Tuesday, May 31, 2011
The Law that guides as well as curbs and convicts...
Ask just about anyone and they will say instinctively: The Law is bad and the Gospel is good. We have done a very good job teaching this. Lutherans are pretty comfortable with the Law curbing in the sin of the sidewalk and roadway and, though we don't like it, with the Law as a finger pointed at us to show us our sin. The problem is that there were three images of the Law's use: Curb, Mirror, and Guide. It is the last one we are not so comfortable with – the Law as guide to holiness. It is what we call the third use of the Law. We know where we stand when it comes to justification but we are not as comfortable speaking of sanctification.
Today Jesus speaks of the Spirit who will change our whole perspective on the Law, teaching us to desire what it says and to seek its path of goodness and holiness for our daily lives. What changes is that in Christ we no longer are motivated by the fear of its punishment but rather the new desire of faith, the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit moves us to desire what we feared from the Law and equips us to begin to keep out of desire what the Law had threatened us into doing. These words could only be spoken in view of His death and resurrection and in light of the promise of the Holy Spirit.
Though it might seem that Scripture is clear, the Church has often fallen victim to several errors with respect to the Law. The first is legalism. This is when the Gospel is overshadowed by the Law and faith becomes a religion of rules and demands. Here the Gospel of forgiveness becomes a safety net or back up plan to the Law's demand that we do right. Here our motivation is the same in or outside of Christ – fear of getting caught and fear of getting punished. Here rules and rule keeping become that shape of Christian life and piety – shaped more by what we cannot or should not do than what we were set apart in Christ and set free to do. This is the old time religion. The Law has us under our thumb like the fidgety child held in check by the strong arms of his father.
The opposite is equally as bad. Antinomianism is a religion without any rules and without any conscience. The anti-Law perspective insists that Christ has set us free – free to do and be whatever we want. This is like the kid who no longer is controlled by his parents and now heads to college to indulge in every forbidden pleasure without any regret or fear. Here the Law is replaced with freedom or licence to do what we please and this perspective assumes whatever we please is good. This is what is happening in too many churches today when they refuse to say no to any fleshly desire. Here is where nothing is wrong except the denial of what you want or the idea that you should sacrifice your desires for a higher cause.
The third use of the Law is the Law as God's Word or guide – to show us what is good and right and true and holy. It is the same old word and Law but we are not the same old people. In Christ, we stand as not only the forgiven but the ones God has declared holy and in whom God has placed His Spirit to transform us mind and heart. What we once thought we wanted, we no longer want. The old flesh is no longer in charge. The new person created in baptism both desires and seeks what is good, holy, and right.
Hearts have been changed by the Spirit to desire to walk in the Spirit – that is to walk in the path of Christ. Our minds once considered the Word of God foreign and alien to us. They saw God as imposing His will upon us. Now in Christ, we recognize that God's will is good and gracious, that the Law also serves as a guide to this good and gracious will, and that what we want is what God wills. This is the perspective known only by faith. It is like the teenager who thinks his parents stupid until he grows up and his own child is laid in his arms – suddenly the perspective has changed and his parents have become the wisest people he has ever known.
Keeping the commandments is no longer an act of fear – fearing both getting caught by them and fear of getting punished for breaking them. Now keeping the commandments is the fruit of the Spirit at work in us and the desire of new hearts recreated in the waters of baptism for these new desires.
Legalism was once dominant – both in a Judaism that had been blind to the grace of God and in a Protestant Christianity that was more a religion of rules than the domain of Christ's love. In this kind of Christianity, believers wanted what they should not do and lived in the grip of guilt. Antinomianism or the refusal of the Law is now ascending and has begun to dominate Protestant Christianity today. God wants you to be happy and the only that wrong is that which prevents your happiness. In this, there are no rights or wrongs, if you desire it or it feels good, you are freed to do it.
The third use of the Law begins not with the commandments but with YOU. You are not who you were. In Christ you are died and rose a new person. You are not who you were but the Spirit has worked in you by baptism and faith. What was once required of you has become the delight of your heart. What was once obtained from you by fear and guilt, now you seek in joyful response to what God has done for you in Christ. The Law is the same Law – what has changed is YOU. You are different. Transformed by the Spirit and made new in baptism, you have learned to love them, to desire what is good and right and true, and now set free from your bondage, Christ works in you to keep them. Our prayer is that our Lord may teach us to love what He desires and to desire what He loves and to keep His Law in holy and upright lives.
We are a religion not of rules that must be kept but of the Word which not only convicts us of our sin but guides us to what which is good and right and true. We are not a religion of rules that fence us in but of the Word that guides us to what honors the Lord and leads us into joy and contentment. In a day when our nation's heritage is tested by our failure to share a common morality and our Christianity is tempted to believe that happiness is the highest goal, this is a word we need to hear. If you love me, says Jesus, you will keep my commandments... Amen