A firm theology of Law and Gospel
Our church has been delving into the nature and implications of theology, Bible translations, and the importance of the Apostolic message (released next week), and our ever-present 1-year-Bible readings. By God’s great mercy, many of us feel a renewed draw towards the Word of God, expecting that He will speak to us when we open the pages. But this post is redirect our attention to the full range of Scripture.
It’s easy to romanticize the Bible as a giant reference tool full of verses to make us feel better about ourselves. Or as God’s answer book, loaded with sound-bytes for everything that triggers our curiosity, including where to apply for our dream job. Even worse, God’s little love note to us…I digress.
My understanding of the Bible changed when I realized that it was not written about me, but God. Rather than looking for a divine psychologist to fix my problems, my gaze realigned onto a transcendent Other, as my universe began to revolve around the glories of who God is. After this, the Bible made my heart come alive. Years later, I still have to keep two things ever before me…
I have to read the Scriptures as Law and Gospel.
Every word you read in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, the Psalms, the Chronicles, and even the apocalyptic literature, all fits warmly under these two headings: you are either reading Law, or you are reading Gospel. A Law-demanding life is hopeless without the power of the Gospel, yet the good news of the Gospel is nonsensical without the Law. Simply put, the Scriptures are truncated unless both Law and Gospel are in it together.
Let’s talk about the Law.
The Law first pointed to the Ten Commandments (called the moral law), and was later expanded to include the entire Torah–which included a total of 613 commands. Jesus summarized the Law of God with these two,
He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands. (Matthew 22:37-40, HCSB)
We (Christians) sometimes make a couple of mistakes when we think of the Law. First, it’s a temptation to think of the Law as an anachronism relegated to the world of the “Old Testament.” Yes, there are many imperatives in the Old Testament, but there are also many imperatives in the New Testament. We should think of the Law as all of God’s commandments in Scripture. The second mistake we make is to denigrate the Law as legalism, per se, which is non-binding on believers from the New Testament. But Paul said, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12, HCSB).
Let’s talk about the Gospel.
When we fail to keep the commands of God and are rightly condemned as a result, it is the Gospel that declares us justified before God, by grace, through faith in Christ alone (Rom. 5:18). Justification is more than mere forgiveness. When your debt is forgiven, you can still be left broke, though without outstanding debts. But when a person is justified, they experience a credit. In this case, we are given the wealth of Christ’s righteousness (2 Cor. 8:9)! But where did He get it from? You say, “Well, He’s God, so he was already righteous.” That’s true…in His divinity. But in the doctrine of the incarnation, something buck-wild occurs. The sinless Christ learned obedience (Heb. 5:8, ESV), lived His life as a Spirit-filled man (Mark 1:9-13), and though we failed to obey God since the time of Adam (Rom. 5:14), Christ adhered to His Father’s Law perfectly (Rom. 5:19-21). Jesus becomes the propitiation for our sins (Rom. 3:25), and the justification for sinners who are graciously enabled to turn to Him (24). Justification, then, means we end up with the righteous resume of Christ!
How should this effect your reading of Scripture?
The Law is God’s holy command. The Gospel is His enabling power.
Everything you read in the Scriptures show one of these, because the Bible is Law and Gospel. When you read one while ignoring the other, you truncate the whole council of God’s Word, and substitute something more palpable (and impotent) in its stead. For example, if you were to only read the imperative truths of Scripture that exhorted you to some type of obedience, you would either despair, or become legalistic and self-righteous. You must read imperatives (Law) along with the indicatives (Gospel). But if you only care about Gospel passages that proclaim your true your identity in Christ to make you feel good about yourself, yet do not acclimate to that truth by responding in loving obedience, you become antinomian and relativistic. You still need the Law! You need it to give you rails by which you can respond in your loving worship to a holy God, who calls us to love him wholeheartedly, and our neighbor as ourselves. This is the whole council of Scripture–it’s everything God must say to us in this moment in history. If you are discouraged by a bland reading of Scripture, I suggest you read MORE Scripture, and you read it while looking for these two themes. You will constantly be hearing how God has purposed you, how you have failed, and how He, in His lovingkindness, has made a way.
Unless you have some type of reading plan, such as a yearly Bible reading, or a schedule, you may find yourself gravitating towards the same books of the Bible. Perhaps it’s because the passages you go back to regularly stroke your self-esteem! Or it’s because you love to beat your self up with commandments. But you need the full meal of God’s Word. Read the whole council of God. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart to it. Be humbled to the dust by His transcendence. Be elated to the skies by His lavish mercy.