Law & Gospel

C. F. W. Walther: Applying Law & Gospel

C. F. W. Walther: Applying Law & Gospel

C. F. W. Walther is a household name to some, but an unknown figure to many. He is largely responsible for bringing Lutheranism to the United States. According to theologian Robert Kolb, Walther “shaped his epoch by adapting Luther’s teachings to the needs of nineteenth-century German immigrants on the American frontier.” What is especially unique about Walther is his work in applying Martin Luther’s doctrine of Law and Gospel. The scholar Victor Veith writes, “Perhaps more than any other theologian, C. F. W. Walther applied himself to understanding the application of law and gospel. Indeed, Walther’s exhaustive analysis of this issue was unparalleled in his time and has not been equaled in our era.” Because of Walther’s concern to carry on the Reformation that had begun with Luther, his life and thought deserves attention.

Walther’s Background

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born in 1811 in Saxony, Germany, the eighth of twelve children. Ferdinand, as his family called him, received his initial education from his father, a pastor. While studying theology at Leipzig, Walther spent much time reading Luther’s works and became convinced of confessional Lutheran doctrine. After passing his exams, Ferdinand was ordained as a pastor in 1837.

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born in 1811 in Saxony, Germany, the eighth of twelve children. Ferdinand, as his family called him, received his initial education from his father, a pastor. While studying theology at Leipzig, Walther spent much time reading Luther’s works and became convinced of confessional Lutheran doctrine. After passing his exams, Ferdinand was ordained as a pastor in 1837.

The congregation Walther inherited gave him little hope that the Gospel could be proclaimed effectively in such an environment. The rationalist Christians of his day opposed the orthodox Christian faith, and sermons of the day focused on topics such as “Profitableness of Potato-raising,” “Importance of Genuine Sanitation,” and “Tree-planting a Necessity” instead of the Gospel and grace of Jesus Christ.

In search of greater religious freedom, Walther and a group of Lutheran immigrants set out for the United States in 1838, ultimately settling in Missouri. Walther began to pastor a church in St. Louis, where he served until his death in 1887. Walther and his wife had six children. During his ministry, he served as the president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, as the first president of Concordia Seminary, and as the head pastor of four Lutheran congregations in St. Louis.

Walther’s Theological Distinctives

Theologically, Walther was an orthodox Lutheran as well as a Pietist. However, he criticized the Pietists for their focus on human experience at the expense of the Word of God. Their focus on works, for Walther, distracted from the Gospel and justification. As an orthodox Lutheran, he worried that the union of the Lutherans and the Reformed in the Kingdom of Prussia was misguided “because it glossed over the errors of Reformed theology.”

Law and Gospel

What Walther is best known for his is persuasive, passionate, and powerful teaching about how to understand the Law and the Gospel. The distinction between Law and Gospel is one to which Luther gave great weight, writing, “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” Walther’s theological significance lay in working out the application of this crucial distinction, and he found at least twenty-one ways Christians and Christian teachers tend to misapply and confuse Law and Gospel.

In Walther’s most influential work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, he showed how the one word of grace depends on the two words of God—Law and Gospel (alternatively, judgment and love, or threat and promise)—being related and reconciled in the crucifixion of Christ. His first three “theses” on Law and Gospel provide an important foundation for how to read and teach the Bible:

Thesis 1: “The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel.”

Thesis 2: “Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.”

Thesis 3: “Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.”

Walther explains that both Law and Gospel are equally necessary for salvation, but the Law cannot lead us to salvation; it can only prepare us for the Gospel. The Law has nothing to say about grace, but only contains commands and threats, which reveal to us our need for the Gospel. The Gospel, in contrast, offers only grace, peace, and salvation.

The Law tells us what to do, but it does not enable us to obey; the Gospel gives salvation freely and empowers joyful obedience in response. Walther was adamant that no Gospel element should ever be combined with the Law; instead, the Law should be proclaimed first, and then the Gospel should follow. The Law says “Do!” and the Gospel follows and says “Done.” It is also necessary to recognize the context when preaching, because “the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins, or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.”

Justification

Walther’s robust doctrine of justification set him apart from the other theologians of his day, as well as many today. Theologian Franz Pieper writes, “After Luther and Chemnitz no other teacher of our church has attested the doctrine of justification so impressively as did Walther.” Walther spoke of justification as the characteristic mark of the Christian religion, and declared that any error in the doctrine of justification necessarily meant an error in every other Christian doctrine. Thus Walther argued, “If anyone would not rightly know and believe this doctrine [justification], it would not do him any good if he knew correctly all other doctrines as, for instance, those of the Holy Trinity, of the person of Christ, and the like.”

The doctrine of justification was the foundation of pastoral ministry for Walther, and he urged preachers to focus on the Gospel, because “the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.” He declared that he would rather the church be filled with uneducated pastors who knew the doctrine of justification well than with eloquent scholars who wavered on justification. For Walther, to assert that faith is anything other than trust in the grace offered by the Gospel would pervert justification.

Carrying Luther’s Legacy

Some worried that Walther merely wanted to return to the scholastic theology of the seventeenth-century Lutherans, but Walther wanted to return to Luther and to historic Lutheranism as set forth in the Book of Concord. For him, Luther was “the man whom God chose as the Moses of his church of the New Covenant, to lead his church, which had fallen into slavery to the Antichrist, out of that slavery. He is the column of smoke and fire of the Word of God, clear and pure as gold as it is.” However, Walther insisted that Luther was not to be idolized, for his accomplishments were to be viewed as God’s accomplishments.

As a pastor, Walther believed that theology was a practical rather than academic discipline at its core and that orthodox belief should always produce living faith.

Along with this conviction came the belief that the Scriptures were central to the revival of the church. Walther believed that a culture in which the Scriptures could flourish had to be created. As such, under his leadership, the church body founded schools, hospitals, churches, and other institutions.

Walther’s Scholarship

Through both preaching and writing Walther communicated his vision to his congregation. He wrote mostly periodical articles in the two journals he started. His scholarly journal was called Lehre und Wehre (1855), and his popular journal was Der Lutheraner (1844). Both journals were distinctly Lutheran and aimed to communicate Luther’s thought and heritage to both scholars and laypersons. His longer works were comprised almost solely of ecclesiological writings.

Because of his admiration for Luther, Walther wanted him also to be read by his church. He spent much time in translating Luther’s works into English, and eventually backed a project for the complete American edition. He also published a guide for reading Luther.

Walther’s most influential work remains The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, which was originally a collection of lectures to seminary students. Kolb argues that Walther’s entire ministry can be summed up in this title. Other noteworthy works by Walther are listed at the end of this post.

Walther’s Legacy                 

C. F. W. Walther remains a figure to be admired. He wanted the church to rediscover the Gospel in the face of a prevailing culture that made it difficult to do so. While he did not produce a major systematic theology text to carry on his legacy, Walther’s emphasis on the distinction between Law and Gospel remains extremely relevant today. As one religious historian writes, “Walther’s influence was especially significant in that he stood almost alone in the nineteenth-century American theological scene as one fully aware of the crucial importance of the problems of Law and Gospel.”

Walther’s Major Writings              

Preaching God’s Two Words: Law & Gospel

Preaching God’s Two Words: Law & Gospel

I was invited to speak at the “Preach the Word” conference at Living Stones Church in Reno, NV, and was assigned “Preaching God’s Two Words: Law & Gospel.”

I can think of no more important thing to get straight before one preaches than the distinction and relationship between God’s Law and God’s Gospel. We are talking about the character and holiness of God and the pleasant pardoning and love of God. Because we are sinners, the law is God’s “No!” and curse to us and the Gospel is God’s “Yes!” To confuse them is to corrupt the Christian faith at its core. Martin Luther says, “The whole of the Scriptures and the whole of theology depends upon the true understanding of the law and the gospel.”

In Galatians 3:1-3, 10-14, St. Paul writes:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?…For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Almighty God, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for 
our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, 
and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever
hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have
 given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with
 you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Proper 28, Book of Common Prayer, pages 236)

 

Vows, Promises, and the Problem of Love

Vows, Promises, and the Problem of Love

Vows and Promises

One of my favorite parts of officiating a wedding ceremony is the vows and promises, because they are filled with so much significance and gravity.

Here are the vows I use when marrying people:

In the Name of God, I, ____ take you, _____ to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

The promise at the giving of rings is also powerful:

I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Just look at it. Who can actually fulfill this promise? “With all that I am, and allthat I have, I honor you.” Just to increase the intensity, the vows and promises are made “in the name of God,” the Holy Trinity.

We are faced with the option either to treat such an impossible task as sentimental hyperbole and eventually dismiss it as such, or to face eventual despair at failing to measure up.

 

Law, Love, and Grace

These promises and vows sound similar in their intensity to Jesus’ summary of the law of God in Matthew 22:37-39: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [Deut. 6:5]. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself [Lev. 19:18].”

God’s commandments are good and right (1 Tim. 1:8Rom. 3:31Rom. 7:12-16), but they lack the power to produce the life they require. This informs how we understand Jesus’ command to love God and others with all our hearts. Because of our sin, God’s standard of perfect love is our problem.

But God also provided the solution. Jesus obeyed perfectly and completely on our behalf, died in our place for our sins, and rose from the dead to conquer sin and death.

Through Jesus Christ’s righteous life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection, God fulfilled the law’s requirements on us, conquered the power of sin that held us in slavery by its accusations, and gave us new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Law serves to heighten our understanding of our own sin, not to lessen it (Rom. 7:7-12), and it does not lead to eternal and ultimate forgiveness. Thankfully, with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, forgiveness of sins is now available. Through Christ we can avail ourselves of a power that the Law never had. The Law hung over us as a ministry of death, threatening to kill us for our sins; the Spirit of Christ delivers us from the bondage of sin, guilt, and death into new life (2 Cor. 3:6-7). What the law was powerless to do, because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering (Rom. 8:3).

God’s grace is overflowing and abundant (Rom. 5:15176:12 Cor. 4:15;8:99:814). It is also powerful: grace motivates changed lives, as Paul writes: “The love of Christ compels us!” (2 Cor. 5:14).

The law threatens and demands, but does not motivate. This is not to discount the value of the law. The law of God is “perfect, true, and righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:7-9) and “holy, just, and good” (Rom. 7:12), but it does not enable people to do what it demands. The Apostle Paul writes, “If a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal. 3:21). Law does not empower us to do what it mandates—but grace does (Matt 10:8Rom 2:4Rom 6:14Titus 2:11-12).

Jesus’ work has freed us from the curse of not obeying the law to love God and others perfectly. We are free to acknowledge our failure, because Christ, who loved perfectly, is our righteousness.

But God doesn’t just leave us to our failure—He gives the Holy Spirit to those who trust in Christ. God’s Spirit gives us new hearts through regeneration, and God Himself enables us to start fulfilling the law through love (Gal. 5:14).

Love for God and others is the fruit of the miracle of regeneration and the Holy Spirit’s work within us. The Holy Spirit begins empowering us to want to love, giving us the ability to love, and causing us to know the love of God.

This is not a new law for us to follow. Love is the fruit of the Spirit—it’s what God does in us, not what we try to muster up in our own strength, as if we could pay God back. As Philippians 2:13 teaches us, it is God who works in us to will and do His good pleasure, which is summarized in the law.

God produces love for Him and others in our hearts and works in our hearts to cause us to delight in what He delights in. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Because God has loved us so well in Christ, we are freed to love Him and love others.

Marriage

How does this all relate to marriage? As Mike Mason writes in The Mystery of Marriage, “A vow is a confession of inadequacy and an automatic calling upon the only adequacy there is, which is the mercy and power of God.”

Wedding vows are much more than a declaration of the spouse’s attempt to be decent. Couples should make these vow and promises in awareness of their inability to fulfill them in their own strength, yet believing that God will enable them to do so. It is in light of this reality that they can profess their love for each other.

While weddings are moments to celebrate the love the couple has for each other, there is a prior love, God’s love. God’s love is what makes the vows and promises more than quaint sentimentality. God’s love is the foundation for dealing with failure to fulfill these vows and promises perfectly. God’s love is the best motivation to fulfill these promises and vows in any meaningful way.

We Need Rescue, Not Just Advice: Machen on Salvation

We Need Rescue, Not Just Advice: Machen on Salvation

This is the sixth installment in our seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In the book, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasts the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. In this post we see how theological liberalism and Christianity have completely different hopes for salvation.

J. Gresham Machen shows us that liberalism’s view of salvation is human-centered, while Christianity is God-centered. Liberalism thinks that human nature inherently has the resources for our own salvation, but Christianity teaches that the resources for salvation only come from God’s supernatural act of redemption through the atonement of Jesus.

Belief in the substitutionary atoning work of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners is criticized by modern naturalistic liberalism. Instead, the death of Christ is seen as an example of self-sacrifice, as a picture of God’s hatred of sin, or as a display of God’s love, but not as the propitiatory substitution of Jesus in our place, for our sins. Aside from viewing substitutionary atonement with disgust, liberalism criticizes salvation by the cross of Christ because it is dependent upon history, makes for a “narrow” and “exclusive” religion, and seems to challenge the character of a God of love.

All sin at bottom is a sin against God. (p. 130)

Four Objections

Machen answers liberalism’s objections in several ways. First, Christianity is dependent upon history because the good news of the gospel is rooted in the historic event of the death and resurrection of Christ, not mysticism. The good news of the gospel announces that this event has ushered in a new age for the world, and that God has redeemed sinners. Second, Christian salvation has always been centered on devotion to Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation.

Third, Christian salvation is consistent with the attributes of God. Jesus’ love and the Father’s wrath do not separate the triune God. The Father and Jesus are both angry at sin: the Father is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24), and Jesus grabs a whip to rid his temple of corrupt moneychangers (Matt. 21:12–13). Machen shows the falsehood of the common caricature of the angry Father taking it out on the innocent Son, because it is God himself who pays the penalty he requires: “God himself in the person of the Son who assumed our nature and died for us, God himself in the person of the Father who spared not his own Son but offered him up for us all” (p. 132).

Fourth, the New Testament says that Jesus died not merely as a martyr, but as the divine Son of God who is able to bear the sins of others and who willingly chose to die for us (John 10:18).

The New Testament does not end with the death of Christ; it does not end with the triumphant words of Jesus on the Cross, “It is finished.” The death was followed by the resurrection, and the resurrection like the death was for our sakes. Jesus rose from the dead into a new life of glory and power, and into that life he brings those for whom he died. (p. 114)

Redemption is applied to us through the creative act of God by the Holy Spirit in the new birth. This is necessary because humans are not innately good (as liberalism assumes), but dead in sins, in need of regeneration and God’s life-giving grace. People must have faith, but faith itself is a gift to be received from God, not a work to be done by us (Eph. 2:8). Instead of liberating humanity, in reality liberalism denies the freedom it promises, which is only found in the liberating grace of God.

Much More than a Means

Liberalism offers a social salvation that believes religion is a means to some greater goal, like more socially conscious institutions and healthier communities. Biblical Christianity is not less, but much more than that. It does not withdraw from the world, but seeks the welfare of the world. Most importantly, it seeks the welfare of the world by calling people to repent of their sin and accept the reconciling work of God in the death of Jesus for them.

Christianity will indeed accomplish many useful things in this world, but if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things it is not Christianity. (p. 152)

The message of Christianity is not primarily about religious virtues, but the message that God has acted in history on behalf of sinful humanity to reconcile us to God. This reconciliation then brings freedom to live a life of love toward God and others. God does not exist primarily for our sake; we exist for the sake of God. Salvation is not found in a way of life, but through faith in the act of God in Jesus Christ.

In the next and final post, we’ll see how Machen shows that Christianity and liberalism have incompatible visions for the church. 

 


 

Read the book for free online or listen to it as a free audiobook.

 

Love-Making

Love-Making

Everyone agrees that love is a good thing. Love is often a very feel-good topic. But if we look at Scripture, we find something disturbing: love is actually a big problem for us humans.

Our Problem with Love

The Bible tells us that God doesn’t just want us to love each other—he actually requires that we love each other:

  • “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Rom. 13:9)
  • “The whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal. 5:14)
  • “. . . Love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)
  • “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16)
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . . [You] must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:44, 48)
  • “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 and first 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.” (Matt. 22:37–40)

As we read through these verses, it should become apparent that every one of us has failed and does fail to love as God intends and commands us to, with all our hearts.

Jesus has some bad news regarding what naturally comes out of the human heart: evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, false testimony, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly (Matt. 15:17–20; Mark 7:20–22). He concludes, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:23). In Galatians 5:17–21, Paul follows Jesus’ lead and tells us that inherent within us are works of the flesh like “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.”

After Paul makes his list of sinful desires, he follows it with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The fruit of the Spirit is not inherent in us but worked into us by the Holy Spirit. The natural human heart produces one kind of desires, and the Spirit produces another kind by giving us a new heart. And they are opposed to one another. Thorn bushes do not produce oranges. Weeds do not produce apples. And the human heart does not naturally produce the fruit of the Spirit.

Love is our problem. Moreover, the command to love doesn’t generate in us the ability to fulfill it. We can be told over and over that we ought to love, but being told to do so doesn’t make it possible for us to accomplish it. The command to love actually condemns us, because we all fail.

Freed from Condemnation

God provides the answer for our love problem in Jesus Christ. Through faith we trust in Christ, and we experience grace, reconciliation with God, and forgiveness of sins. Romans 5:1–2 says, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” Through faith in Christ’s finished work, we are freed from condemnation for our failure to love.

But it gets even better.

Freed to Love

We have been freed to love. When God makes us new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17), he produces in us new passions and desires so love and good works are actually possible (Phil. 2:13).

God has loved us in a way that has given us life. The atoning death of Jesus provides the means by which we enter a relationship in which love is received and expressed. With that as the context of the commands to love, the commands are viewed not as the “ought” of compulsion but the “transformation” of internal constraint. To those who encountered the source of love, the commandment to love can be read with hope and joy, because love is not alien to our experience.

We have been given an overabundance of love.

1 John 4:10 says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” God’s love for us produces love in us: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God’s gracious, generous love toward us changes our hearts and makes us able to love.

Abundance of Love

The more we bask in God’s affection, the more the reality of God’s acceptance of us seeps into our hearts, the more we might love others as ourselves. This seems to be the logic behind Jesus’ statement: love one another as God has loved you. We have been given an overabundance—a surplus—of love. And out of that love, we can love others out of the overflow of God’s affection for us. God’s love is a love-making love.

How ‘Love God And Others’ Is A Backward Gospel

How ‘Love God And Others’ Is A Backward Gospel

Sometimes you hear people say that the gospel message is “Love God, love others.” It sounds nice, but it’s all backward. “Love God and love others” is not a summary of the gospel—it’s a summary of the law.

God revealed his ethical requirements to his people in the Old Testament law, which contains over 600 commands. These are summed up in the Ten Commandments, which God revealed through Moses to his people after the Exodus from Egypt. They are found in Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21:

1.    Do not have any other gods.

2.   Do not make for yourself idols.

3.   Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.

4.   Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

5.    Honor your father and mother.

6.   Do not kill.

7.   Do not commit adultery.

8.   Do not steal.

9.   Do not bear false witness.

10.    Do not covet.

The first four commands (or the “first tablet” of the Law) are about how we are to relate to God. The next six (the “second tablet”) are about how we are to act toward each other. Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments in this way in Matthew 22:37–40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [Deut. 6:5]. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself[Lev. 19:18]. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

As Paul Zahl writes,

The law is a true thing, an accurate summary or description of what it means to be happy and fulfilled, especially in relation to one’s neighbors. If we were able and willing to follow it, the law would be the answer to humanity’s problems. . . . The Bible declares the law to be good and right (1 Tim. 1:8; Rom. 3:31; Rom. 7:12–16) but then with one great persuasive insight deprives the law of any lasting capacity to do us any good (Rom. 7:24–25).

WE ARE UNABLE TO FULFILL THE LAW

God’s law is good. The problem is us: our sinful hearts don’t love God or others as we should. Even worse, the law only points out the problems with us; it doesn’t and can’t generate within us the ability to obey.

The law condemns us; it points out our failure. When we hear “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” we rightly despair of being able to fulfill what is required of us. Because of our sin, God’s standard of perfect love is our problem.

JESUS LOVED PERFECTLY, SO WE CAN LOVE TOO

But God also provided the solution. Jesus obeyed perfectly and completely on our behalf, died in our place for our sins, and rose from the dead to conquer sin and death.

Through Jesus Christ’s righteous life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection, God fulfilled the law’s requirements on us, conquered the power of sin that held us in slavery by its accusations, and gave us new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is not a new law for us to follow. Love is the fruit of the Spirit—it’s what God does in us, not what we try to muster up in our own strength, as if we could pay God back.

Jesus’ work has freed us from the curse of not obeying the law to love God and others perfectly. We are free to acknowledge our failure, because Christ, who loved perfectly, is our righteousness.

But God doesn’t just leave us to our failure—he gives the Holy Spirit to those who trust in Christ. God’s Spirit gives us new hearts through regeneration, and God himself enables us to start fulfilling the law through love.

LOVE IS THE FRUIT

Love for God and others is the fruit of the miracle of regeneration and the Holy Spirit’s work within us. The Holy Spirit begins empowering us to want to love, giving us the ability to love, and causing us to know the love of God.

This is not a new law for us to follow. Love is the fruit of the Spirit—it’s what God does in us, not what we try to muster up in our own strength, as if we could pay God back. As Philippians 2:13 teaches us, it is God who works in us to will and do his good pleasure, which is summarized in the law.

As God produces love for him and others in our hearts, we get to join him in his mission of announcing reconciliation to the world. God works in our hearts to cause us to delight in what he delights in. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Because God has loved us so well in Christ, we are freed to love him and love others.

How Good Is Good Enough?

How Good Is Good Enough?

“A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Galatians 2:16

How good is good enough to be saved? Are you good enough? This verse answers those questions.

Let’s briefly define “justified.” It’s a very important word. It means “counted righteous” or “to be declared righteous before God,” that is, to enjoy a status of being in a right relationship with God, to be accepted by him.

This verse tells us that it is impossible to be good enough to be considered right with God. Paul’s point is that while the law is good, it is totally inadequate as a means of salvation (Romans 3:19–20). That’s because the law cannot generate what it commands. No law exists that provides the power to follow what it demands. The law does not deliver what it mandates.

The grammar of this verse highlights the difference between the two options: not by doing what the law demands but through faith in Jesus Christ. Negatively, we are incapable of any kind of self-justification. Positively, we stand before God empty-handed, depending on Christ’s righteousness given to us and his death on the cross as our substitute.

BY GRACE ALONE THROUGH FAITH ALONE

The law shows us our sinfulness and our need for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to deal with our unrighteousness. From Jesus Christ “we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16). We are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit alone. We are neither saved by our merits nor declared righteous by our works. We do not deserve grace, or else it wouldn’t be grace. This means that God grants salvation not because of the good things we do, or even our faith—and despite our sin.

“Faith in Jesus Christ” is key to our being right with God. But what is faith? J. Gresham Machen defines it like this:

Faith means not doing something but receiving something; it means not the earning of a reward but the acceptance of a gift. A man can never be said to obtain a thing for himself if he obtains it by faith; indeed to say that he does not obtain it for himself but permits another to obtain it for him. Faith, in other words, is not active but passive; and to say that we are saved by faith is to say that we do not save ourselves but are saved only by the one in whom our faith is reposed; the faith of man presupposes the sovereign grace of God.

This is the ring of liberation in the Christian proclamation. If our salvation is not grace all the way then we will spend our lifetimes wondering if we have done enough to get that total acceptance for which we desperately long: “I said the prayer, but did I say it passionately enough?” “I repented, but was it sincere enough?”

It’s not about how sincere we are. We are justified by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. In justification, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect justice. Justification does not rest on any merit in us.

Faith in Christ puts our hope exactly where it should be: in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The Bull’s-Eye Of The Gospel

The Bull’s-Eye Of The Gospel

There was a woman named Kathy who swiped credit cards in a cafeteria at the University of Virginia, where I used to teach. Everyone who ate there knew her, because she emanated enough kindness to cheer up even the most discouraged students. She had a Facebook fan group with over 1400 fans, and people would go to the cafeteria just to hear her comforting words. She always delivered.
Kathy was a hit because she tapped into the human need for a comforting word. People feel tired, ugly, stupid, and unwanted, and they want to hear something different than what they think about themselves or are told by others or culture.

Jesus gives a warm invitation to himself.

We are no different. We are all “weary and heavy laden.” Whether it’s job loss, illness, discouragement, loneliness, repeated sins, or memory of what’s been done to us, we all have things in the back or the front of our minds that add to our weariness and burdens. Then we read these amazing words of Jesus which are the bull’s-eye of the gospel:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. – Matt 11:28-30

“COME TO ME”

According to Jesus, it’s all about Jesus. He claims to be the center of all God’s revelation (Luke 24) and the source of ultimate rest and rescue. Notice the invitation, “Come to me.” He doesn’t just give advice and instruction; he doesn’t say, “Go try this principle.” Instead, he gives a warm invitation to himself.

Jesus’ invitation shows us the heart of God. God came to seek us out. In his book Training in Christianity, Søren Kierkegaard wrote:

He is the friend of sinners: When it is a question of a sinner, He does not merely stand still, open His arms and say, ‘Come here.’ No, he does not stand and wait, he goes forward to seek, as the shepherd searched for the lost sheep, as the woman searched for the lost coin. He has gone infinitely farther than any shepherd or any woman, He went the infinitely long way from being God to becoming man, and that way He went in search of sinners.

“ALL WHO LABOR AND ARE HEAVY LADEN”

God favors the weak and burdened, not the spiritually proud. Jesus embraces the meek and the broken—the ones who feel swamped with heavy burdens. It is no small thing that he spent so much time with those considered spiritual losers of his day.

Jesus invites all who are worn out and “carrying heavy burdens.” This last phrase is unique and only repeated in Matt 23:4—Pharisees “tie up heavy burdens… and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” Jesus is referring to a religion that was meant to honor God, but its effect was to condemn the ordinary person to hard labor.

Those who come to Jesus will find that his yoke is lighter, not because he demands less but because he bears the load for us.

Graceless religion sounds very pious and well-intentioned, but it grinds you down even further. Through the arbitrary demands of the super-religious, religion becomes even more of a burden on top of the burdens you already have. Jesus paints a picture of being under a huge weight that is crushing you—and then the religious people are jumping on your back and whipping you.

GRACELESS RELIGION

In the Bible, graceless religion is presented as an intolerable burden. Peter asked those who emphasized the law without the gospel, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10).

Everyone feels this sense of burden, whether it’s the legitimate burden of God’s law or burdens manufactured by yourself or other people. Jesus makes his invitation to all who are weary and burdened.

“I WILL GIVE YOU REST”

Jesus offers rest and relief to the broken and weighed-down. The image that should come to mind when Jesus says “weary and heavy laden” is of an exhausted slave worker, and when he says “I will give you rest,” it could best be translated as “relief.” When you feel the emotional and spiritual weariness of carrying a heavy burden, Jesus is not a slave driver, but the one who frees you from slavery and gives you relief.

Jesus talks about his “yoke” (v. 30) and contrasts it with the yoke of the Pharisees who heap burdens but don’t lift a finger to help. Jesus is the opposite. Those who come to Jesus will find that his yoke is lighter, not because he demands less but because he bears the load for us.

God favors the weak and burdened, not the spiritually proud.

A yoke was used for training cattle to plow. It was a wooden bar that fit around the head and on the shoulders. To train an ox, you’d put a strong experienced one on one side and then the younger ox on the other. The big ox would do all the pulling and work, while the young one strolled along, pulling off in various directions. This is what Jesus means. He straps the yoke to his neck and pushes it for us. He takes the yoke we are incapable of carrying, and then takes the whippings of the Law for us at the cross. Our burden is light because he takes the yoke that burdens us and does all the work.

The main way this rest applies to us is the forgiveness of our sins. We have rest in this life as we are forgiven of our sins, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1). And we will have eternal rest when God wipes every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain or weariness or heavy burdens.

So, come to Jesus, all you who are weary and burdened, and he will give you rest.

Why Jesus Wants You To Lose Hope

Why Jesus Wants You To Lose Hope

In Mark 10, a young rich man eagerly comes to Jesus. He is a winner who does not want to give up trying to win.

The good thing about him is that he has a desire for something more, something beyond worldly winning. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It is good to ask about eternal life, but his question reveals a deep flaw. You see, as Robert Capon notes, while he wants something more, he can’t imagine pursuing it in any other way than doing through more winning and striving. His question shows he believes there are techniques for inheriting eternal life.

 

BREAKING THE LAW

Jesus knows the man’s mindset. He responds, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” Jesus is showing him that the law can save no one because the law can be kept by no one. He’s bringing up the law so the young man will take an honest look at how unsuccessful he’s been at practicing the righteousness he thinks is the answer to his problems.

 

But instead of recognizing his shortcomings as measured by these basic commands, this guy cuts Jesus off with, “I’ve done all those things perfectly since I was a kid.” In effect what he’s saying is, “Why don’t you give me a harder, more grown-up spiritual assignment?”

 

And how does Jesus respond? This is good for us to see. After being cut-off and ignored, Jesus looks at him and loves him. That’s what he does to us.

 

Jesus loves us when we don’t get it, when we rebel, when we rely on our own selves and not him. He is the picture of perfect, patient love.

 

So, with patient love and cosmic understatement, Jesus presses the law even further. “You only have to do one simple little thing.” The man’s eyes widen with anticipation. “Sell all that you have and give to the poor . . . and follow me.”

 

Jesus has really just applied the first of the Ten Commandments to this rich guy: Worship no other gods but God. Serve nothing but God. Jesus is revealing to him how much he fails to fulfill the commandments because he worships his wealth so much and asking him to give it up.

 

Jesus does the same thing to us, too. It might not be riches, but it could be anything you love more than God. Your idol is whatever you rely on to justify your existence. This text is not really about wealth, but idolatry. We are all guilty of loving something more than God, so Jesus turns the law on us, too.

 

INTENSIFYING THE LAW

There is a reason we write about law and gospel so much: it’s because Jesus and the Apostle Paul talked and wrote about it so much. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus intensified the law when he took the Ten Commandments and told us, it is not just about our outward behavior. If you sin inwardly you have broken all of the law.

 

Then, in Matthew 22:37 he summarized the law with two prongs. He was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” He replied: “Love God with all your heart” (summarizing the first four commandments), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (summarizing the last six).

 

Jesus made the law even more dangerous and intense than it was in the Old Testament. He wasn’t just explaining an ethical code for his followers—he was freaking people out so they would know their need for a Savior.

 

This is what’s supposed to happen when we read: “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength . . . and love your neighbor as yourself.” That is the law pointing directly at us and asking us to give an account. Our response is not “Sure, that sounds easy and fun,” but instead “Lord have mercy on us!” We need mercy because we fail at those two things.

 

You don’t love God or your neighbor perfectly. That’s why you need a Savior.

THE LAW IS A MIRROR

You see, the law is a mirror. It reflects to us our problem, our condition, our need, and our death. The law is good because it shows us reality. When we look in the mirror, it says, “You need to shave or apply some make-up.” Like a mirror, the law shows us our problem, but it doesn’t fix our problem. The law cannot generate what it commands.

 

The correct response to understanding the perfect law of a perfect God is what the disciples say in Mark 10:26: “Who then can be saved?”

 

THE RESCUE

When applied to sin, the law curses us with judgment. In the presence of the law, only a holy substitute can save us, or else we leave in depression like the young man. Look at what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 7 and 8: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . 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” (Romans 7:24–8:3).

 

Jesus died on the cross in our place to take away our curse for breaking God’s law. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”

 

Because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, there is an answer to the disciples’ question, “Who then can be saved?” The good news comes when Jesus says, “With man [salvation] is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).

 

That’s the point of the law and the gospel: with us, salvation is impossible (law), but for God, everything is possible (gospel).It’s when we face the impossibility of doing anything to save ourselves that the gospel of Jesus floods in.