Redeeming the Law


For most of my life I was not a Christian. Though my family celebrated Christmas and Easter when I was growing up, we didn’t really attend church. For us, life was about being a good person and trying our hardest. Which is why, when someone finally shared the Gospel with me it was revolutionary. It showed me that being good isn’t good enough, because though we try hard, we ultimately fall far short of our own standards of goodness, not to mention God’s.

But the good news of Christianity is that we have a Savior; one who came to save us when good just isn’t good enough. Jesus lives the life we should have lived and dies the death we should have died, so that we – imperfect people that we are – can have new life with God. So that we can stand in His perfect, pure, and holy presence as His beloved children. When God looks at us, he doesn’t see our imperfections and our shortcomings. He sees the perfect life of Christ.

And for all of us who fall short, that is the best news in the world.

I believe that Christian preaching, at its best, highlights this truth to the world. It points us to the reality that we are saved by God’s grace and not by our own goodness. And to a world that is burnt out on pious moralism and self-righteous legalism, this kind of preaching is truly refreshing.

In fact, it is the recovery of this emphasis that has led to a resurgence in evangelical circles for Law-Gospel preaching. This kind of preaching highlights the fact that God’s Law, his righteous requirements for us, cannot save us. The reason is because we are sinful, and before God’s Law we all stand condemned. We need something more. We need God’s grace. We need a Savior. And that is the Gospel message. That is the message that people need to hear.

The desire to help people see the beauty of Gospel grace is sweeping American pulpits, and for a Lutheran like me this is a really good sign. I’m delighted that churches are once more becoming places where people are hearing about God’s extravagant love for a lost and broken world.

A Legal Problem

But I’m also concerned.

I’m worried that in our zeal for recovering the Gospel we have actually done violence to the Law. Here is what I mean. Increasingly preachers are defining Law and Gospel in the following way: the Law kills  and the Gospel gives life. The Law condemns and the Gospel sets free. The Law exposes our Sin and the Gospel reveals our Savior.

On one level these things are all true. But what I notice about all of these definitions is that they are subjective. They focus on how the Law makes us feel. The Law makes us feel bad. It makes us feel guilty.

And this brings with it a variety of problems. The first is that such a definition of the Law makes it very difficult for us to understand passages of Scripture like Psalm 1:

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:1-2).

Or Psalm 119:

Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day (Psalm 119:97).

Or even Romans 7:

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being (Romans 7:21)

After all, if the Law is so bad, why are people throughout both the Old and New Testament praising it and taking delight in it?

Another problem with defining the Law in such a negative way is that it poses the equally important question:

So now what? I mean, if I’m saved by grace, then what is the point of my works? How am I supposed to live?

If all exhortation to right living is simply there to condemn us, then what is the shape of the Christian life? How do we even begin to make sense of all the passages in the Sermon on the Mount or in the epistles which call us to lives of righteous living and integrity? If all such passages are simply Law and only serve to condemn us, then what grounds do we have for calling people to live lives of Christian faithfulness?

Redeeming the Law

Well, I think it comes back to how we’re defining the Law. In the above examples we have defined the Law on the grounds of how it makes us feel. But we’ve failed to define the Law for what it actually is.

For the early Reformers, the Law was defined as God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will for His creation. In fact, Martin Luther even highlighted the fact that the Gospel is given “in order to help us do what the Ten Commandments require of us” (The Large Catechism, Introduction to The Creed).

This is part of the reason that the early Reformers wrote that Christians:

have been redeemed by the Son of God so that they may practice the law day and night (Ps. 119[:1*]). For our first parents did not live without the law even before the fall. This law of God was written into the heart, for they were created in the image of God. (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article VI).

As such, the Christian recognizes that the Law describes what life in God’s world and under His reign actually looks like. It highlights that to be fully human is to live as we were created to live. The Law is not an arbitrary set of rules given in order to make us feel bad. It is a picture of what fully human life looks like. It defines what it means not only to be made in the image of God, but to live as His people.

And this is why our Sin is so tragic. It keeps us from living as God created us to live. This is why the Law condemns, for it shows us how far we have fallen. It reminds us of the Garden we have lost and the life we have forfeited.

Redeemed to Live as God’s Creatures

And this is why the Gospel is such Good News, for it not only saves us from judgment, but declares that God is redeeming and restoring us to once more live as His creatures. This is why Paul writes:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).

We are redeemed to once more live life in light of God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will for His creation. Christians are people who, having been saved by the Gospel, see that God’s will for us is actually good. That to live according to His ways truly is the best way to live! Just as we trust in Him for our salvation, we also trust Him when he calls us to live in light of His commandments. Because we are free from the condemnation of the Law, we are able to delight in the Law as the picture of a full life.

I think this is why Jeremiah writes:

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31:33-34).

Implications for Preaching

So when we preach the Law, yes, we must preach the tragedy of our inability to keep it. We must help people see how, under the Law, we all stand condemned because of our Sin. It does indeed call us to cry out for a Savior. It moves us to lament with Paul:

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Romans 7:22-25).

But we must also help Christians see how, now freed from the condemnation of the Law, are called to live in its light, for it is truly God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will for us. For if the Gospel does indeed bring life, then the Law teaches us how we should live in light of that salvation.

As preachers, we must learn to paint a picture of the life that God intends for His creation and how this is a life He will ultimately bring to completion when He comes again. The Law is the shape of a redeemed life. It shows us the life we were always meant to live. It orders how we move in the world. We live it out because we trust that God’s Word is indeed good and true: both Law and Gospel.

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