The Good Word  

 November 1998
Martin Luther said the law should be preached to comfortable sinners; and the gospel to those who are frightened.  In other words, if they're settled down, stir them up.  If they're stirred up, settle them down.  Luther was not just being perverse.  He was calling attention to a fundamental tension in Christianity.

Serious Christians are often frustrated by this tension.  As we read the Scriptures we are alternately called up short for our moral lapses and character deficiencies (law).  Then again, we are comforted with kind words of acceptance and approval (gospel).  It's enough to drive us to Christian schizophrenia.

In fact, trying to live with the frustration of this contradiction encourages us to resolve the conflict.  Because of our natural desire for decency and justice our resolution tends to allow the law to swallow the gospel.  We spurn as repugnant libertines those who would exalt the gospel to the exclusion of the law.  But as Luther saw, neither approach is adequate: law over gospel or gospel over law.

 * Neither acknowledges the legitimate claims of the other.

 * Either approach, by itself, destroys both the law and the gospel.

 * A synthesis of the two approaches denies each their rightful power.

What do we mean when we say that the "law swallows the gospel"?  The gospel is clearly defined by Paul: "That Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared . . ." (1Corinthians 15:3-5)  It is by this means that Jesus became, "the Savior of all men". (1 Timothy 4:10; cf. 1 John 2:2)  Because of this, God is "not counting men's sins against them." (2 Corinthians 5:19)

This is salvation, full and complete.  Full acceptance of man by God, in spite of man's position and condition.  One hundred percent the work of God, with no part for man to play.  You and I are participants in salvation only as beneficiaries.  We are not agents or helpers.  We can only stand in wonder of what God has done for us.

But many with a weak knowledge of true grace and the nature of God's forgiveness, fear "cheap grace".  They seek to supplement God's work for man by making man an active participant in his salvation.  Instead of the reasonable requirements of the ten commandments, a new list of "evangelical" do's is substituted.  Right at the top of this new list of do's is the necessity of accepting Christ.  From this point, step by step, the focus moves from the gospel of what God has done for us to our response to the gospel (belief and acceptance).  In this way the gospel is swallowed up in the new program of our acceptance, repentance, faith, baptism and many other conforming evangelical works.

When the truth of the gospel is lost sight of, church members come to think of the changes in their own lives as the security of their salvation.  (After all, maybe the people at church talk about little else.)  The general feeling is that if we have repented, accepted Christ, been baptized, etc., that now God must accept us into Heaven. Since we have met the conditions, he owes it to us.  Salvation becomes, not a gift, but wages earned from our evangelical works. (Romans 4:4)

What an outrageous insult to all that is true and holy.  Let it be forever clear that at no time in the past, in the present, nor in the future, was there, is there, nor will there ever be a property or condition in man that causes God to forgive him.  Forgiveness is a free gift, given solely from the goodness of God for Jesus' sake.  God cannot (must not) be required to forgive.

Jesus said, "neither do I condemn you". (John 8:11)  And with the full authority of Heaven, I say to you now, dear reader, you are not condemned, either!  This is the message of the gospel that we are authorized and enjoined to proclaim to every creature on earth.

It is on account of the glorious good news of this gospel message that we can come boldly before the throne. (Hebrews 4:16)

As to response: Do you see that if forgiveness is predicated to any extent on your response, then it is less than full and free forgiveness?  Any encroachment of your response (the law) on forgiveness (grace), eats the heart out of grace.  Moreover, since your response is always inadequate to the gift (Luke 17:10), allowing it to play a part denigrates the law.

What part then does the law (including the evangelical works) play in salvation?  First, the law defines the way of true happiness.  Absolute, perfect happiness comes from absolute, perfect obedience to God's law.  Any intelligent being who is aware of this truth will, like David, delight in the law of the Lord. (Psalm 119:97)  Away with the absurd proposition that Christians have to keep the law.  If they are fortunate, they get to keep the law.  But in terms of salvation, the law continually damns us all to hell, before and after grace.

It is impossible for the law to approve and accept us.  If we allow grace
(forgiveness) to influence or moderate the law, we destroy the law.  For it to have its proper role it must really, genuinely damn us in a fearful way.  To detract from the terror of the law (in terms of salvation) is to detract from the magnitude of God's forgiveness and grace.  Therefore we magnify the law. (Isaiah 42:21)  And it is on account of the continuing demands by the law for our damnation that we come trembling before the bar of justice (Philippians 2:12)

So we are left, as Luther saw, with the necessity of relying solely on God's grace and mercy for our salvation.  But we are excited, because mercy is just what he has promised.  And as precious as his law is to us as a guide to life, it also terrifies us because it condemns us to death.  Knowing God's promise we find that the Christian life of bold-trembling suits us.

We humbly cling to grace and magnify the law because this tension is truth, truth transcends reason, and the foolishness of God is greater than men's wisdom. (1 Corinthians 1:25).

This issue of The Good Word attempts to magnify grace by carefully excluding the law from it.  And to magnify the law by excluding grace from it.  God is not required to forgive us, regardless of our response to his gospel initiative.  At any time and in any place he is quite just and right to call us to account before the law, and to punish us accordingly.  Maintaining this truth is important in preserving the strength of both the law and the gospel.

It is also important for inter-human relations.  If welfare becomes a right (entitlement), then society is not being gracious by helping the poor.  If a brother maliciously wrongs another and can expect forgiveness, that is cheap grace indeed.  No one owes forgiveness to anyone else.  The apostle James shows clearly that we, like God, have every right and, possibly, duty to hold one another accountable.  No stable society, whether in Heaven or on earth, can be founded on grace.  Only the law can serve as this foundation.  Grace must by its very nature be unexpected and surprising.

Your friend, Herb Sorensen