Last year, a friend I follow tweeted, “Calling yourself a sinner is spitting on all the work that Jesus did to make you a saint.” When another user confronted him about the theology implicit in the tweet and about his views concerning the Third Use of the Law, he replied, “The third use of the law is also useless…the law has no place in the life of the believer…I struggle. No doubt. But I need [sic] daily reminder that I’m not what I do, I’m what Christ has done for me.” To some extent most of us can resonate with his confession of struggle and his need for the Gospel’s proclamation. But I want to ask, is that really the daily reminder we need? Is the Law really useless?
When we say we need something that means it’s indispensable. Without such a thing, our quality of life is drastically altered and likely endangered. I need food, air and water to sustain me physically, I need community, love and a healthy self-image to sustain me psychologically. So what do I need spiritually? Is my spiritual health exclusively sustained by the Gospel proclamation that, “I’m not what I do, I’m what Christ has done for me?” Let me ask it another way round, is the Law at all important for my spiritual health? Do Christians need the Law as well as the Gospel? If the answer is “no” you’d be likely to agree with my friend that, “Calling yourself a sinner is spitting on all the work that Jesus did to make you a saint.” But if the answer is “yes” then we can ask, “So how does the Law contribute to your spiritual health?”
So lets think about law for a moment. Law gets a bad rap because it is fundamentally caught up with rules. Not only do we not like rules, but the primary condition of sinfulness is in the inability to make our wills reality. We do what we do not want to do. But the view that law is simply a set of rules is selling the law short. The law that says, “do not exceed the speed limit” is not simply an arbitrary mandate for driving (even if the limit itself is) because the law’s purpose is to attempt to bring justice into reality. By enforcing a modicum of safety (which all road laws attempt to do) the society expresses its more deeply held beliefs about community, freedom, the value of life and use of public space. Now it is true that laws don’t ever make perfect drivers (no one always follows the speed limit) but the law does sometimes condition behavior. When the law escalates and becomes more present—such as a speed trap, we hit the breaks and hope the red and blue lights don’t appear in our rear view mirror.
Of course with God—who demands moral perfection—sometimes following the law isn’t good enough. So what happens when you get a person who is not able to drive below the speed limit and a cop who is not able not to ticket you for it? This example might give us a good perspective on what “grace” and “Law” are….
Like our human societies, God’s Law is not some arbitrary selection of restrictions. Just as traffic laws reflect deeper societal views, God’s Law is a reflection of God’s own personality. To see the Law is to see God. This is important. God sent and revealed the Law to us when we sinned, but God’s Law is eternal. It is not a reaction to human perdition or vice. God’s Law was not created because of human sin. It was revealed because of human sin. If humans had never sinned, God would still hate lying, murder, stealing, and idolatry. God does not change and the Law reflects deeper and more fundamental aspects of who God is. That is why Jesus does not come to abolish the Law. How could he? He would then be the Devil.
If the Law of God is eternal, a reflection of who God is, then—to pick up our above example, the “Cop” (i.e. God) can’t not give the speeder (i.e. you and I) a ticket. If he refused to enforce and prosecute, he’d sin against his own self, since His Law is not a set of arbitrary rules, but a reflection of his God-ness. So we are in a bind. On the one hand we can’t stop speeding, and on other hand God must prosecute. What can be done? Well, you know the answer—it’s Jesus Christ and the Gospel. Jesus takes our place at the wheel, pays the fine and gifts us his “innocence” (i.e. righteousness).
But precisely because of this “great exchange” between Jesus and us, the Law is needed for my spiritual health. Why? Because repentance is the right response to grace. Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark are, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Faith is connected with both grace and repentance. I need to be reminded that I am a sinner as much as being a saint. I need it because only when the Law terrifies me by showing me how much (on my own) I am not like God (remember God-ness is reflected in the Law) do I hold fast to grace. In other words, the Law is spiritually needed because it helps me avoid two dangerous extremes. On the one hand the Law terrifies me by showing me that I am a sinner. And knowing that allows me to rejoice at the news that God declares me righteous for Christ’s sake. On the other hand, the Law prohibits me from allowing my sin nature to turn grace into license. It does this by accusing me so that I can repent of my sins in sorrow and seek the comforting words of the Gospel. After all, it is precisely the fact that I stand before God with a righteousness that is not my own that requires I know who I am. Left to myself, I am a sinner. In the hands of Christ, I am a saint. Two natures, one flesh, but one Spirit as well.
Many readers at CHF have had difficult and hurtful experiences with the Church. Particularly raised in or hurt by various forms of legalism, moralism and manipulation, many have found the Gospel of grace freeing and life-giving. For a significant number it has revived or saved their faith in Christ. With this newly found grace, many are excited to share their testimonies and work for the dismantling of the problems inherit in the Church, particularly Evangelicalism. And I am all for it. However, I do offer a word of caution to us as we work for the Gospel—let us not leave behind the Law. For we preach Law and Gospel. Because we can be overly sensitive to any apparent call for right living, repentance and striving to be better and good, we can make the mistake of swinging the pendulum too far, mistakenly projecting our troubled pasts on an entire institution or theological mindset. That would be a mistake. Not only because it would close us off to the gems we can learn from others, but because it would endanger our theology by taking cues from our experience—run through theological filters--instead of wrestling with difficult concepts like repentance, obedience, striving after the good, moral integrity, virtue, progress and other such principles that have Scriptural support and a long history of Church doctrine and conversation.
So let us spread the doctrine of grace, but be aware that not everyone shares our personal histories with legalism. And let us distinguish Law and Gospel, and not forget that until the Final Day, we remain both, sinner and saint. And thus, in that mysterious both/and make proper use of God’s “No!” and “Yes!” Do that, and perhaps we would catch the irony of the former tweet: Spitting in the face of Jesus is exactly what I do—and only the Law can tell me that’s wrong. And only the Gospel can tell me that the Man who thirsted on the Tree, only he can take my sins from me.
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.