Law and gospel. Diagnosis and cure. We need both. The law show us our sin, and the gospel shows us our Savior.
Joel V. Petermann
Toleration. That’s been the catchword for the first decades of the 21st century. In social settings it means that we accept other cultures and races without passing judgment on or discriminating against them. It means we don’t judge anyone’s actions and orientations if they are different from ours. In the education setting it often means we are careful not to tell a student they have made a mistake. Instead of pointing out an error, we are to dwell only on the positive.
Unfortunately, toleration easily becomes indulgence, and it also can cause chaos. A toleration mindset that accepts the idea that nothing is wrong, anything goes, or you just have to accept that others are different from you means no standards, guidelines, or boundaries for behavior or thought exist. In society, relativity becomes the watchword; what may be wrong for you is okay for me. Such thinking leaves us unable to enforce laws, to punish wrongdoers, and to keep order. In school, students begin to lose the ability to accept constructive criticism and to rise above failures.
Let’s face it, none of us like to be told that we have done something wrong. It affects our self-worth. It demotes “ego.” It can depress us or make us angry. We often respond to accusations of failure with defensiveness or excuses. We try to find a way to make ourselves look better, to restore our self-fantasy that we are better than we really are.
So toleration is handy. It speaks the language of our soul. Don’t tell me I can’t be the way I am. Don’t tell me I’ve made a mistake. Let me live in my bubble of self-glory, and I’m much happier.
At least so I think.
Law speaks harsh reality
Martin Luther knew that this isn’t the way that Scripture speaks. God’s Word has two teachings. Even though the Bible calls one of them the “strange” work of God (Isaiah 28:21), it is nevertheless his work. It isn’t the work of toleration. It is the work of calling a spade a spade. It isn’t couched in politically correct verbiage. It doesn’t allow for any wiggle room or loopholes. It is called God’s law. Proper use of the law in our lives is to let the ax fall true and swift. The law cuts to the heart of the matter. There is no, “yes, but” allowed. Wrong is wrong. Right is right.
Luther pulled no punches when he categorically stated, “That . . . upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god” (Concordia Triglotta, p. 538). That’s the first commandment. You either worship the Lord your God and he is most important to you, or you are an idolator. If money is more important to you than God, then money is your idol. There is no middle ground.
The rest of the Ten Commandments are not tolerant of our lives of sin. Say the name of Jesus flippantly and you are sinning. Despise God’s Word by not gladly hearing it and you sin. Disrespecting your mom and dad is not mimicking the Simpsons, it is sin. Abortion and hatred are both sins. Revenge is sin. Having an affair online is sin. Feasting your eyes on sexy pictures or movies is sin. Wanting everything in the ad flyers or online sidebars even though you don’t have the money is sin. Badmouthing your boss in the breakroom is sin. It’s not just sin if we act on it; it’s sin already in our hearts. That’s not toleration. It’s truth. There are standards. They’re called God’s commands, and they are not negotiable.
Gospel is good news
But neither is his gospel. That’s the other teaching which God’s Word speaks to us. Luther knew it better than anyone, because Luther had deep anguish over his sin. He knew that God didn’t tolerate his sin. He feared God. He trembled at the intoleration of God’s law. It is perfect and unbending. That’s why Luther found the gospel so sweet. The gospel is complete and final. The gospel simply states: “Don’t be afraid!” Why shouldn’t we be afraid of the intolerant law? Because the law finds its end in Christ and his cross. The law is destroyed by the conquering cry, “It is finished!” The law’s threats and curses are gagged by the Easter morning declaration: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said” (Matthew 28:6).
God didn’t tolerate our sin. He paid its price for us. He became the damned in our place. There is no more wonderful truth. My worth is not found by convincing myself I am not as bad as I know I am. It is found in knowing that Jesus loves me as I am. He gave me new worth—worth in God’s eyes through his precious blood. That’s the uncompromising truth God’s Word and Luther still speak today.
Joel Petermann, president of Michigan Lutheran Seminary, Saginaw, Michigan, is a member at St. Paul, Saginaw.
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the seventh article in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.
Luther still speaks
Luther had much to say about the proper use of the law and the gospel. In a sermon on Galatians 3:23,24 he proclaimed, ‘‘To be sure, both are God’s Word: the law, or the Ten Commandments, and the gospel; the latter first given by God in Paradise, the former on Mount Sinai. But everything depends on the proper differentiation of these two messages and on not mixing them together; otherwise one will know and retain the proper understanding of neither the one or the other.” (What Luther Says, Vol. 2, #2276)
Both law and gospel are God’s Word. Both need to be heard and absorbed by the sinner. In his law God tells us what he wants us to do or not to do. He also shows plainly that we have failed and deserve eternal punishment. In his gospel he tells us how his Son has paid our punishment and fulfilled his demands. We might say the law is God’s strong left arm that shoves the sinner away as unworthy. The gospel is his gentle right arm that draws the sinner close and clothes him with Christ’s righteousness.
When the law is soft-pedaled, the need for the gospel is diminished. Anemic preaching of the law seduces us to careless contentment about our spiritual condition instead of showing us our desperate need for salvation.
When the gospel is thinned out, it leads to uncertainty about our salvation and leaves us with an unsettling question, “Have I done enough?”
A veteran professor once advised, “Preach the law in all its severity. Preach the gospel in all its sweetness.” Luther would agree!
Richard E. Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.
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Author: Joel V. Petermann & Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 104, Number 7
Issue: July 2017
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