“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Words have power. Words do things. In fact, certain words don’t just hurt—they kill. The Apostle Paul spoke of such a death-dealing word in Romans 7:9-11: “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”
“The very commandment that promised life proved to be death.” What a bizarre thing to say! The wonderful commandments of God (do this, don’t do that, live this way, don’t live that way) do not do what we think they will. They don’t impart life. They don’t save. Instead, they kill, and they damn. The very thing that looks like medicine turns out to be poison, and the “cure” to what ails us only worsens the symptoms. God’s law doesn’t do what we hope. In the final analysis, it makes our situation worse, not better.
Now, this doesn’t point to a deficiency in the law, as Paul goes to great lengths to clarify: “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means!” (Rom 7:12-13).
The problem, then, lies not in the law but in the human heart and the way it naturally hears the law. We hear a list of DO’s and DON’T’s, and we automatically assume that list must be attainable. It must be manageable. It must be achievable. Our sin-bent spiritual eardrums are out of tune, and this is the only frequency we can pick up. We tell ourselves: “Give me a pickaxe and some rope, and I’ll summit Mount Sinai and check off all ten of those boxes at the peak!”
Our natural bent is toward the law. It’s in our blood, still tainted with Old Adam’s DNA. The law is a language everyone speaks, and it’s a language everyone understands: “Do more. Do better. Try harder.”
My conscience speaks words of the law when it reminds me how I’ve failed (again) as a father and a husband.
My boss speaks words of the law when he gives me my annual review and tells me all of the areas I need improvement.
My coach speaks words of the law when he chastises me for not hustling enough.
My workout program speaks words of the law when it tells me: “Push it! Just one more!”
My Good Housekeeping magazine speaks words of the law with its picture-perfect homes and well-coiffed, smiling homemakers, promising, “This could be your life too if you’d just apply yourself a little more.”
My social media feed speaks words of the law when it reminds me how I don’t measure up to the filtered stories of my airbrushed, Insta-perfect friends.
The law’s voice is everywhere. It is screaming in our ears from both internal and external sources, in every direction, at all hours of the day. And since the law is our mother-tongue, we naturally assume it’s the only language that exists; this ceaseless, damning voice reminding us that we are not all that we should be.
But perhaps the most pernicious thing about the law is the subtle but powerful deception it continually whispers: “I am all that there is. I am the only language. I am the only kind of word.”
There is, however, another kind of word. But it’s not a language we’re fluent in. It is a language only the Holy Spirit can speak to us, expanding our spiritual vocabulary and offering a cool drink of sobriety to our law-inebriated consciences. This is the word of the gospel. A word of “Good News!” This second word is a fundamentally different kind of word because it doesn’t make demands, only promises. It tears up our spiritual “to-do” lists and replaces them with spiritual “done” lists. It takes nothing but bestows everything. It is gifted freely, not earned through spiritual elbow grease. And it’s good news precisely because it doesn’t involve our efforts at all but instead tells us of the actions of another on our behalf: Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose again for the sins of the world. He saved us. In other words, he did what the law could not, as Paul declares in Romans 8:1-3: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.”
This second word, then, is a better one. It says things like: “I love you! You are mine! You are forgiven! You are reconciled! You are free!”
Perhaps best of all, though, this second word—the gospel—is not something more to be done, but something to be believed. Which is to say, it is received through faith. As Martin Luther says: “By faith, you are so cemented to Christ that he and you are as one person.”
Therefore his victory is your victory. His virtuous life is your virtuous life. His holiness is your holiness. He is enough...for you!
We need the first word, but without the second, we are doomed. There can be no good news if it doesn’t come from outside of us, fortifying anxious consciences and making alive law-stricken hearts. The gospel is everything, and to weary pilgrims, it is always a welcome word.