Rightly Distinguishing Between the Law and the Gospel
The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| October 7, 2012| St. Matthew 22:34-46
But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” They said to Him, “The Son of David.” He said to them, “How then does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ saying: ‘The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool”’? If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his Son?” And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore. St. Matthew 22:34-46
If we could rightly distinguish between the law and the gospel we would understand everything God teaches us in the Bible. If we don’t know the difference between the law and the gospel we don’t know anything God teaches us in the Bible. A preacher who cannot rightly distinguish between the law and the gospel has no business preaching. If you look to the law to do what only the gospel can do you will be lost.
Everything God teaches us about him and us and how he and we relate to each other falls under the category of law or gospel. The law is God’s commandments. The law tells you what you must do. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first table of the law. The second table of the law is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Everything God has ever said to us about what we must do and avoid doing falls under these two simple commandments. Love God above everything. Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s all God’s law has ever required of anyone. And when God’s law calls you guilty it’s not because you broke a rule that doesn’t make any difference anyway. Love always matters. When God’s law calls you guilty it’s because you failed to love. You did not love the Lord your God above all things and you did not love your neighbor as yourself. This is what the Ten Commandments teach you if you are willing to be taught. They teach you that you have failed to love and for your failure you deserve to die.
The gospel is not God’s commandments. The gospel isn’t something you do. It isn’t something you deserve. It is something God does for you. The word gospel means good news. This good news is not like any other. It is the good news concerning God’s Son. This is what we confess about him:
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord.
He is true God, David’s Lord. He is true man, David’s son. He is our Lord. As our Lord he redeems us. That is, he sets us free from sin, from death, and from the power of the devil. How does he do that? He purchases our freedom by offering his life of love to God as our representative. Where we failed to love he loved and his pure and holy love is offered up to cover our sinful refusal to love. His love took him all the way to the cross where he suffered and died for the sin of the world. By offering up his life of love to God the entire human race is reconciled to God. This is the gospel. It is God’s work, not ours.
The conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees took place shortly after Jesus had silenced the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the liberals of Jesus’ day and the Pharisees were the conservatives. The Sadducees rejected much biblical teaching just as today’s liberals do. They denied the resurrection of the body. They tried to trip up Jesus on this teaching by coming up with a hypothetical situation featuring a woman whose husbands kept dying. “Which husband would she be married to in the resurrection?” they asked. They thought they were quite clever, but they simply showed their ignorance of the Bible. There is no marriage in heaven. Besides, if God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob how can these men be dead and gone when God is the God of the living, not the dead? Jesus proved the resurrection of the dead from the very nature of God.
Now the Pharisees wanted to have at Jesus. They were quite conservative in their doctrine, confessing all of the orthodox teachings. They were preoccupied with their own rightness about everything under the sun, and they were constantly bickering about what was more important than what. One of them, a lawyer, figured to draw Jesus into their intramural debates about which commandment was the greatest commandment. He failed. Instead he got a clear statement of the two great commandments. Instead of choosing among the hundreds of useless rules and regulations with which the Pharisees occupied themselves, Jesus presented the law clearly and simply by stating God’s twin commands to love him above all things and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The Pharisees were fixated on the law while blind to its true requirements. Like so many Christians today whose theology is pretty much a system of rules for successful living, the gospel didn’t interest them. The gospel is about the doing of another. They were more interested in themselves than in Christ. Their religion was all about them and their holy deeds. When Jesus asked them a basic catechetical question about the Christ it rendered them speechless. They couldn’t answer. A question familiar to any sixth grade catechumen thoroughly silenced them so that they didn’t dare ask Jesus any more questions.
“How can the Christ be David’s son if he is David’s Lord? That’s impossible.”
“You say so. But who are you?”
“But it is impossible! God is God and man is man. God is eternal. Man is bound by time. God is the Creator. Man is part of the creation. God is immortal. Man is mortal. God is omnipresent. Man is fixed in a particular place. David’s son can be David’s son and David’s Lord can be David’s Lord but David’s son cannot be David’s Lord. Why talk about such things? Talk instead about us and about what we should be doing!”
“That’s your whole problem, friend. You think it’s all about you. It’s not. It’s all about Christ. And while I don’t know how David’s son can be David’s Lord I do know this. He must be. The seed of David and heir to his royal throne must be the almighty and eternal God. For if he is merely a man, his kingdom is of little benefit to any of us. What has a kingdom far away and long ago to do with you and me here and now?”
We face real and serious spiritual battles. We face the sin within. God is right to demand love from us. How could it be any different? How can we justify loving anyone more than the One who made us, who provided us with every good thing we’ve ever had, and who cared for us in every need? But we have not loved our God with our whole heart, soul, and mind. Have we? We have loved others more, have we not?
And how can we justify loving ourselves more than our neighbors? Are our needs more important than his? Are our wants more compelling? What makes us better than he? Nothing but our own pride! Yet we place ourselves over others as if it is our right, and we fail to love the neighbor as God demands. Yet God has every right to demand true love from us, for God is love.
We have sinned against the law of love and there can be nothing worse than that. All of the religious people in the world can come up with the best rules that accord with the most profoundly virtuous principles and present them to us to obey and we could obey every single one of them with meticulous care and it would all be for naught if we did not follow the golden rule: To treat your neighbor, whether your coworker, teacher, employer, boss, husband or wife, son, daughter, father, or mother as you would want to be treated. When we don’t follow this simple rule it is sin. It is sin for which we are accountable. The law says so and when it comes to a battle between us and the law the law always wins.
You want a religion that centers on the law and ignores the gospel? You want a religion that walks away from the mystery of David’s son being David’s Lord? You want a religion comprised of principles for success? Then I challenge you to do one thing and one thing only. Love your neighbor as yourself. Forget about God. Just your neighbor. And not the fellow across town that you don’t see but once in a while. The one you live with or work with who gets under your skin because he judges you unfairly and treats you poorly and considers your needs as unimportant. Help him out. Speak well of him. Show him respect in the face of the disrespect he shows you. Do it with a willing and cheerful heart. Do it. Keep on doing it. And when your love fails, admit that you have failed and you need a Lord who will rescue you from your failure and sin.
You need David’s son and Lord. You need God to be your brother. You don’t have to figure out the mystery of the incarnation – how can God become a man? – but you must believe it. The entire Church confesses that the man Jesus is the Lord God almighty. David’s son is David’s Lord and our Lord, too. The entire Church confesses this wonderful mystery and whoever will not confess it is outside of the Christian Church and cannot be saved. For apart from the obedience of David’s son and Lord, apart from his suffering and death, apart from the love that he offered up to heaven as our dear brother, we are lost and without hope in this world or the next.
How can David’s son be David’s Lord? Nobody can explain it in such a way as to make it conform to human rules of reasonableness. And that’s why we refuse to let human reason be the judge of divine doctrine. God reveals it and we confess it. More than that, when God reveals himself in the person of his dear Son, we rejoice to see our victory over sin, death, and the devil. Sin cannot claim us because God himself has become our brother and has borne our sin in his body. The sin he bore he washed away in Holy Baptism. Death cannot make us afraid because Christ has died our death for us and taken away its sting. The devil cannot control us because the seed of the woman, the son of David, David’s God and ours has crushed his lying head and taken away his power to deceive.
All his enemies lie vanquished under his feet. And he gives us the victory. This is the gospel in which we trust. It is not our work. It is God’s work. This gospel is the source, strength, and power of every good thing we will ever do. From this gospel God empowers us to love him with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Amen