Law and Gospel. If you have been around the Lutheran church for any length of time, you are very familiar with this phrase. No doubt, you have heard it repeated, again and again. This is especially true in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.
Near the end of his life C.F.W. Walther, the first president of the LCMS, gave a series of evening lectures about preaching to the students at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. They were compiled into a book that bears the title, “The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel” – but everyone just calls it “Law and Gospel.” This book has had an enormous impact on preaching in our synod to this very day.
Law and Gospel is an important insight that finds its source in Martin Luther during the Reformation. It is the recognition that all of Scripture can be divided into Law – those things that we are to do; and Gospel – what God has done for us in Jesus Christ to give us forgiveness and salvation.
Simply stated: The law shows us our sin. We see what our life should be like, and we discover that we fail in thought, word and deed. The law leads us to repentance as we confess our sin. That is its proper work. This serves as preparation so that we can then receive the Gospel in faith through which we have forgiveness and life. Law comes first as it prepares us for the Gospel.
Our text this morning is Exodus chapter 20 in which God gives the Ten Commandments to Israel at Mt Sinai. Now the Ten Commandments are obviously the preeminent example of law. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther rearranged the traditional order of the chief parts so that now the Ten Commandments come first because they are law, and the Creed comes second because it is Gospel.
Yet a look at our text immediately confronts us with something very puzzling. It states in the first two verses that introduce the Ten Commandments: “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’” That, my friends, is a statement of pure Gospel.
The Exodus is the great Gospel event of the Old Testament. God was in the process of taking Israel to be his own as he entered into a covenant with them. He declared that he was their God. He had chosen them – not because they were the biggest or the best; far from it. Instead he chose a people who were slaves and then freed them. Through the mighty events of the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea he had rescued them from Egypt. The Creator of the universe had saved them.
Only after saying this does Yahweh go on to state the Ten Commandments. So in Exodus 20, things move from … Gospel to Law. What’s going on here? Do we Lutherans have it all wrong?
Our text certainly does move from Gospel to Law. And while no, the Lutherans aren’t wrong, this fact does teach us some important things about the Law. For starters, the Law is a great blessing. It has been given to us by our Gospel God and it describes how we live as the people God has made us to be – his people. It describes how we live in response to his grace and mercy.
This law is a tremendous blessing. God is indeed the Creator of all things. He is the One who ordered this creation and set it up to work in certain ways. Life will always go best if we live in ways that follow this ordering. And God has not left us to wonder about what this ordering is. He has set it down for us in writing in the Ten Commandments, and then further explained what they mean in the words of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, and in Scriptures his Holy Spirit inspired.
The Ten Commandments are indeed a “how to” guide for a good life. So, God comes first. You call upon him in times of need, and praise and thank him always. You receive his Means of Grace. And then in your life with others you honor your parents and other authorities, even as fulfill these vocations into which God has placed you. You help your neighbor in every physical need. You love and support your spouse and remain faithful. You help your neighbors preserve their possessions and reputation. You live lives that are content as you focus on the great blessings God has given to you.
This ordering is true no matter whether a person believes in God or not. This ordering is, in fact, eternally true. You can never “move beyond them,” and any society that does will experience pain and dysfunction. We know, of course, that this is what our world is doing. In particular, we see this in relation to the Fifth and Sixth commandments. Abortion has killed 60 million babies in our nation since 1973 and it has brought pain to the lives of the women and men it has touched. Sex is viewed as something to be used in any way you want. Divorce is just part of life, and marriage between two men or two women is the law of the land.
It is indeed a sinful, fallen world. And so if you choose to resist and oppose these perversions of God’s ordering, you will experience difficulties. You will be told that you are part of a “war on women” because you speak for the unborn. The world will tell you that you are weird for not having sex outside of marriage and the person you are dating is likely to pressure you to have sex. You will be labeled “homophobic” for saying that homosexuality is wrong, and that marriage can only occur between and man and a woman.
Yet the impact of the Fall and sin is not limited to those things outside of you. Yes the Ten Commandments describe God’s ordering of creation. Yes they describe how to live life well. The problem, is that much of the time, you don’t do it. In thought, word and deed you don’t put God first. You don’t call upon and praise him as you should. You don’t use and cherish the Means of Grace the way you focus on other things like sport and hobbies. You don’t obey your parents, and you don’t do all the things you should as a parent to raise your children in the faith. You ignore your neighbor’s need because it would take time from what you want to do. You have sex outside of marriage and pursue lustful thoughts through pornography. You don’t protect your neighbor’s possessions. You gossip, and enjoy sharing and hearing news that makes your neighbor look bad.
So yes, the law accuses you. It shows you your sin. It doesn’t only do this in a general kind of way, but it reveals that very specific thoughts, words and actions are sinful before God. And the “before God” part here is key, because he always gets the last word. The world can tell itself that there is no God, no sin, no judgment – you know better. You know that your sin cuts you off from the holy God and brings judgment and eternal damnation.
Yes, Luther and the Lutherans are right. The law in its proper work shows you your sin. It prompts confession and repentance. But it does so to lead you to the good news of the Gospel. In our text we hear: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” After Yahweh had brought Israel through the Red Sea, Moses and the people sang a song which said, “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed.”
The word “redeem” means to free from slavery. The New Testament has taken this word an applied it to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. St. Paul told the Galatians, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” How did he do this? Paul said in the previous chapter, “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.”
The law says, “Do this.” It says, “Do this, all the time, every time or you will receive the curse of God’s judgment.” Because we are sinners who deserve this judgment, Jesus Christ received it in our place. He received our judgment as he died on the cross and then rose from the dead. By doing this he redeemed you. He freed you from the slavery of sin and death.
Christ did this for you. He the righteous and holy One received your sin and punishment. He did this in order to give you his righteousness and holiness. Paul told the Galatians, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” When you were baptized, you put on Jesus and his righteousness. Now when God looks at you, he does not see your sin. He sees what Jesus has won for you – what he has made you to be.
This is Gospel. But this Gospel brings us back to the Law. Through the word of the Gospel the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead has made you a new creation in Christ. The One who created faith in you now prompts your faith to act in love. In fact St. Paul told the Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”
We don’t, like the medieval church, invent ways to be pious. We don’t create works to do, because these always end up being self-serving. Instead, in his ordering of creation, God has given us the things to do. They are things that reflect his will. They are things that help others.
Christ has redeemed you. So, teach your children the faith, and obey your parents without complaining. Christ has redeemed you. So, use our resources to help those in need. Christ has redeemed you. So, help and support your spouse in the things he or she has to do. Christ has redeemed you. So, don’t take things at work and help to preserve property and possessions in all settings. Christ has redeemed you. So, speak in defense of other people and shut down gossip by saying that you don’t listen to that stuff. Christ has redeemed you. So, rejoice and give thanks for the many blessings God has given to you.
The Lutheran are right. The most important movement is from Law to Gospel for in that way God keeps us as repentant, forgiven sinners who are in Christ and ready for the Last Day. But the life of faith also moves from Gospel to Law. The work of the Spirit through faith in Christ leads us to love and serve in the way God ordered things. Gospel moves us to seek to live the best life which God has set forth in the Law.