The Gospel Trumps the Law
The Third Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| June 28, 2009| Luke 15, 1-10
Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He spoke this parable to them, saying: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’ Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
They complained: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Against whom are they complaining? Jesus. Who is Jesus? Jesus is God. So they complain against God.
They certainly wouldn’t see it that way. They thought they were upholding the law. The law comes from God. God decides what is right and wrong. God’s law condemned the very people that Jesus received. That’s why they said Jesus shouldn’t receive them. He shouldn’t eat with them. He shouldn’t express fellowship with them.
St Luke describes them as tax collectors and sinners. The sinners included prostitutes. They sold themselves to serve the lusts of men. What they did led to the breakup of marriages and homes, the spread of disease, and the dissolution of public morals. Would you welcome a prostitute into your home?
The tax collectors did more than collect taxes. They were supposed to get a commission on the taxes they collected. They took more than their fair commission. They cheated the people. They enriched themselves and their families on the backs of poor people with no means of legal redress. Would you welcome such a person into your home?
We can understand those people who criticized Jesus for receiving tax collectors and sinners. They had their reasons. They thought they were upholding the law. When Jesus freely forgave and openly expressed fellowship with people who were guilty of such sins it appeared to the scribes and the Pharisees that Jesus was undermining the authority of God’s law. So they grumbled against him.
The Bible contains two doctrines: the law and the gospel. They appear to be in contradiction but this is not possible. The Bible cannot contradict itself because it is God’s word and God cannot contradict himself. But it appears that he does.
The law makes sense to people. Everyone understands the law, at least to a degree. Right is right and wrong is wrong. While our conscience isn’t a perfect judge, it will more or less resonate with what God’s law says.
The gospel, on the other hand, is foolishness to those who don’t have the Holy Spirit. Only a Christian can understand it. Human reason rejects it. Human wisdom can’t tolerate it. So when the law and the gospel appear to contradict each another, it is usually the gospel that is rejected in favor of the law. Good and upright people know what is good and upright. It is God’s grace that remains a mystery to them.
While the law and the gospel are not in contradiction, they differ radically from each other. Here are just a few of the differences.
The law contains commands. It tells you what you must do and what you must not do. The gospel commands nothing. It does not tell you what to do. It tells you what to believe and it gives your faith the forgiveness of all your sins.
The law shows you your sin. It shines the light of God’s perfection on your will and your behavior and exposes your sins as sins and you as a sinner. As St. Paul writes, “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” Romans 3, 20 The gospel shows you your Savior who suffered and died for you to take your sins away.
The law threatens you. It threatens to punish you if you don’t obey it. “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” Galatians 3, 10 The gospel issues no threats at all. It is a message of pure love, mercy, and undeserved kindness.
The law promises life to those who obey it. But if you don’t obey it, it threatens you with death, both physical death and eternal death in hell. The gospel promises forgiveness of sins and eternal life and it lays no conditions that you must fulfill in order to receive this promise. It is yours through faith and through faith alone. Faith is the only way to receive the promises of God.
Those who are not sorry for their sins need to hear the law. Those who are sorry for their sins need to hear the gospel. The law kills and the gospel makes alive.
Our Lord Jesus illustrates the difference between the law and the gospel in many of his parables. He told the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin to the scribes and the Pharisees. They were Bible scholars. They were very devout, at least in their own minds. They knew the law, or they thought they did. They knew it well enough to know that tax collectors and sinners could not stand in the presence of a holy God. And they resented that Jesus would suggest otherwise.
Jesus told them this parable to teach them the gospel. The tax collectors and sinners who were gathered there were gathered there to hear Jesus preach. They knew perfectly well what they had done wrong. No one ever preached God’s law with such severity as Jesus. Jesus was a master at preaching the law. He preached it in such a way that it condemned everybody. Whereas the religious establishment taught that we should bless our friends and curse our enemies, Jesus taught to bless our enemies. He taught that hatred was murder, lust was adultery, covetousness was theft, and greed was idolatry. No one escaped condemnation from the law when Jesus preached it.
But he preached something else that offended and offends the religious sensibilities of those who would make themselves righteous in God’s sight. He preached that the gospel trumped the law.
The gospel doesn’t revoke the law. It fulfills it. The gospel is preached to those who know their sin and feel its guilt. They want forgiveness of sin. They don’t want to remain in it. They want to avoid it. They can’t get out from under its guilt and power unless God forgives them. But they cannot obtain God’s forgiveness by anything they do. Whatever they do is corrupted by sin. They need forgiveness and they need it freely given. The gospel gives it freely. The gospel doesn’t excuse sin. It doesn’t defend sin. It forgives sin. It is the voice of God absolving sinners of their sins.
They are lost and they cannot find their way back to God. They are helpless. God brings them back. This is repentance. God makes the unwilling willing. He changes the will and the heart. Listen to how God described this gracious work through the prophet Ezekiel:
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Ezekiel 36, 25-27
The one who ran away from God now clings to him. The one who was afraid of God now trusts in him. The one who defended his sin in defiance now confess it in humility. God changes the heart and the will.
Repentance doesn’t leave the sheep lost. The shepherd carries him back to the fold. The woman finds the coin. The sheep doesn’t find his own way back to the fold. The coin doesn’t find its own way back into the purse. Those who are lost do not find God. God finds them. What does the sheep do be found? Nothing! All he knows how to do is to get lost. He cannot find his way home. What does the coin do to be found? It’s an inanimate object. It is incapable of doing anything at all.
This teaching is sometimes called “grace alone.” We become Christians and are forgiven of all our sins and inherit eternal life, not on the basis of anything we have thought, said, or done but by God’s grace alone. What can we do to assist God in bringing us to repentance? Nothing at all! This teaching is a great comfort to those who know they are sinners and know they cannot make themselves into saints. This teaching angers those who are self-righteous.
It angers them because they know God only in his law, which is to say, they don’t really know the true God. They judge their relationship with God according to their own conduct. They reason that since they have conducted themselves better than others they must have a better relationship with God. They don’t see themselves as being lost and unable to find their way back to God. They don’t understand what it means to live under grace. So they complain against it. But God wants us to know him as he is gracious to us. Indeed, this is the only way to know God.
This is why we Christians look to Jesus suffering for our sins. That’s where God reveals his grace to us. This is how to know the true God. We look to Christ and his suffering because there God paid the price.
There is no grace without cost. The self-righteous – blind as they are to the depths of their own sin – think that we pay the cost of it. But the Christian knows that only Christ can pay the cost of grace. Only he can bear the full burden of all sin. Whenever God is gracious it is always for Christ’s sake. It is always on account of Jesus’ vicarious obedience to the law all the way to his death on a cross.
The self-righteous despise this. They see no real need for a Savior. So they despise God’s grace.
But they aren’t angels, are they? The angels are holy. They are sinless. They are confirmed in holiness and cannot sin. So we ought to consider their attitude instructive for us. What do the angels in heaven think when a sinner who is lost is found? They are filled with joy. They are happy! It pleases them.
The central teaching of the Christian faith is that we are forgiven of our sins and saved from death and hell, not by our good deeds, but by God’s grace alone, for Christ’s sake. This parable teaches this. We don’t pay the price. Jesus did. This is why we cling to him in faith. He brings us back to the fold where we belong. Through faith in him we are in fellowship with those who rejoice in heaven every time a sinner repents. Amen