Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Law and Gospel

Law and Gospel (May/June 2003: "Good News: The Gospel for Christians")When God gives orders and tells us what will happen if we fail to obey those orders perfectly, that is in the category of what the reformers, following the biblical text, called law. When God promises freely, providing for us because of Christ's righteousness the status he demands of us, this is in the category of gospel. It is good news from start to finish. The Bible includes both, and the reformers were agreed that the Scriptures taught clearly that the law, whether Old or New Testament commands, was not eliminated for the believer (those from a Dispensational background may notice a difference here). Nevertheless, they insisted that nothing in this category of law could be a means of justification or acceptance before a holy God. The law comes, not to reform the sinner nor to show him or her the "narrow way" to life, but to crush the sinner's hopes of escaping God's wrath through personal effort or even cooperation. All of our righteousness must come from someone else-someone who has fulfilled the law's demands. Only after we have been stripped of our "filthy rags" of righteousness (Isa. 64:6)-our fig leaves through which we try in vain to hide our guilt and shame-can we be clothed with Christ's righteousness. First comes the law to proclaim judgment and death, then the gospel to proclaim justification and life. One of the clearest presentations of this motif is found in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. In the sixteenth century, the issue of law and grace was more clearly dealt with than at almost any other time since the apostles. The lines were cut cleanly, and as the great Yale historian Roland Bainton rightly noted in his biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand, it was the only real issue of the century.

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