Law and gospel: The yin and yang of faith

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It may seem odd that the headline for a column in recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Christian Reformation has a phrase from Chinese philosophy front and center.

But yin and yang seem to sum up for modern culture the idea of “how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent,” as per the definition in Wikipedia. And that definition gives a great starting point for a theological tool that does a good bit of the heavy lifting for Lutherans.

You see, Law and Gospel is the way Luther promoted in trying to understand the Bible in general, and how one should explore the Bible specifically in preaching. Day one of preaching class in Lutheran seminaries sets up this theological paradigm for exploring the practical ways that scripture affects our daily lives. Now, the term Gospel has been explored a fair amount in this column in the past, but the term Law probably deserves a bit of explanation.

In general, Luther would tell us that Law parts of the Bible are the ones written in the imperative (remember those high school Latin classes that explained the imperative use of the verb is translated as a command). These are the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” speckled throughout the scriptures. The prime example of those laws is in the form of the 10 Commandments.

At a superficial reading, one might just think that these are rules for good order, and indeed are the premise for our present-day legal system. The law tells us what we should and should not do in how we treat the world and each other. Civilization hangs by a thread whenever the law is threatened as is evident by any of those post-apocalyptic dramas on TV or in the movies.

However, behind that understanding of the law is what both Jesus and Luther tried to illustrate in a true explanation of the law. Let’s take what most would say is our civic law No. 1: Don’t murder.

Jesus says in Matthew 17:21-22:  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”

Luther takes what Jesus says to its likely outcome in his explanation: “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”

Ah, and here’s the rub, when you start to look at the laws in the expanded meaning that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 17 and that Luther speaks of in the Small Catechism, it becomes impossible to keep any of the commandments in their entirety and perfectly! I, as sinner, am by definition incapable of keeping the law. I will always fail! Which brings us to the second use of the Law, germane to today’s topic.

The Law acts as a yardstick by which we can see how far short we fall. Luther’s image is that of a mirror, the one by which each of us can see ourselves as we really are, not just the public image we try to project where we’ve got it all together. The Law shows us how short we fall by precisely not looking out for our neighbor (read the good Samaritan parable if you are having trouble who might be your neighbor), or how far short we fall in remembering there is only one God while we make power, money and sports teams our gods instead.

And the Law particularly shows us how faulty our faith is. As Luther says in The Bondage of the Will, “The commands exist to show, not our moral ability, but our inability. This includes God’s command of all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel, an impossible act of will apart from a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ.”

So, pair that with what we know of the Gospel, good news of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. And now that yin and yang understanding of Law and Gospel is ready to spring into focus.

The law as that mirror is what drives us to the Gospel. The law shows us how sinful we really are, and how much we need God’s grace and forgiveness. By the rules, we will never make it to salvation, and heaven is just a pipe dream. But because of what Jesus does in gifting us the status of righteous (holy ones or saints), we are offered salvation any way, IN SPITE OF what we are in an of ourselves when we look in the mirror apart from God’s grace.

Law and Gospel work together in contrast just as light must have dark and good must have evil so that we can have understanding within the contrast. So in preaching, the Gospel by itself would say we are saved, freed from sin and therefore all is good, but that would ignore the realities we face every day of our own failings and the failings of others around us.

The Law preached by itself leads us only to despair in that all the bad we see around us must be the final word. But Law preached in light of God’s Gospel of forgiveness produces hope. And the Gospel’s necessity preached in light of the Law gives us courage to make use of the law in what some call “the third use of the law” as a guide to tell us how we ought to live.

It is different than that first civil or political use of the law, which is based on fear of punishment, and rather drives us to action because we are thankful for Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, and God’s grace which forgives us even though we are unworthy. This third use of the law is what some would say allows us to live even now in the light of the salvation that is yet to come in the Kingdom of God.

In the day-to-day, Luther would say we obey the world’s laws if for no other reason than to avoid consequences. But in our spiritual understanding, the Law shows us how far short we are from saints and drives us to appreciate the Gospel that reckons us as righteous, even as we stand as sinners.

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 25 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.