The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel
The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| October 15, 2006| Matthew 22:34-46
There is an old saying: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is especially the case when it comes to religion, specifically false teaching.
In our day we see threats against the revealed truth of our Christian religion from both the left and the right. On the left is the denial of the holy mysteries of the faith. The Bible itself is challenged as if it could contain errors. The biblical account of creation is said to be a myth. The true deity of Christ is questioned. The exclusive claims of Jesus are seen as bigoted narrow-mindedness. On the right is the imposition of legalistic rules. If you are a Christian, so they say, you may not drink or smoke or disobey any other of a long list of rules that they claim are drawn from the Bible but are in fact the traditions of men. They turn the gospel into law as they bind consciences to their manmade rules. The so called liberals take away from the clear teaching of God’s word, while the so called conservatives add their own traditions to the clear teaching of God’s word.
Well, there’s nothing new under the sun. This was so in Jesus’ day as well. In the chapter from which today’s Gospel Lesson is taken we find Jesus confronting both the liberals and the legalists of His own day. In each case He affirms the sole authority of the Holy Scriptures for our doctrine and life. And in each case He points us to the gospel by which our sins are forgiven and eternal life is granted to us.
The Sadducees were the liberals of Jesus’ day. They rejected many of the supernatural truths of the faith. They denied the existence of angels. They denied the resurrection of the body. They came to Jesus with a hypothetical situation that they were sure would disprove the resurrection of the body. If a woman were married to seven brothers in this life, to whom would she be married after the resurrection? Jesus replied, “You err because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” He went on to explain that there is no marriage in heaven.
After Jesus silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees tried their hand at testing Jesus. We read, “Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’” This was a familiar strategy that they had used before. They wanted to get Jesus to take a side in one of their many religious quarrels. Since they couldn’t agree with each other on which of the hundreds of commandments was the most important, Jesus couldn’t answer their question without involving himself in an endless and fruitless debate.
They were legalists. They believed that God’s law could be reduced to rules. And they had plenty of rules: 613 of them, 248 of them were positive obligations, and 365 of them were negative prohibitions. Out of these 613 rules they wanted Jesus to choose for them the one that was more important than any other.
Jesus’ answer was both simple and radical. He simply ignored their rules altogether and went back to the Scriptures, specifically to the Law of Moses, and recited for them what every student in catechism class knows by heart:
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.
You cannot reduce God’s law to rules. The love that God requires of us all is far greater than the boundaries that rules set for us. God’s law isn’t a matter simply of doing and refraining from doing. It is a matter of loving with our whole heart, our whole life, and our whole mind. What do you desire more than anything else? What matters to you most in your daily living? What occupies your thoughts? This is your god. The God who made us, redeemed us, and sanctifies us demands from us all that we are and have, for all that we are and have is His. Giving it all back to Him is not an option. It is a necessity.
But we cannot find the strength to do so, and so we devise dishonest ways of pretending we have done the duty we failed to do. This is the purpose of religious rules that ignore the demand to love God above all things and to love your neighbor as yourself. These rules are designed to provide the façade of obedience when underneath the religious covering there is nothing but deceit and hypocrisy.
The radical nature of God’s law makes sinners of us all. You can obey all of the rules ever made and you haven’t yet begun to obey God if you do not desire Him above the things you own and if you do not live for Him before living for yourself and if you do not think of what He has to say to you before thinking of what you have to say to Him. Rules are necessary for children, so they will learn how to behave. But love is the requirement of God’s law and no amount of rules can turn a stone cold heart into a heart that loves God above all things.
Only Christ can do that. But when Jesus asked his questioners who Christ was, it became immediately apparent that they had no idea. Oh, they knew that He was David’s son. But that the Christ would be a descendent of David was not all there was to it. David’s son was also David’s Lord. Can you explain that? They could not. But worse than that, they didn’t care. They didn’t want to know how David’s son could be David’s Lord. Why not? Because their religion was simply a matter of do’s and don’ts. It had nothing to do with Christ and the promise of the gospel.
How indeed can David’s son be David’s Lord? There is only one way. The Lord God Himself must become a baby, born of the seed of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Jesse, David, and finally a young virgin girl by the name of Mary. God had to become a man. Only in God becoming a man could man now do what God required of man. Only God in the flesh could fulfill what God demanded of all flesh. Sinful flesh neither loved God above all things nor neighbor as self, but when the eternal Son of the eternal Father became flesh and blood it was not sinful flesh and blood. God became one of us in order to love. It was a man, our dear brother Jesus, who loved God with his whole heart, soul, and mind. He fulfilled the law. He didn’t care for human rules that distracted from the true purpose of the divine law. He cared for the divine law, that is, it was His burning desire to love with that perfect love.
In Christ, David’s Son and David’s Lord, we see God and man united in one person. And we see love like we can see it nowhere else. In our midweek Bible classes as we have been reviewing the Ten Commandments we have see how Jesus Himself fulfills every single one of them. He does so by loving God above all things and His neighbor as Himself.
The religion of the Sadducees is the religion of the mockers who are too smart in their own estimation to submit in humble faith to mysteries beyond their ken. This religion is the bane of the elite, the intelligentsia, the politically powerful but spiritually empty leaders of this world. Professing themselves to be wise they make themselves into fools. The religion of the legalistic Pharisees is, I believe, a more serious threat to us Bible believing Christians who are rightly concerned about the moral decay of our culture and the apparent wholesale abandonment of traditional standards for decent behavior. What we need is more rules! We need more discipline. We need a little bit of legalism to counteract the liberalism that surrounds us on every side.
Oh no, we don’t. The antidote for one spiritual poison is not another spiritual poison, and legalism is poison to the soul. We Christians have no right to replace God’s radical requirement of love with the doable rules religious people have invented and substituted in its place. We must continue to seek out instruction from God on how to love and to see the Ten Commandments as requiring that perfect love that only Jesus has ever fulfilled. We must continue to see that perfect law of love as describing our lives, and when it doesn’t, we must agree with its judgment that we are poor, miserable, sinners who rightly deserve God’s present and eternal punishment.
Then we must look to Jesus Christ, David’s Son and David’s Lord, to find the love we cannot find in ourselves. The reason the Pharisees didn’t want to understand how the Christ could be David’s Son and David’s Lord at the same time is because they were too infatuated with their own rules to care about their Savior. But we who have found the pure and holy law of love rightly condemning us do care about the One who takes that condemnation away from us. How can David’s Son be David’s Lord? We know how. Our Lord became our brother, that’s how. He was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man. As our brother He loved. His love is the pure obedience from the heart that God now reckons to us as righteousness. His love faced the hatred of all humanity on the cross and triumphed over it. The law cannot condemn us because Christ has borne our condemnation. In Christ we have the love God requires of us. In Christ we have God’s forgiveness for our failure to love. In Him we are blameless. We have in Him that love of God that passes all understanding.
No amount of rules could capture our hearts and teach us how to love God, but God in Christ has. And so we love Him who first loved us in Jesus’ name.