  It has no power to save you.  Whatever it promises you, it promises you on the condition that you obey it and you haven’t obeyed it so you cannot claim its promises.  The purpose and power and promise of the law are the same: to condemn you.


Does this mean that the law is bad?  By no means!  The law is good.  It’s glorious!  So says St. Paul.  When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments in his hand, the people couldn’t look at his face because Moses had been with God.  God in his law is glorious.  Here is what God demands in the law he gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai:


Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. 

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 

Honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. 

Thou shalt not kill. 

Thou shalt not commit adultery. 

Thou shalt not steal. 

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.  

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house. 

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor's.

Can you see anything wrong with this law?  A more perfect expression of God’s holy will for our conduct has not been written.  It teaches us what it means to love our God and our neighbor.  The Ten Commandments remain the best summary of the divine law ever written.  They are glorious! 


And if they condemn us, if they kill us, if they show us our sin, then the problem isn’t with the law – it’s with us.  This is why people who seek peace with God in his law never find it.  It is as the hymnist said and we sing:


The Law reveals the guilt of sin

And makes men conscience-stricken;

The Gospel then doth enter in

The sinful soul to quicken.

Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live;

The law no peace can ever give,

No comfort and no blessing. (TLH hymn #377 verse 8)


Paul speaks for all ministers of the New Testament.  Our sufficiency is from God.  He is the one who has made us ministers of the new covenant – literally, the New Testament – which is not a ministry of the letter but of the Spirit.  When we preach the law we do so for the sake of preaching the gospel.  That’s because the law is going to kill you and condemn you.  That doesn’t make the law bad.  That doesn’t mean we preachers shouldn’t preach it.  Indeed, a man who won’t preach the law of God has no business getting up in the pulpit.  Hunger is the best cook, and nobody can hunger and thirst for God’s forgiveness unless he knows how much he needs it.  But if the preacher won’t preach the gospel it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the depth of the sea.  A preacher who preaches only the letter and not the Spirit preaches nothing but condemnation to the people and leaves them dead, without hope in this world or the next.  Woe to the preacher who doesn’t preach the gospel! 


At no time in modern history has there been a greater temptation to Christian ministers to neglect gospel preaching and to focus instead on the law.  That’s because at no time in recent history has the law of God been so roundly rejected by so many respectable and influential people.  Our nation is becoming more and more godless every year.  Fewer and fewer people go to church as more and more people won’t attend a church that doesn’t cater to their desire for entertainment.  But then they tire of the entertainment.  Blasphemy is considered free speech.  T.V. editors who bleep out the use of filthy four letter words so as not to offend the sensibilities of decent people, will not bleep out using Christ’s name as an expletive.  Children showing disrespect to their parents has been considered good sport for years.  Millions of unborn babies have been sacrificed on the altar of women’s rights as the right to have sex but not get pregnant is enshrined in civil law.  No wonder the perversion that used to be identified as Sodomy, named after a city that God destroyed for committing it, is now regarded as a gift from God with same sex marriage gaining the support of an estimated 70% of college students.  What were these young people taught?  Certainly not God’s law!  That’s because God’s law has been ignored by so many preachers.  That’s because so few parents have taken the time to teach the Ten Commandments to their own children.  That’s because the self-centered doctrine of self-esteem – that won’t let the letter kill and screams its defiance against it when it does – has become binding dogma, not only in the state schools, but in many parochial schools as well. 


They need to hear the law.  They need to be condemned.  If they won’t be condemned by the law they cannot be saved.  But listen.  Jesus didn’t come into this world to condemn anyone.  He came into this world to save sinners from their sin.  He came to offer himself as the ransom to set the world free.  Jesus offered up the life of obedience to the penal justice of almighty God.  He offered his innocence to bear our sin.  He suffered and died for us, and not for us only, but for the whole world.  He died for those who despise his holy word and slander his preachers.  He died for children who sass their parents and think it’s funny.  He died for blasphemers, liars, adulterers, and thieves.  He died for homosexuals and those who defend their sin.  He died for everyone who was condemned by his holy law.  He chose to bear their condemnation in his own body.


That’s the gospel – the good news – of the Spirit and it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes it.  What a privilege it is to preach it.  What a joy it is to hear it.  The glory Moses witnessed on Sinai faded away.  The law remains the standard for right and wrong, that’s true.  But we don’t trust in it.  We don’t rely on it.  We don’t seek peace with God in his law.  We seek God and find him in the gospel that tells us that we are forgiven and set free by the most precious obedience and suffering of our God and brother Jesus.  This is what we preach.  This is what we believe.  This is what opens our ears to hear God’s voice and loosens our tongues to sing his praise.  And this is what guarantees us eternal glory that will never fade away. 


Rolf D. Preus


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