The Distinction between Law and Gospel
The Eighteenth Sermon after Trinity| September 21, 2008| 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.
Everything God teaches us falls into one of two categories: law or gospel. The law is what God requires us to do. It governs our will, our thoughts, our affections, and our actions. The law promises us blessing if we obey it and it threatens us with punishment if we disobey it. It points out what we have done wrong and it condemns us for our sins.
The gospel does not tell us what to do. It tells us what to believe. It tells us that God, for Christ’s sake, fully and freely forgives all of our sins against his law. The gospel makes no threats. It points us to Jesus who lived and died for us, taking away our sins by dying on the cross. It promises us everlasting life for Jesus’ sake.
The law does not change. There were time-bound features of God’s law as revealed to Moses. There were civil and ceremonial requirements that ended with the coming of Christ. But the moral law – that which determines for us what is right and what is wrong – remains constant. The law is summed up in the Ten Commandments.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day thought that they were obedient the God’s law. They developed a system by which they would not fail to do everything God’s law required of them. Or so they thought. They had 613 rules. There were 248 positive requirements and 365 negative prohibitions. They began with God’s law. Then they mixed God’s law together with commonsense extrapolations from it. From one extrapolation to another the Pharisees wove together a legalistic tapestry of requirements covering every aspect of life. They had rules for everything. They thought that their system of rules was God’s law. But it wasn’t. In their effort to make God’s law doable, they denied it altogether.
When the lawyer asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment in the law he had in mind the 613 commandments that the Pharisees had put together. Rabbis habitually argued with each other over which commandments were the most important. It was an impossible task to pick one of them as the great commandment above all the others. Surely, Jesus couldn’t do it.
And Jesus didn’t try. Jesus ignored their system of rules and went straight to God’s word. The greatest commandment was given by God: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The duty to love God is greater than any other duty. God created us in love to love him in return. To love God with all that we are is what makes us fully human.
God teaches us how he wants us to love him. We are not to hold to any other god than to the One who created us in his image and called us by his name. He wants us to honor his name, to call on him in prayer, and to avoid every misuse of his name. He wants us to hear his word proclaimed and to cherish that word as more precious than our jobs, our leisure, our conveniences, or anything else in our lives. This is what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.
To love God means to love the neighbor. This is why Jesus says that the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is like the commandment to love God above all things. How can we love the Creator and hate his creation? How can we hate those whom God loves?
God’s law is not so difficult to understand. What is difficult about it is doing it. It calls for a perfect heart. It calls for perfect motives. It calls for perfect love. It calls for what we don’t have. Reducing God’s law to doable rules is to reject it altogether. If you want to know what God requires of you, commit to memory the Ten Commandments and Luther’s explanation of them in the Small Catechism. This is how to love God and this is how to love your neighbor.
The Bible is a clear book. It is not written in a secret code. It means what it says and it says what it means. The Bible says, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘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) Those who depend on the law for their salvation are cursed by the same law in which they trust. It might make sense to believe that we work our way to heaven but what makes sense to us is not necessarily so.
Much of what God’s word teaches us goes against what is reasonable to us. Consider, for example, the Christian teaching that Jesus is true God and true man. How can this be? The fact that the Bible teaches this cannot seriously be disputed. Jehovah’s Witnesses try, but fail, to show from the Bible that Jesus is not God. But how can he be? How can David’s Son be David’s Lord? How can he who created all and is over all and cannot be contained by the entire universe become a man? And how can this almighty man suffer and die on the cross? It flies in the face of what is reasonable.
How can bread be Christ’s body? How can wine be his blood? How can a washing with water joined to God’s word bring a child out of spiritual death into spiritual life? How can a mere man – who is as sinful as the sinners to whom he is speaking – speak words that impart forgiveness of sins? We don’t know how. But we know it is so. We can know that it is so. It is so if God says it is so. But we cannot always know how it can be so. And we must, in all humility, admit that the “how” of God’s word is beyond our ken. If we think that we can figure out all divine mysteries we’ll try to figure out what cannot be figured out and we’ll end up rejecting what we cannot understand.
We cannot figure out God’s love. It flies in the face of what make sense. The gospel is the good news about God’s love. It tells us that God forgives and saves lost and condemned sinners solely by his grace on account of Christ’s most holy obedience all the way to the cross. It tells us that God forgives us our sins for Christ’s sake, not because of any good thing we have done, are doing, or will ever do. It teaches us a heavenly doctrine. Only God can teach this doctrine. It runs counter to all human experience, wisdom, and expectation. It tells us of a love we don’t deserve. Indeed, it gives us this love. It gives us Jesus. With Jesus comes peace with God, forgiveness of sins, freedom from guilt, and everlasting life.
Until God’s law condemns us his gospel will provide us with no comfort. Only those who are sick need a doctor’s care. Only those who are hungry will enjoy a hearty meal. Only the thirsty want to drink. The law is not designed to show us how to find eternal life. It is written to condemn us. It is written to expose us.
Who is the Christ? Who cares? The legal “experts” didn’t care. They knew he was David’s Son but they didn’t seem to recall that he was also David’s Lord. They weren’t interested in the Christ. They couldn’t see their sickness unto death. They did not hunger and thirst for righteousness because they thought that they were righteous. They had their rules. They followed them. And so they silenced the judgment of the law.
But the law’s judgment is not so easily silenced. Only the lawgiver can silence the judgment his law levels against us. And he does not do so by a mere word or command. He does so by fulfilling the demands he placed upon us all. David’s Lord becomes David’s son. He rules as king. He gains the authority of his kingdom by obeying. First he joins us. He becomes our brother. He becomes our substitute. Then he loves. Divine love becomes human love as God becomes a man. David’s Lord becomes David’s son in order to love as God requires those created in his image to love. He is the image of God. He loves as the representative of all those created in the image of God. He loves in the face of hatred. He loves while facing the mockery, the whip, the nails, and the agony of crucifixion. He fulfills the law. He meets divine justice. When he bears in his innocence humanity’s guilt he destroys the power of the law to condemn us. He made our enemies his enemies and he conquered sin, death, and the devil as our Champion. He is now at God’s right hand with our enemies under his feet.
The law promises but cannot deliver. It promises life to those who obey. We failed to obey. The law cannot give what it promises except on the condition that its requirements are met. So the law is powerless to help us. It can only accuse us. It can only kill us and send us to hell.
But David’s Son and Lord obeyed the law. He alone received the promises the law gives to those who obey because he alone obeyed. But he did not obey for his own benefit. He obeyed for our benefit. And he gives us the benefit of his obedience. He gives it in the gospel. The gospel tells us that God reckons to us the very righteousness that Jesus gained by obeying the law perfectly all the way to death. The gospel doesn’t tell us what we must do to gain God’s favor. It tells us that Christ has already done so and this favor is given to us freely. It is ours through faith. We believe the gospel and all it promises is ours.
To trust in the law to save you is to trust in your own sin. That is a false faith that sends people to hell. To trust in the gospel to save you is to trust in the true God and his only begotten Son, Jesus. He is the Christ and he alone is your Savior from sin, death, and hell. Amen