The Law and the Gospel

Text: Matthew 22:34-46

In our Christian Book of Concord, the Lutheran confessors write, 

The distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a particularly brilliant light. It serves the purpose of rightly dividing God’s Word and properly explaining and understanding the Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles. We must guard this distinction with special care, so that these two doctrines may not be mixed with each other, or a law be made out of the Gospel. (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration Article V, paragraph 1) 

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration. Article V, paragraph 1.
An public domain copy of the Book of Concord can be found here: http://bookofconcord.org/sd-lawandgospel.php#para1

They wrote this because, after Luther’s death in 1546, there was confusion about how God’s Word should be preached, particularly in congregational settings. Some pastors were saying that people should be taught to repent of their sins by contemplating Christ’s death and resurrection. Others maintained, correctly and with Luther, that repentance comes through the preaching of the Law, while faith and the forgiveness of sins comes through the preaching of the Gospel. In the Book of Concord, the Church confesses that there is a difference between the Law and the Gospel and, in this, we follow the pattern of our Lord.

The Gospel today gives us an opportunity to speak this way because we heard our Lord giving a masterclass in preaching the Law and the Gospel. Even yet in the temple during Holy Week, even then, He desired that His opponents would repent and believe in Him, and so receive the forgiveness of their sins. Therefore, He preached the Law to them – that God demands absolute love for Him and neighbor. Then, He preached the Gospel – that the son of David is also the Son of God, come to put the enemies of sin and death beneath His feet. Our Lord preaches both Law and Gospel so that we would rightly know and lament the depth of our sin, and so that we would also know the greatness of His love for us.

I.

The underlying question the Pharisees and lawyers had for our Lord was how to interpret the Scriptures. The setting of our Gospel text this week is the temple in Jerusalem during the last week of our Lord’s earthly ministry. During Holy Week, Jesus would lodge at Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ place and teach in the temple during the day. The question for our Lord today is the third question posed to Him, each an attempt to trip our Lord up and cause Him to blaspheme. They should’ve known better by now. But, the question behind their question was, as we said, how to interpret the Scriptures. Should the Scriptures be interpreted simply as a rule book for us to follow and thereby merit eternal life – as some of our Lord’s opponents held – or is something else going on? In His response to their question, and in the question He gave them, our Lord shows us how to interpret the Scriptures: by first recognizing the difference between the Law and the Gospel.

But, what is the Law; and what is the Gospel? Let’s see if we can stretch our minds back to our confirmation days. When we say “The Law,” we mean those passages in Scripture where our God tells us how we are to live, what we are to do and not do. When we say, “The Gospel,” we mean those passages in Scripture that speak of Christ and His work for us, such as His keeping of the Law for us and His death on our behalf, as the payment for our breaking of the Law. St. Paul teaches us that the purpose of the Law is to make sin known and lead to repentance while, through the preaching of the Gospel, faith is created and forgiveness is received. We maintain this distinction because, if we take away the preaching of Christ’s cross and leave only the Ten Commandments, we lead people only to despair. If we preach only the death and resurrection of Christ but leave out the Law, then we remove the reason why Christ died and our need for salvation in the first place. This, in a very short time, is what we mean by the Law and the Gospel. But, what does preaching the Law and the Gospel look like in practice, in real life? Let’s turn to our Lord’s preaching in the temple.

II.

The Holy Spirit records for us through St. Matthew that, “when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question to test Him, ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’” (Matthew 22:34-36, English Standard Version) Remember, we’re in the temple during Holy Week and Jesus’ opponents are crowding around Him. They ask Him, more or less, which is the greatest commandment in the Old Testament. Apparently, historically-speaking, this was the sort of conversation people would have, and the usual response would be what our Lord did say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Mt. 24:37) The greatest and first commandment is that we fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Now, here, Jesus preaches the Law. He said to them, “A second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (v. 39) 

We hear elsewhere that the Pharisees were lovers of money. They were also lovers of being honored and respected by the public. They were lovers of loving those who loved them, but not so much of loving everyone. And, so, Jesus rightly pointed out that God does not only demand absolute love for Him, but also absolute love for everyone whom He places in our earthly lives. In fact, the whole second table of the Commandments is directed toward that end. By doing this, Jesus preached the Law to Pharisees to point out that they were, in fact, sinners in need of salvation. However, we should also hear this preaching of the Law ourselves. The Scriptures say that the “word of our God will stand forever” (Is. 40:8), and that includes both the Gospel and the Law.

God, in His Law, demands perfection. He demands that we, truly and with our whole being, love Him alone and above all things. There is no equivocation, there is no wiggle room. He will not tolerate anything to take His place. And yet, we cast His Law aside and throw it away from us. We neither study His Word or hold it in our hearts. We consider it a burden to be well-versed in Christian doctrine and live accordingly. In our homes, our televisions and stuff feature prominently while Bibles gather dust or are absent. We trust in our retirement investments to provide for us old age more than God. Just as God commands absolute love for Him, He also demands that we love our neighbor – every neighbor. Yet, we ignore that, too, as we all have in the past or do now hold grudges in our hearts. The same Law preached to the Pharisees should also weigh heavy on our hearts. They were no deeper into sin than we are now.

III.

Do you feel that? That sinking, heavy feeling in your chest? You’re supposed to feel that; it’s evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in your heart. The Lord has just shown us through the Law, how wicked we are. We don’t love God like we’re supposed to, and we don’t love our neighbors as we’re supposed to, either. God commands and we disobey, and that often on purpose. The punishment for this is death and eternal condemnation. This is what the Law does. The preaching of the Law shows our sins. It does this so that we can then hear this: Jesus Christ died for your sins. He knows how you only half-heartedly love God and how you have gossiped and hated your neighbor. He knows you have not treasured God’s Word as pricest of all jewels and that you have grown bored of hearing sermons preached. He knows these things, and all the things you have ever done, and He died for you. He died so that you might hear these words and believe. By His death He paid for your sins, by His resurrection He restores to you eternal life. If you believe these words, you have exactly what He says.

This is all because Jesus is not just David’s son according to the flesh but, as our Lord pointed out, He is “David’s Lord.” (v. 43) Jesus pointed out for the Pharisees and us that the son promised to David would be the same offspring promised to Abraham, the same promised to Adam and Eve, the Son of God Himself. His would be no mere earthly kingship, but a heavenly one filled with truth, righteousness, and love. This what our Lord established by His death and resurrection. He brings us into His reign by Baptism and by faith. Through these things, He gives to us the forgiveness which He won for us and the eternal life He purchased for us poor sinners. This is what we mean by the Gospel. Jesus Christ knew your sin and shame, took it Himself all the same, nailed it to the cross in His own flesh and made payment for it. The forgiveness which He earned, He gives to you as a gift through faith.

These two things must always be preached in the Christian Church, the Law and the Gospel. Our Lord did it there in the temple, as we heard, and He does here, now. By His Law, He shows us which things are right and good – and which we fail to do and so deserve eternal condemnation. By His Gospel, He teaches us that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, because those who are in Him are rescued from sin and hell. Let us give thanks to God that He has preserved this teaching among us this far and pray that we would be granted to confess the same in our lives and conversations. Amen.

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