Earlier we noted that at the heart of Scripture lies the concept of God’s holiness and man’s sin. In order for God to give his people safe access to him, it was necessary to establish the sacrificial ritual enactments that consume the bulk of Leviticus. Recall how central it was throughout the Old Testament that human beings are unclean and in need of constant purification, which is why the congregation of Israel with its priests and high priest needed to be purified before entering the sanctuary and sharing in God’s holiness. It was only through his decrees that they were made holy and clean, which occurred in the daily service. Because of the vital role the daily service played, we pointed out that Israel’s faith can’t be understood apart from how it was ritually enacted. What’s important here is that something similar occurs in the New Testament as it continues to underscore God’s holiness and man’s sin, with it too being best understood within the ritual enactment of word and table.
This shouldn’t be surprising of a movement steeped in Old Testament language and practice, which is why the early church continued to be concerned about dealing with man’s sin. That it continued to enact its central beliefs in ritual is shown in the fact that, from early on, the assembly began with a corporate confession of sin as a way of acknowledging human dependence on God’s mercy, now realized in Christ’s death. Word was set next to table, the Hebrew Scriptures were set next to the New Testament, which begged for interpretation. As the ancient Scriptures were set next to preaching the assembly was prompted to pray for the world. Then as the meal was set next to texts, it was made clear that man can only bring his sin in exchange for God’s holiness in Christ. And like its Old Testament counterpart, the church confessed that holiness was wholly dependent on God, most saliently at the table where believer ate Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sin.
Underlying its ritual enactments were two important truths that the New Testament refers to as law and gospel. As it makes clear, particularly in Paul’s letters, the law has a specific function in that it only makes demands and tells us what we’re to do, and then justly condemns us for being sinful. It can only say “Thou shalt” and make conditional if/then promises: if you do this, then. Its promises are predicated on the condition that we fulfill the law perfectly and completely; in other words, it makes its demands not just on our action but on our nature, thoughts, words, and works. (1) Consider, for example, how Jesus reveals the law with all its consequences in the Sermon on the Mount:
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not commit mur der” and “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, “You good for nothing,” shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, “You fool,” shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell . . . You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery;” but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
As we can see from the passage, Jesus presses the law to its logical conclusion: that it’s not just what a man does that makes him guilty of sinning against the law, but what he is and thinks. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matt. 15:19). Thus the function of the law is to reprove sin, “for I would not have come to know sin,” says Paul, “except through the Law” (Rom. 7:7), demand perfect obedience (Gal. 3:12), pronounces a curse on all transgressors (Gal. 3:10), render all the world guilty before God (Rom. 3:19), and mediate knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20). (2)
In stark contrast, as the law speaks only to our action, the gospel speaks only to God’s and makes no demands. It simply offers forgiveness to those condemned by the law’s punishing demands. As such it offers grace, peace, and salvation to sinners (Rom. 1:16–17; 10:15; Acts 20:24). “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Eph. 2:1–9). Thus while the law demands perfect obedience in every way and condemns all who are disobedient, the gospel demands nothing, freely offering to sinners grace, life, and salvation for Christ’s sake. “The same sinners whom the law consigns to everlasting damnation the gospel, for Jesus’ sake, assigns to everlasting glory in heaven, (Rom. 5: 18–21). The law requires works, (Luke 10:28); the gospel declares that the sinner ‘is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law’ (Rom. 3:28).” (3) As the law’s promises are conditional on perfection (Gal. 3:10–11), the gospel promises are pure grace. Or to put it another way, the law promises life to the sinner provided he obeys it perfectly, but the gospel promises life and salvation without the works of the law and by grace to he who “believes in him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5).
Though Scripture makes the distinction between the two clear, it’s important to understand that both law and gospel are essential and the divinely inspired word of God. Their function is simply different: the law drives sinners to the cross and the gospel offers forgiveness in Christ. Because all men have sinned and stand under the curse of the law, Paul insists that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:9–20). “Therefore,” says Paul, “the law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). This means that both law and gospel pertain to all people and must be taught side by side until the end of time (including for Christians). And they must each be taught at the top of their energy, with all of the law’s brutal consequences as well as the gospel’s reckless grace.
Due to our penchant for leveling the doctrinal topography, this point merits repeating: Any weakening of either law or gospel results in a dilution of both. If one weakens the law’s terror then man will continue in his delusion that he can earn God’s favor through his self-justifying works.
The exact same thing occurs if the gospel’s consequences are diminished. Recall our Procrustean tendency to flatten out reality and force it to fit within our constricted worldview. One way we make it fit the Procrustean bed is to either weaken the law or undermine the radicalness of the gospel. In contrast, Scripture keeps them both furious such that, on the one hand, sin has to be named for what it is regardless of our cultural desire to remold clear biblical definitions. On the other, since all sins are an affront to God’s law, there is no sin more debased than any other. Meaning that in the first case man isn’t free to carve out certain sins and call them natural or good, and in the second he can’t claim some sins are more evil than others. This is important since human beings, especially in modernity, are selective in their application of outrage and permissiveness.
No doubt the tendency partly explains why we so quickly elevate or diminish one sin at the expense of the bigger picture. How often is Paul’s list in Galatians 5:19–21 and 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 used in exactly this way in opposition to its intent? A list that spans sins such as adultery, immorality, and idolatry, all the way to strife, jealousy, disputes, and envy. Given the context of his letters with their clear law/ gospel distinction, Paul is saying that they’re all equally sinful and condemned by the law, yet we can’t help but to call out drunkenness while making exceptions for outbursts of anger. Without law and gospel each at the top of their energy man only misuses the little he knows.
Thus you can see why maintaining both with all of their uncomfortable ramifications is difficult, but necessary if we’re to protect the scriptural idea that Christ died for the lost, for the outsider and the outcast. Because it’s only by keeping them both, furiously and with all their radical consequences, that we understand that we’re all outcasts. And it’s only in this way that we can keep our sight stereoscopic and focused on the radical implications of the cross. The point here is that the tensions pregnant in the church’s ritual serve as a guardrail for keeping these seemingly opposed ideas at the forefront. They also provide an important bulwark against man’s desire to justify himself by keeping the brutal consequences of sin front and center.
- C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (St. Louis, 1986), 9–10.
- John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics, 471–2.
- John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics, 473.