Hear the Law
October 26, 2008
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Reformation Sunday. On this day we give thanks to God for Martin Luther (1483-1546) and his witness to Jesus Christ – and the power in his witness to reform the Church. For indeed the Church is faithful only when it stands with Christ – for he is the one true Cornerstone of the Church (Luther’s Works 14:96).
Witnessing to Christ Crucified
Like St. Paul (1 Corinthians 2:2), Luther knew that the only true witness to that Cornerstone, Christ Jesus the Lord, was to stress his crucifixion, suffering and death. Delighting in his miracles and healings, his parables and compassion, simply won’t do. What needs to be shouted from the rooftops is that “the best part of the Gospel” of Jesus Christ is his cross (LW 30:117) – and the redemption it brings through his blood. And so what “deserves to be praised to the utmost” (LW 13:319) is the very cross of Jesus Christ. Only by praising the cross of Christ, will the church be reformed and changed for the better – in any given time and place.
The Purest Gospel
Luther’s witness to Christ was grounded in the Bible. It was there, and only there, that the death of Christ is properly praised – stressing all its salient features. And for Luther, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is the most concentrated version of that revelation – an epistle which he called “the purest Gospel” and the “daily bread of the soul” for every Christian (LW 35:365). In that book we’re told that the righteousness of God is attested to “by the law” (Romans 3:21). This glorious manifestation of God’s righteousness through the law comes to us in three ways – all of which show how the law is holy, just and good (Romans 7:12). That may well be why Luther regarded Romans as our purest Gospel. It may also be why he thought the law was “the greatest treasure God has given us” [The Book of Concord (1580) ed. T. Tappert (1959), p. 411].
Hammered by the Law
Now the first way we see this righteousness attested to in the law is when it damns us. This attack on us is terrifying (BC, p. 189) – especially when the law hammer us as it’s supposed to (LW 26:310), having been freed from our mollycoddling and self-pampering. This thunder of the law cracks above our heads, saying to one an all: You “have fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). And no exceptions are made – not even for pastors! There’s no way out from under this condemnation. As Luther taught:
We are all utterly lost,... from head to foot there is no good in us, we must become altogether new... men (BC, p. 309).
Indeed, “nothing good” dwells in us (Romans 7:18) and none of us “seeks after God” (Romans 3:11). Instead of doing that, we chase after our own dreams and theories of life and whatever makes us worthy “in our own eyes” (Deuteronomy 12:8; Numbers 15:39).
But by so doing, we “suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). Because of that we need to be hit hard if we’re ever going to see the truth. That’s why “many tribulations” are needed to wake us up (Acts 14:22). This is the first right hearing of the law. Here the job of the law is to make our sin as sinful as it can be – even “beyond measure” (Romans 7:13, 5:20)! Now how extreme is that? Over the years no one has ever told me – in keeping with this verse from Romans – that my sermons should be harsher. No, it has mostly been the opposite. “Chill out,” I’ve been told. “Simmer down” is the advice I’ve received. But how would one know when the law had made sin sinful enough? And how would we know if we had gone too far? Whatever index we would use for this couldn’t possibly work! That’s because sin must always be made to be sinful beyond measure – which would take it beyond any index we could set-up. So whatever limit we would use would have to be broken. Our preaching of the law, then, is required to jump over whatever we have set up to measure it, cool it off or simmer it down.
That is because we need to be hit hard if we are to change. For none of us takes God’s wrath seriously enough (Psalm 90:11). The frightening truth which has been “suppressed” (Romans 1:18) is that God hates sinners as well as sin (Leviticus 26:30; Job 16:9; Psalms 5:5, 95:10; Proverbs 6:15-19; Jeremiah 12:8; Hosea 9:15) and he will punish us for our un-confessed transgressions and omissions (Luke 13:3), with his four sore acts of judgment: “sword, famine, evil beasts, and pestilence” (Ezekiel 14:21) – along with storms and earthquakes (Isaiah 30:30; Numbers 16:31-32). No wonder, then, we cry: “Who can endure the heat of his anger?” (Nahum 1:6). And rather than buckling under, we turn this literal wrath of God into a metaphor – or some sort of joke (LW 28:264). In a recent cartoon from The New Yorker (May 18, 2008) a sign reads, “Beware of God” – mimicking the common beware-of-dog signs, with the master and his dog standing dazed, having both been struck by lightning bolts! So it takes a cartoon to make our point for us in our decadent times – that God’s wrath is simply to be feared (Psalms 33:8, 34:11; Matthew 10:28; John 3:36; Hebrews 10:31)! And this hits us all, since even our righteous deeds are but “filthy rags” in the eyes of the Lord (Isaiah 64:6, KJV).
Going Beyond the Law
But that terrifying word is only the first way we hear God’s law and have his righteousness come to us through it. We also hear it in a second, even more alarming way. Just as in the first hearing the law pushes us down by violently condemning us, in the second hearing it pushes us out – beyond its very self. Now that’s odd!
Romans 10:4. For indeed, we are told that the law actually comes to an end for us through Christ Jesus – he being the very end of the law (Romans 10:4). In that way the law goes beyond itself. This doesn’t mean, however, that it is abolished (Romans 3:31). No, it remains active – condemning us daily, as always. For indeed Jesus says: “I have not come to abolish... the law” (Matthew 5:17). So what this end of the law means is that we are only saved – or restored to a blessed life with God – “apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). It says we cannot save ourselves by being good in the eyes of the law – by being morally pure and making no mistakes. Nor can we save ourselves by being punished for our misdeeds and laziness. The price of both is just too “costly” (Psalm 49:8). So the law comes to an end on the score of us saving ourselves – which keeping the law simply cannot do.
Romans 8:3. And it is just this failure of the law that drives us to Christ. For Christianity, failure does not mean despair. It instead ushers in hope on the very heels of despair. This is because Christ has done for us “what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (Romans 8:3). So when the law comes to an end, Christ Jesus replaces it with victory. He does this by taking on “the likeness of sinful human flesh,” so that he can then “condemn sin.” And he condemns it by being an offering “for sin” (Romans 8:3). This offering fulfills “the just requirement of the law” (Romans 8:4). Through faith in it we then have “access” to God’s grace and finally have peace with him (Romans 5:1-2). As Luther once put it:
Jesus Christ.... brought us back from the devil to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and now keeps us safe there. [This he does by making] satisfaction for me and [paying] what I owed,... with his own precious blood (BC, p. 414).
This is wonderful because un-forgiven sin leads to punishment and death (Romans 6:23) – both of which are terrible. Together they hurl us into a wretched place of eternal “torment” (Luke 16:28)!
Romans 5:9. But by his suffering and death on the cross, Jesus saves all who believe in him from this ghastly condemnation (Romans 3:25, 28) – saving us from the wrath of God by his blood (Romans 5:9). His cross shields us from his wrath – which is a divine anger that is eternal (BC, pp. 29, 38, 112, 366, 414, 511, 631). Only Christ’s suffering and death is potent enough to protect us from it. Our flesh weakens the law which leads to its end and our subsequent failure to save ourselves by keeping it. Therefore any “exertion” (Romans 9:16) we may expend on our own behalf is of no use. Our only hope is in Christ (Romans 5:2). Without his saving sacrifice and our belief in it, God’s wrath with its “tribulation and distress” (Romans 2:9), crushes us like a ton of bricks. So if we were to depend on ourselves alone, all we could muster would be good intentions (Romans 7:18-19) – which never help.
Romans 6:16. The reason we can will the good, but “cannot do it” (Romans 7:18), is because we are “slaves... of sin” (Romans 6:16). That means we’re stuck in the rut of sin. For immediately upon sinning, it habituates us and canalizes our ways in favor of sinning. So we settle deeper and deeper into sinfulness. Against this intransigence the law is helpless. It cannot move us to love God. We instead blame our misery on him – or ignore him altogether. Either way we are slaves to sin and cannot free ourselves.
Romans 10:17. The only way of out this mess is through faith in Christ. But how do sinful unbelievers become believers? How do we break out of the prison of faithlessness? Well, we can’t do it by thinking or reading or laughing or exercising or traveling or meditating or dieting. That’s for sure. Just try any of these and you will see. They all end in failure. No, the only way out is by hearing Christ preached (Romans 10:17). Nothing else works. As strange as that may sound, it’s true. Hearing Christ preached catches us off guard. And at that moment there’s a break through (LW 18:229). Then, and only then, will we find ourselves longing for Christ the Savior. Without this sound-event, if you will, when the word of Christ is heard in a sermon, Christ cannot get through to us. He instead offends us (1 Corinthians 1:18) and we turn away from his saving presence (2 Corinthians 2.15-16). We remain “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:31) – wallowing in the “works of darkness” (Romans 13:12).
But when Christ is preached as the one who saves us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9), then we can believe. And that’s because belief is in our hearts (Romans 10:10) and only preaching can move our hearts to believe in Christ. Nothing else can – for our hearts are not amenable to analysis and other forms of rational calculation or proof. This makes faith a gift (Romans 3:24-25) – and not a human achievement (Romans 9:16). So the poet John Berryman rightly puts it (Collected Poems: 1937-1971, p. 215):
Unknowable, as I am unknown
to my guinea pigs:
how can I ‘love’ you?
I only as far as gratitude & awe
confidently & absolutely go.
This prayer is addressed to the Lord, whom Berryman calls the “master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake.” Even though God cannot be known with certainty, Berryman still offers up thanksgiving to this Master with absolute assurance. That can only be a gift since it can’t be deduced from any fact, precept or principle.
Yet we still must believe on the basis of this gift – confessing with our lips that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9). This we do – being carried along by our Savior – who is our very sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30; LW 13:354). So we aren’t spiritual free-agents, making up our own minds – since it’s Christ who lives in us and maybe even believes for us (Galatians 2:20; Matthew 11:28-30).
Guided by the Law
Finally there is another, third hearing of the law. It’s summarized in an echo from Deuteronomy 32:35 in Romans 12:19 (and Hebrews 10:30) and it says: “Never avenge yourself,... for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” This word neither condemns us nor drives us to Christ. It instead guides us into righteous living – and it comes from the old covenant.
We need this guidance because those who have been condemned by the law and saved through faith in Christ are also to live a life worthy of the Gospel (Philippians 1:27). Faith in Christ must be “supplemented” with virtue and knowledge (2 Peter 1:5). Christian are not suppose to believe one thing and then live in a way that is contrary to it. To do so would be hypocritical – and hypocrisy is condemned (Matthew 23:15-29). Accordingly, faith without works isn’t faith at all – but dead faith (James 2:26). On this necessary correlation between faith and works, Luther writes:
By faith... God will... account us altogether righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our mediator.... [But] good works follow such a faith.... Whatever is still sinful... in these works will not be reckoned as sin... for the sake of the same Christ.... Accordingly we cannot boast of the great merit in our works.... All is well if we boast that we have a gracious God. [Even so] if good works do not follow, our faith is false (BC, p. 315).
So our works or righteous living are necessary but not sufficient for salvation. As the great Reformation hymn, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” (1523) puts it, “good works cannot avert our doom, they help and save us never” – nevertheless they can prove that “faith is living” [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) hymn 297].
Some have erroneously supposed that all Christians need for righteous living is the guidance of the Spirit of Christ – which is, after all, supposed to guide us into all the truth (John 16:13). But there is a glitch in this that is intentionally glossed-over. Luther exposes this deceit in his treatise on Temporal Authority (1523):
The real Christian.... of his own accord does all and more than the law demands. But the unrighteous do nothing that the law demands: therefore, they need the law to instruct, constrain, and compel them to do good. A good tree needs no instruction or law to bear good fruit [Matthew 7:17-18]. I would take to be quite a fool any man who would make a book full of laws and statutes for an apple tree telling it how to bear apples and not thorns.... Why, then, did God give so many commandments to all mankind?.... [Because] there are few true believers, and still fewer who live a Christian life.... [So without the law], men would devour one another, seeing that the whole world is evil [1 John 5:19] and that among thousands there is scarcely a single true Christian.... The wicked under the name of Christian, abuse evangelical freedom, carry on their rascality, and insist they [are] Christians subject neither to law or sword.... [Even if the world were] all baptized and Christian in name, Christians [would still be] few and far between (LW 45:89-91).
So the law of God wouldn’t be needed to guide us if we were truly Christian. But since Christians have to attack unbelief “our whole life long” (BC, p. 445), we need the law of God to guide us. Our faith is too weak to depend on the Spirit of Christ alone. This is because like dogs and pigs we retain from the Gospel of Christ only a “rotten, pernicious, shameful, carnal liberty” (BC, p. 359).
As a mixed bag, we need the law to pull us in, that we might walk in righteousness – even though we are believers. For we are believers and unbelievers, sinners and saints, at the same time (Mark 9:24). Luther famously called this combination simul iustus et peccator. In his classic explanation of this puzzle, he writes:
Is [the Christian] perfectly righteous? No, for he is at the same time [simul] both a sinner and a righteous man; a sinner in fact, but a righteous man by the sure imputation and promise of God that he will continue to deliver him from sin until He has completely cured him. And thus he is entirely healthy in hope, but in fact he is still a sinner (LW 25:260).
This is an utterly realistic yet hopeful view of the Christian – all rolled up into one. First it’s realistic because in it we don’t have to feign holiness where it in fact doesn’t exist. And secondly this honesty isn’t necessarily despairing since it also shifts us away from ourselves to another who insures holiness for us apart from our own efforts. So while our sinfulness is innate, our holiness is on loan to us extra nos (LW 24:347; 51:28), or from outside of ourselves. What makes this holiness ours is that God attributes it to us even though we don’t generate it from within or make it a part of our very nature. While this necessarily diminishes our nature, it doesn’t leave us adrift in a sea of sadness. This is because we are still able to enjoy the benefits of what isn’t intrinsically ours. This means we have another living within us – the very Spirit of Christ himself – who pulls us in a direction that goes contrary to our natural urges and nature. And we can count on this because it doesn’t depend on us to bring it forth in us. That fact alone is what gives us hope. And because we are the site for that divine activity, we benefit from it even thought it isn’t ours.
This indwelling of the Spirit of Christ in the believer is one more reason why we should always give thanks to God for his goodness (1 Thessalonians 5:18). The other is that we still have the law to guide us when we “grieve” (Ephesians 4:30) that Spirit and resist its gentle rule over us. So take to heart that vengeance is not your bailiwick. God will take care of all injustices – better than you could ever dream of doing on your own (LW 28:159-160). So trust him to straighten out the world (LW 13:217). Pray then for those who hurt you that you may love them – instead of trying to get even with them (Matthew 5:43-46). Pray to God for power to heed his law not to punish your enemies, and he will surely bless you. He wants you to be his faithful disciples, so he’ll answer your prayer that you might be less vengeful and more loving. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)