God’s Two Words: Law & Gospel
By Dr. Marney Fritts
One of the key tools in biblical interpretation is, first, to be able to hear the distinction of scripture’s own division of law and gospel (“For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:17) and, second, to hear what these two words do to those who hear when they are proclaimed (“The Letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” 2 Corinthians 3:6).
This is to say that God’s Word is not one word, but two, the law and the Gospel, and these are not the same, but are distinguished. For there was the law, until Christ (Gal.2:24). Paul deals with this both in the letter to the Galatians and in the letter to the Romans. This was necessary because he is preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law for faith (Romans 10:4). The end of the law? Really? Then how will we as Christians know what to do? Won’t that create chaos? Indeed, won’t the entire universe unravel if there is no more law? The form of the question in Paul’s letters comes after the promise of the Gospel is let loose. “Why then the law? Should we sin all the more?” All of these questions simply reveal our single minded human assumption about God and the law: why would God give the law if we were not to keep it, to be more like God and to thus, be a Christian? And if that is not why he gave the law then He is either, at best confused and His Scripture ambiguous, or at worst, a cruel taskmaster. This is the seductive relationship that sinners have with the law. Sinners always think that the law is the means of righteousness and life and freedom. Sinners think that the law is the mind of God and to know God, I must gain knowledge his mind/law and, then, do it. Or at least put in a good faith effort. But then scripture enters in and interrupts this way of thinking and being, in fact, permanently interrupting our life (i.e. death) when it reveal to us: “the letter (law) kills,” (2 Cor. 3:6) “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin,” (Gal. 3:21-2), “The law was give in increase sin,” (Romans 5:20) that is, to reveal sin, to magnify it and to make it great, not to remove it through the assumption that we are able to keep it.
In our time, we have been influenced by certain philosophers who insist, and we have taken in with mother’s milk, that “ought implies can” (Immauel Kant), that if I “ought” to do something that the law requires, it must follow that I “can.” That if, for example, I ought to pay my bills, it must mean that I can pay my bills. I ought to work a day job, mow the lawn, do six loads of laundry, feed the family, run to the grocery store, volunteer down at the halfway house, feed the animals and clean their stalls, and do all of this before dark, must mean I can. And did I forget to add, do it all without grumbling or complaining (Phil. 2:14)? To be sure, this way of thinking about the law did not being with Kant. It started in the Garden of Eden when we believed the serpent’s lies that we could know good and evil and, as our own thinking followed, do the good and avoid the evil. This means, likewise, we can now start to hear what the law does not do: the law demands but it cannot give the power to fulfill the law.
As sinners try to bend and interpret scripture to fit their own pursuits of righteousness and immortality projects, we apply this tantalizing “lens” of “ought implies can” over scripture. The result is two fold: 1) all of scripture is viewed as a law, even Jesus’ own life such that what he does, we presume we are to then do (The modern parlance of so called “discipleship”), 2) that when we come across a law or command (imperative), like “Choose this day whom you will serve,” or “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it” (Deut. 30:16) the old Adam hears this as an appeal to the “free will” and simply needs to choose to do the good and avoid the evil (indicative). This is a deliberate—one could even say bound and determined—way that sinners read and hear scripture: confusing the imperative Words from God (law, commands) with the indicative works of man.
If the Scripture is allowed to interpret itself, then when we hear, “the law was given to reveal our trespasses,” we should rightly hear what these passages reveal about us: it is revealed that we have chosen whom we will serve and it was not Jesus Christ, for we crucified him (instead freeing Barabbas) and becoming slaves to the devil. “If you keep my commands.” If? Even Moses predicts in the next chapter of Deuteronomy that the people Israel will turn and serve foreign gods. The law, the most salutary gift of God, does not give life, it does not give freedom, and it does not save. It ultimately kills, takes freedom away, and condemns (I am reminded, for example, of having recently explained to our daughter what being restricted from something/being put on restriction means: it does not mean a chance to test mom and dad to find an escape hatch to freedom. NO. It means precisely to remove freedom). The law demands you keep it, and keep it perfectly. And yet we have not. How can God give the law, expect us to keep it, knowing we can’t and then kill us for it? This is a repugnant thought. But the law was never meant to save. For that, something else is needed.
Enter: Jesus Christ and his cross, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection from the dead and the life everlasting. Gratis. Free. Unconditional. That means no law, no command, no deed of your own. For Christ is the end of the law for faith. That is what we mean by the Gospel. The law demands. The Gospel gives. The law kills. The Gospel raises the dead. The law condemns. The Gospel forgives. The law restricts freedom, but where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom (2 Cor. 3:17).
There is always an Achilles’ heel of the sinner that rises in us and also arose in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the Romans: well, then, shouldn’t we sin all the more so that Grace may abound? Doesn’t all this freedom without condition open the flood gates to iniquity? No. That is simply the fall back into the bondage of sin and death, not the new life of faith. If you start speaking this way, then who would keep the law? Who will be good? No one. No one has. No one will and no one can. “As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12). The law was given to reveal sin, not to make one good.
We have a hard time imagining what this freedom apart from and without the law is without our conclusion that it can only be the furthering of sin. Imagine that: the conclusion of that the Gospel is blamed for sin! Better crucify him before he messes up the way we do things down here! Paul addresses this Achilles heel: “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” (Galatians 2:17-19) Christ makes us new creatures, indeed making us good, not by giving us a new or better law to keep or imitate, but by sending us a preacher to announce the forgiveness of your trespasses against the law and against God (Romans 10, 1 Cor. 1:21). Faith is made, not through doing the law better, but by having the law/morality/virtue removed as your means of righteousness and inserting Jesus Christ and him crucified, for he alone has become your righteousness, your sanctification and your redemption (1 Cor. 1:31).
As for the nervous concern of the Christian life as free from the law, again, that is an indication of the old Adam’s relentless thinking according to the law alone. It is Christ the Lord who rules in the Christian, not the law. If Christ is the new Lord of the Christian, then the strong man has been bound up, removed from authority and jurisdiction over the Christian. If Christ rules the Christian, there is nothing left for you to do, for Christ has fulfilled the law and thus became the end of the law for all who have faith. That means there is no false distinction between faith and life, because faith is life since Jesus Christ, who is the Life, lives and rules in you. This is in comparison to the notion that the Christian can know do the law, where as before she could not. The Gospel is not: once I could not do the law, but know I can (or at least better than my neighbor). This is simply morality and thinking according to the law alone and much too small for Christ to be crucified. The Gospel has arrived in Christ and his cross for you, to forgive you all your sins, the root of which is your unbelief, and then He takes up residence in you, and is in whom and by whom you live and move and have your being. If a work is to be called good at all it is not based upon the external appearance (since even unbelievers can have faithful marriages, for example), but because it is the fruit of faith, which is unseen. It is good because Jesus Christ, human and divine who has taken up residence and promised to never leave you, is the operative one in the life of a Christian. “Since Christ lives in us through faith, so he moves us to do good works through that living faith in his work, for these works that he does are the fulfillment of the commands of God given us through faith.” (LW 31. 56-57)
So we have a better grasp – having been grasped – of what the Christian life “looks like,” as it is often phrased. First, it is to receive everything that you need for this life, and the life to come, from God. Everything. The Christian, however, prays that she learns to recognize that this is the case, that her life does not come from her but from the Spiritus Creator. Second, the Christian life is not to be lifted out of this world and body of suffering, but to be more deeply planted in this creation, in vocations, where she will become a living sacrifice (Romans 12) for the help of her neighbors’ needs. That is, the Christian life “looks like” suffering. But this will not help us sort the sheep from the goats (which is not for us to do anyway) since everyone suffers. It does mean, however, the Christian is free to give her life away for all those in need because hope has been transferred from hoping in preserving a bit of herself so she does not die, nor is she calculating the cost of everything that is demanded, to hoping in her new Lord who has promised her life and salvation.