Monday, October 24, 2011

The Law

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40).

What does the lawyer mean when he says, “the Law”?

God’s law commands human beings to do good works of thought, word and deed and punishes sin. There are three types of law: 1) the moral law, which tell us how to act toward God and our fellow man, 2) the ceremonial law, wherein God instructs and regulates the religious practices of the Old Testament, and 3) the political law, which was the state law of the physical nation of Israel. When God created mankind he wrote the moral law on our hearts (Luther, 1986). The iconic bearded Charlton Heston portraying Moses is embedded deeply into the fabric of America’s popular culture, so that most people, even non-religious people, are familiar with God’s law in the form of the Ten Commandments. What they may not be familiar with, however, as the Pharisees were not, is the concept of God’s law – what he requires of mankind in the law.

God wants us to keep his law, and to keep it perfectly. God is holy; we are his creation and he wants us to be holy as well[1]. God, according to his very nature, abhors sin[2]. Unfortunately, since mankind’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, we lack the capacity to keep God’s law and to please him by our actions. Satan brought sin into the world by tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden[3]. Because of their willful disobedience to God the nature of mankind was utterly corrupted by sin and mankind was transformed from a the pinnacle of creation made in the image of God, into a being whose every impulse is to rebel and turn away from our Maker[4]. We all know this, even if we are too ashamed to admit it. We know it innately. We all know that there is something we lack, something that no amount of doing good things can make up for. This is the same deficit that the Pharisees were trying to meet by turning God’s law from a mirror intended to make us conscious of our sin and submit to God[5], into a set of “do this and you’ll be ok” rules and regulations. Turning to a bottle, sex, drugs, or any other idol to try and make up for what we know we lack, but cannot define, is no different than the Pharisees redefining God’s law into a code that was easier for them to keep in order to assuage their guilty feelings.

Among our many sins, none is more grievous than our failure to love God above all else. Thankfully, God does not respond to our selfishness by reciprocating. Instead, he gives us the greatest gift: His only-begotten Son (Engelbrecht & al., 2009). St. Paul has this to say on the subject of sin:

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6: 22-23).

Wages are given to someone for doing something. When you go to work and do your job, your employer pays you your wages. He does not give you your pay out of his benevolence, but because you have performed a duty and earned them. A gift is different. You receive a gift, not necessarily because you deserve it, but because someone else - the giver – desired to give it to you. For example, a person receives a birthday present because the giver of the present wants to give it to them, not because they have done anything to merit a gift. One could hardly make the argument that they caused themselves to be born so as to merit a birthday gift. Unlike wages, a person does not earn a gift. On the contrary, a gift is given because the giver wants to give it.

It is interesting to see what Paul is telling us in this passage about what our efforts are worth when it comes to our salvation. "The wages of sin is death," Paul says. We are not able to earn that which is given to us by God as a gift - eternal life and forgiveness of sin. The only wages we are capable of earning is death. To put it in modern bureaucratic terms, that is the only job for which we hold a certification. Because of our sinful human nature, inherited from our ancestors Adam and Eve, we are incapable of performing the work that God requires of us. In the law, written on our hearts and given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, God requires us to fear, love and trust in him above all things (Luther, 1986). Jesus, in the passage above and also quoted in St. Luke’s gospel, summarized all the law and the prophets like this:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28).

This, however, no matter how good our works may look to the eyes of the world, we cannot do. For all of our efforts to come to God on our own terms and satisfy our nature and its desires we earn our true wages - death.

God, however, sees our situation and comes to us[6]. He is not content to simply pay us what we have earned. On the contrary God, who loves us and wants to restore the relationship he had with us in the beginning, gives us a gift - the gift of eternal life and forgiveness of sin through Jesus' death and resurrection. God promised this gift to Adam and Eve after they sinned in the Garden of Eden[7]. He promised this gift of a Savior to Abraham and to all Israel through the prophets[8]. This gift entered the world in Bethlehem's manger and was given in full on Calvary's cross[9]. Through faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man - God in human flesh - God gives us eternal life and makes us his children[10]. We, and everyone who believes in Christ Jesus, are saved eternally from sin, death and the devil, because of Jesus’ keeping the Law and His suffering and death for us (Luther, 1986)[11].

However, just as an ungrateful birthday boy may turn up his nose at a gift he does not appreciate or understand, we are able to reject God's gift of a Savior. The Pharisees, who loved their position in life and praise from men more than God, rejected the gift. They hardened their hearts to God's Holy Spirit and they, along with all those who do the same, will receive their wages for their labor:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it." (Acts 7:51-53).

Do not resist God who will create faith in your heart and make you into a new creation. He will make you a light to shine before all men to the glory of His Name in this life and a child to live with him, worship him and serve him in all eternity. Praise to the Lord, the Almighty - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - forever and ever. Amen.

End Notes

[1] Leviticus 19:2

[2] Psalm 5:4-5; 11:5-7; 45:6-7; Leviticus 20:23; Hosea 9:15; Hebrews 1:8-9

[3] Genesis 3

[4] Genesis 8:21; Psalm 14:3; 51:5; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Isaiah 64:6; John 3:6, Romans 5:12, 19; 8:7; Ephesians 2:3, 1 John 1:8

[5] First, the Law helps to control violent outbursts of sin and keeps order in the world (a curb); Second, the Law accuses us and shows us our sin (a mirror); Third, the Law teaches us Christians what we should and should not do to lead a God-pleasing life (a guide). The power to live according to the Law comes from the Gospel (Luther, 1986).

[6] Romans 5:6

[7] Genesis 3:15

[8] Galatians 3:13-18

[9] Luke 2:1-21; John 19:16-30; John 20:1-10

[10] John 1:12-13

[11] Matthew 5:17-18; Romans 8:3-5

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, E. A., & al., e. (Eds.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Luther, D. M. (1986). Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.