2 Corinthians 3:4-11| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity| August 29, 2004
Every Lutheran catechumen learns the basic difference between the law and the gospel. God’s law is that teaching from God whereby we learn what is right and what is wrong. It is proclaimed from Mt. Sinai. The law teaches us how we are to be and live. It shows us our sins by showing us God’s permanent demands upon us – demands that we have not met. The law condemns us for our sins and offers us no hope. God’s gospel is that teaching from God whereby we learn of our Savior Jesus. It is proclaimed from Mt. Calvary. The gospel teaches us what we are to believe. It proclaims to us the comforting message that God, for Christ’s sake, forgives us all our sins and that He does so fully and freely so that we may rest confident and at peace. The gospel does not tell us what to do. It makes no demands on us. Instead of making demands on us, the gospel promises us forgiveness of sins and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ our Savior.
The difference between the law and the gospel is not just an academic question. It is the difference between life and death. Those who trust in the law are trusting in death and death is what they will receive for the wages of sin is death. Those who trust in the gospel are trusting in Jesus who has destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light.
The law looks more impressive than does the gospel. Mount Sinai displayed the glory of God. The ministry of the law was so glorious that the people of Israel could not even look at the face of Moses. And Moses himself could not see God face to face. The law was so glorious that the people couldn’t even look at a reflection of a reflection of it. And its glory was passing away! The law shines forth in a beauty that is too intense to be seen because it is the beauty of God’s pure holiness. Even the godless must admit that we would all be better off obeying the law than discarding it. Who can seriously argue against commandments that teach us to honor our parents, not to commit murder, nor to steal, nor to commit adultery? The glory of the law is that it says exactly what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong, and it brooks no argument because no argument can reasonably be made against it.
Only irrational and ignorant people will argue against the Ten Commandments of God! This is why the ministry of the law is so impressive. Reason and experience agree with it. A nation that despises God and blasphemes His name and dishonors His word does not last long. History teaches us that the open defiance of divine standards for our behavior is irrational. Moral decay leads to cultural decay and national decline. A vibrant economy, stable political institutions, peace, safety, and security all depend on respect for the law. There are no virtues known to mankind that are not taught in the Ten Commandments that the holy God engraved in letters on stone and gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. The glory of the law is clear. It is clear to anyone with a conscience. It is clear to anyone with the capacity for rational thought.
But the glory of the gospel is greater. The reason is simple. The law can only serve death. The gospel can serve life. The demand to do does not enable one to do. It only condemns one for not doing. This is why the law is the ministry of death. It is the ministry of condemnation. It can command righteousness but it cannot make anyone righteous. Only the ministry of the gospel can make you righteous. It is more glorious to make sinners righteous than it is to condemn them. This is why the ministry of the gospel is superior to and more glorious than the ministry of the law. Since the law cannot give us eternal life, its glory passes away. Once it pronounces the verdict of God condemnation against sin, it has done all that it can do. The gospel, on the other hand, gives us eternal life by giving to us the righteousness of Jesus. The glory of Jesus is everlasting. It does not fade away or disappear. It extends into eternity.
St. Paul’s teaching on this matter is set forth clearly in his epistles to the Romans, Galatians, and Corinthians. St. Paul wrote in his second epistle to Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15) The ministry of the gospel must never be confused with the ministry of the law. Such confusion leads to death. The letter kills but the Spirit gives life. The law kills but the gospel gives life. The law may be holy and glorious, but it cannot give its glory to sinners. It must rather condemn sinners. The glory on which sinners must rely is the glory of the gospel. But that glory is hidden from sight.
Both reason and history teach us the glory of God’s law, but both reason and experience will deny the glory of God’s gospel. The very fact that a holy God would permit His holy Son to suffer the punishment of the sins of all sinners is an offense to human pride. That this same holy God would pronounce sinners to be righteous by imputing to them Christ’s righteousness is a scandalous teaching. Human reason insists that sinners be condemned for their sins. This is why the ministry of the law receives the approval of human reason while the ministry of the gospel is always despised and persecuted.
Apart from Christ Himself, St. Paul stands as the preeminent example of the Christian minister of the gospel. Paul plainly taught that he wasn’t worthy or able or sufficient to me a minister of Christ. It is God who makes His ministers worthy. And He does so by first condemning them by His law in order to teach them that they may not rely upon their own powers, reason, or wisdom. The preacher must first learn to depend on the gospel before he will be able to preach it. He must first become convinced that he personally needs the righteousness that comes only from Christ before he will become an able preacher of it and the voice of the Holy Spirit. And it is for sure that the only way the Holy Spirit can speak through the preacher is if the preacher is preaching Christ. It is Christ who sends the Holy Spirit. What makes the preaching of Christ powerful is that when Jesus suffered and died He destroyed death. When He was crucified, the law with all of its accusations against us was nailed to the cross as well. When Jesus died, He chose to be condemned by the law in the place of all sinners. Now when the gospel of Christ crucified is preached by the men God calls to preach it, it is the Holy Spirit Himself who carries out this ministry. The power of the gospel doesn’t depend on the preacher. It depends on the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes us holy by the preaching of the gospel. The gospel is that teaching from God that tells us that God forgives us, is reconciled to us, delivers us from all evil, and gives us eternal life. He does all this by giving Christ to us and joining us to Christ by faith. The glory of the gospel is the glory of Christ and His suffering.
St. Paul called himself a minister of the new covenant. God calls pastors to administer the gospel and sacraments of this new covenant. This requires us to preach the law. Ministers of the gospel must preach the law. We can hardly provide guilty sinners any true comfort by redefining sin to make sinners less sinful. We need the ministry of the law because we need to learn to condemn ourselves in our own conscience. When the law is denied people no longer see their need to repent of their sin. Where there is no repentance, the gospel loses its meaning. The gospel is for sinners.
Yes, the gospel is for sinners! What power is there in this world that is greater than the power of the gospel? Can the law change hearts? Can condemning a sinner turn him into a saint? If the minister preaches only the law and not the gospel, He is not a Christian minister. A Christian minister must preach Christ because only when he lays before God’s people their Savior can the Holy Spirit calls God’s people to faith, keep them in the faith, and comfort them, nourish them, and strengthen them. The Holy Spirit does all this through the preaching of the gospel.
The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. The letter that kills is the letter of the law. It is not the letter of the Scriptures. The apostle is not saying that there is a Holy Spirit who comes to us apart from the teaching of God’s word that is taught in the Holy Scriptures. The Holy Spirit comes to us precisely through God’s gospel word. Our Lord Jesus powerfully demonstrated this in the way He opened the ears and the mouth of the deaf mute. Christ speaks and we hear. Until Christ speaks His almighty gospel word to us we remain spiritually deaf and mute. Only the gospel word that comes from Jesus opens our ears to hear in faith and looses our tongues to offer genuine praise. The ministry of the law cannot bring faith. It cannot bring praise. Only the gospel ministry of Jesus Christ can do that.
It may appear to our reason and our senses that the gospel does not have as much glory as the law does. After all, Sinai was filled with displays of God’s power and holiness while Calvary was marked by shame, cruelty, suffering, and death. But take a closer look and listen to what the Spirit says! What we see as shame is really the removal of all our shame. What we see as cruelty against Jesus is pure mercy toward us. What we see in Jesus’ suffering is the purchase of our own joy. And the death we witness in the death of Jesus is in fact the death of death. This is why we glory in the gospel.
The gospel’s glory and power come out of Jesus’ holy suffering and they are often hidden under our suffering as well. St. Paul repeatedly emphasizes this in his epistles. God doesn’t leave us in our suffering, however. The joy that the deaf mute felt when Jesus opened his ears and his tongue is the joy we receive every time we hear the gospel words of Jesus that have brought us from death to life. God has seen us at our very worst and has loved us, redeemed us, forgiven us, and delivered us. This is the glory of the gospel. So we glory in the gospel with the confidence that this glory will last forever.