Serious Law and Gospel

Text: The Close of the Commandments

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Psalm 1, English Standard Version.

Psalm 1 is an anonymous psalm, though it could be by David. In either case, it was likely written well after the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. It speaks of the blessings that come to the one devoted to God’s Word and the curse that remains on those who hate it. In this, it could almost work as its own sermon on the Close of the Commandments.

What we know from the Catechism as the close or conclusion to the Commandments, in Scripture, is attached to the First Commandment. We would understand it correctly, though, if we understand that this Word of God stands true for each Commandment. The Lord is serious about the words He speaks to us; He will zealously punish those who hate Him and break His Law, but He will be even more gracious to those who love Him and seek to do His will.

I.

Let’s read the Close of the Commandments together. 

What does God say about all these commandments? He says: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” 

What does this mean? God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore, we should fear His wrath and not do anything against them. But He promises grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments. Therefore, we should also love and trust in Him and gladly do what He commands.

I think that Luther, in the text we just read, provides the simplest explanation for this passage. Our God is a jealous God. He Himself speaks this way, as we heard. But, when God says that He is a jealous God, He doesn’t mean it in the way we get jealous. When we think of that word we think of a sinful desire toward something or someone. There is a jealously, though, that can be a proper thing to have: What about the desire of a husband for the love and attention of his wife? Would we say that is a wrong desire to have? Say, if a husband refuses to share the love of his wife with anyone else? This is the type of jealous our God is. He is jealous for the love and affection of His bride, the Church. His glory He will not share with idols, nor the love that exists between Him and His people.

Jesus once said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mt. 19:6) Here, He was speaking about earthly marriage between a husband and wife, but it stands true, also, for the marriage between Christ and His bride. Sin – the breaking of the Commandments in thought, word, or deed – drives a wedge between husband and bride. This, our God will not abide. He commands us which things are good and right and true, and He will not abide deviations. To disobey His commands and disregard His Law is to be unfaithful to our heavenly bridegroom. To persist in sin is to hate God. And, to those who hate God, He reacts in kind. He allows them to remain in their sinful hatred and receive the punishment for their sins. If the children hate God like their parents, the judgment continues upon them. Our God is a jealous God, and He is serious when He says He will punish those who break His Commandments.

II.

However, as eager as God is for us, His bride, and as seriously He will punish those who drive a wedge between us – so much more will He show His grace and mercy to those who love Him. Our God is not just a jealous God who punishes, but one who also blesses beyond what we can ever expect or imagine. He does not delight in punishing, but in showing steadfast love to those who fear Him. He shows that love to us. He showed it to us by sending us His Word of truth. He showed it to us by the sacrifice of His Son. He shows it to us now by forgiving us our sins.

The Law was not given so that, by it, we might earn our way to heaven. Instead, it was given so that we might learn our need for forgiveness. It was given so that we might be brought to confess our sins and look to Christ. Those who look to Him in faith are not put to shame. Instead, for as many sins as we have committed there is twice the forgiveness. That’s what the Lord said back in Advent. Remember: “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Is. 40:1-2) Now, our God doesn’t punish double; He forgives double. Such forgiveness, we have received.

It is true that our God punishes the sins of those who hate Him, who impenitently persist in their sin until death. But His delight is in showing mercy. To those who repent and trust in Christ – the Lord’s love, mercy, grace, and blessings know no bound. Such do we receive. How then do we respond to this love? In thankful obedience to our Lord’s commands. For those who trust in Christ, these Commandments are not a burden, but good instructions for how we are to love God and our neighbor, and we want to do them. True, they do continue to show us our sin and we will not keep them perfectly while we are in this flesh; But we learn from them to look to Christ and, as God says, He shows His steadfast love to a thousand generations of those who love Him.

Let us pray:

Holy and merciful God, You have taught us what You would have us do and not do. Pour out Your Holy Spirit on us so that He may bear fruit in our lives and that, remembering Your mercies and Your laws, we may grow in obedience to Your will and in love for You and our neighbor. Help us to follow the example of Your dear Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, in whose name we pray. Amen.

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