The categories of Law and Gospel are well known to most Lutheran Christians.
God’s Law, we say, can’t make us righteous, because none of us can obey God’s Law. That Law can only show us that we have no hope of receiving God’s blessings in this life or the next based on our own goodness or good deeds. Romans 3:22 puts it simply: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The righteousness that allows human beings the privilege of calling the God of the universe, “our God, our Lord, or our Father,” isn’t something we can earn by human effort. Or even by human effort assisted by God. We’ll never make ourselves righteous, acceptable in God’s kingdom, by resolving to be righteous. We all fall short. That’s what God’s Law, succinctly listed in the Ten Commandments, tells us.
Our only hope for righteousness is the Gospel, the good news. A Lutheran theologian of the last century described the Gospel like this: “The Gospel is the forgiveness of sins, nothing else. It is not a theory about the possibility of forgiveness, not a [mere] religious message... The Gospel of Jesus Christ is something quite different. [It tells us, ‘Your sins are forgiven you.’ (Luke 7:48)] That is His Gospel.” [Hermann Sasse]
The Gospel then is that Jesus, God the Son, has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. He has perfectly obeyed God’s Law for human beings, then, sinless Himself, bore condemnation and death for our sin that we deserve so that our separation from God is ended eternally!
Forgiveness, reconciliation, and all the other benefits of the Gospel happen to us when the Holy Spirit, through the Gospel Word about Jesus, gives us faith in Jesus.
The Gospel declares that Jesus has already died and risen to make you righteous.
Faith is the gift of God that allows us to say, “Jesus is Lord!” And, “Jesus is my Lord!” (1 Corinthians 12:3)
So if we can’t be made righteous in the eyes of God by our performance of God’s Law, what purpose does the Law serve?
The apostle Paul talks about that question as well as the power of the Gospel in today’s second lesson, Galatians 3:23-4:7.
He starts our lesson with a one-verse history of the whole human race before the coming of faith: “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”
Before anyone knew it was possible to believe in the God Who reveals Himself to us in the crucified and risen Jesus, the whole human race was held in check by God’s law.
This was true even of people who had never heard of God’s law, which the Bible says, is written on every human heart [Romans 2:15].
C.S. Lewis explains how this is so in Mere Christianity. Some cultures may say that you should only have one wife and others say you can have many, Lewis notes. But the moral code of no culture says that you can have your neighbor’s wife. And while different cultures may have different ideas of what constitutes murder, no culture says that murder is OK.
Who taught us that these were the right values?
No one needs to be taught God’s law; we know it from birth.
This law, Paul says, had an important role before saving faith was made available to any of us. Before God gave the gift of faith in God to Abraham, who anticipated the coming of Jesus, and Israel, who also awaited the coming of Jesus, or to the rest of us in Jesus, God the Son, God’s Law was our guardian. That word, in the original Greek, is paidagogos, or pedagogue, a word that means leader of a child.
In the first-century Roman world, a pedagogue was a household slave whose job it was to oversee the life and upbringing of wealthy men’s children. The pedagogue was there to keep the heirs safe and out of trouble, to preserve and prepare them for adulthood and their inheritance.
That, Paul says, is like the function of God’s Law in the lives of those who don’t yet have faith in Jesus. The law paints a picture of what righteousness that is pleasing to God is like. The Law says that the righteousness that makes someone fit for life with God is one in which idolatry, murder, lying, adultery, sexual promiscuity, false witness, gossiping, and covetousness are absent. A righteous life is one of absolute selflessness and love for God and love for others. The Law then lays out a way of life that’s impossible for we sinners to live. But because all of us, more or less, know what’s right and wrong, even though we don’t always like to acknowledge it, the Law does give us lessons on how best to live. It’s our teacher, our pedagogue and it constrains most people most of the time from being total selfish thugs.
When I was growing up, my dad had to teach me to do the right thing. He was the law for me, my pedagogue. I obeyed him because I didn’t like the consequences when I didn’t. Once I reached adulthood, knowing that I could trust my dad and his love for me (I had a kind of faith in my dad), I did things he asked me to do, not out of fear of punishment, but out of gratitude for and trust his love for me. Dad didn’t need to act as my pedagogue any longer.
Once the gift of faith in Jesus has come to us, we no longer need the pedagogy of the Law. We’re spiritual grown-ups, no matter our age, baptized believers who have claimed our inheritance in Jesus. By faith in Christ, we live in the kingdom of God.
Following Jesus then, isn’t about adding another item to your to-do list. It’s about believing in Him and His undying love for us.
As I visited one of our shut-ins this past week, she mentioned how great it was knowing, as Romans 8 says, nothing can separate the believer in Jesus from the love of God.
So, Paul says in Galatians 3:26-29: “...in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” When this happens, Paul goes on to say, God sends “the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.”
These are important words. They show that after Jesus, everything has changed!
In only a handful of verses in the Old Testament is God called Father. But faith in Jesus entitles us to know God as precisely that. That’s why Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father, Who art in heaven…”
Paul says that when we are set free by the Gospel to approach God in this way, the Holy Spirit is telling us that we no longer live under the Law, but are heirs who have an eternal inheritance in God’s Kingdom!
To be sure, God’s Law will still call the person saved by God’s grace in Christ to seek to live in accordance with the will of God. That law will keep calling us to love God and love neighbor, to be kind to those hated by others, to keep sexual intimacy within the bounds of marriage between a man and woman, to make disciples, to refrain from covetousness and stealing, and so on. We will be called to daily take up our crosses and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23), meaning living a lifestyle of daily repentance and renewal.
But the Gospel completely changes our motivation for seeking to do God’s will on earth as it’s done in heaven.
In Jesus’ famous parable of the Prodigal Son, you remember, we meet two sons.
One son thinks he must earn his inheritance from his dad and is sure that he’s behaved so well that he deserves that inheritance. This older son doesn’t really trust his father–or believe in him–despite outward appearances of being a good son. This is the son who lives under the Law because he views his relationship with his dad as a deal: He’ll be good, however begrudgingly, and his dad will have to give him the inheritance.
The other son, at the end of the story, realizes that he’s done nothing and can do nothing to earn his inheritance. But, unlike his older brother, he trusts his dad to be gracious to him even when, after many sins, he returns. And, of course, when he does return, the father welcomes the prodigal home with greater love than he could ever have imagined. This is what it’s like to be given the gift of faith in Jesus that assures us our eternal inheritance! This is what life is like when we live under the gracious forgiveness and new life God gives to us in the Gospel.
Dear friends, turn to Jesus and embrace the faith in Him the Holy Spirit has given to you. Turn to Jesus, knowing that He has already done everything necessary to make you right with God, to let you live in the freedom of the Gospel. That’s the way to everlasting life with God. Amen