In our text for this morning, the Epistle lesson, Paul gives us a lesson to help us get a fuller understanding of the proper distinction between the Law and its purpose and the Gospel and its purpose. Paul begins with the Law and its purpose, we read, “19Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (v. 19-20). According to Paul the Law serves the following purposes. One of the purposes of the Law is to silence us. The Law is to keep us from bragging or boasting about our good works, or what we think are our good works. After all, it is hard to brag when all you have to brag about is how you are responsible for the death of someone, especially when that someone is your own God.
Another purpose of the Law is to show us that we are accountable. Through the Law we understand the we are responsible for ourselves. Does this ever smack right in the face of our society today?! How often do we read or hear about people who have won lawsuits for their own negligence, if not out right stating at least implying that they are not responsible for themselves. The most famous case was the lady who spilled the hot coffee on herself. Other examples include the guy who road his bicycle at night wearing dark clothes and without any lights and sued because he was hit by a car. Of late we have heard about the young man who wanted to sue the fast food industry because he was obese. We could spend a lot of time discussing how we do not like to be held accountable for our actions in this country, yet, we do not want anyone telling us we cannot do whatever we want to do. In our text, Paul tells us that God, through the Law, reminds us the we are accountable, He will hold us, each one of us, personally responsible for breaking the Law.
Which brings us to one more stated purpose of the Law, that is that the Law is given to show us our sins. One quick check of our actions against the ten commandments will suffice. I will be quick and brief, but I just want you to get the idea. Have you ever placed your hope in yourself or the things of this world, misused God’s name, neglected not only to be in church, but to hear and do according to what God says in His Word? Have you ever disobeyed anyone in authority over you, thought hateful thoughts, called someone a name or hurt them in any way, lusted after another person, thought about stealing, borrowed without returning, committed vandalism, said anything bad about someone, even if it was true, thought you wanted something so bad you would steal for it, have been discontent with your circumstances or possessions? If you have done any one of these things, then you have broken, not one but, all the commandments. Ouch! And our punishment was to be death, eternal, spiritual death.
Thanks be to God that Paul did not stop with the Law. Our text continues with the Gospel and its purpose, we continue reading, “21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (v. 21-22a). Here I must say we do not count the number of purposes of the Gospel. When it comes to God’s gifts, especially His gift of the Gospel, we are reminded that God gives the whole lot of His gifts and He gives a whole lot more. I know I have said this before, at least I have mentioned it in Bible Class, but the fact of the matter is that God does not do fractions, that is God does not do math. God does not give us some of His gifts now and some later. He gives us all His gifts now and even more of them later. One of the purposes of the Gospel, then, is to bring us righteousness, which comes from God. Our righteousness, our right standing before God, does not come from within ourselves, it is not a self-righteousness, rather it comes from outside of us, it comes from God. Think about it this way, would you rather be self-righteous according to your standard of righteousness which might not cut it before God, or would you rather be righteous according to the standard of the person who is judging your righteousness?
Another purpose of the Gospel is to make our righteousness known to us and that is done through the Law and the Prophets. Here the Law and the Prophets are the whole Bible and it is through the whole Bible that God makes His righteousness known to us. We might say it this way, the Bible is one of the means that God has of giving us His righteousness.
Another purpose of the Gospel is to show us that our righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. Here we are reminded of the importance of our faith. But let us not misunderstand faith. We must recognize that faith is not something we do. Although the Gospel continually speaks of the necessity of faith, it does not do so in the sense of demanding faith as a good work, rather it does so in the sense of an invitation extended to all people to be given the promises of God. Notice that I did not say receive. I believe there is a subtle difference in the wording of “receiving” and “being given to.” To say that we “receive” from God, very subtly implies that we are doing something. Whereas, to say that we “are given to” by God takes all the onus off of us and puts it entirely on God as the giver and makes us the passive ones who are being given to. Remember, the whole value of faith lies not in who has faith, but in the object or basis of faith. Faith in self earns hell. Faith in Jesus and His work on the cross alone earns heaven.
Moving on in our text Paul tells us how the Law and Gospel work together, we read, “For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (v. 22b-26). The Law shows how we have completely failed, that we have fallen short of the glory of God. The Law shows us our complete damnation. The Law does not save, it does not move us to anything but despair, or it leads to self-righteousness, which is why we never want to hear the Law by itself. This is what Dr. Luther was trying to reform in the church of his day. There was a confusion of Law and Gospel, such that one was taught that forgiveness could be earned and even must be earned, or it could be purchased for a price, namely for a certain amount of money. Anytime it is stated or even implied that there is anything we need to do or even can do to pay for some or any of our sins, we are simply saying that Jesus’ work on the cross was not sufficient for our sins. Again, this is what Dr. Luther was trying to reform.
The Gospel shows how God freely lifts us up and makes us one with Himself. The Gospel shows us our complete salvation. The Gospel saves and moves us to do good works to the glory of God. However, the Gospel must never be heard by itself either, for if we hear the Gospel without the Law then it becomes worthless. Think about it this way, if we do not hear the Law, if we do not know that we sin, then why would we need a Savior, thus the Gospel is worthless. If we are taught and told over and over again how we are good people and how we can be good people, then why would we need a Savior. Our hearing, which comes from the Word of God, must reflect that Word which proclaims Law and Gospel. It must also reflect God’s Word, such as the words of the Close of the Commandments, which show us that God’s Law is but for three or four generations, whereas His Gospel is for thousands of generations. Always the greater emphasis on the Gospel.
The Law and the Gospel work together to show us the importance of Jesus’ atonement, or at-one-with Himself sacrifice. Jesus died for all sins of all people of all time. Our text calls them those sins committed beforehand unpunished. This reference is to the sins of the people before Jesus came. Their sins were literally unpunished until Jesus came to the cross. Their sins were punished in Jesus on the cross, as were our sins and the sins of all people of all times and all places.
All of this, the Law and the Gospel are meant to show God’s justice. When we talk about the word justice we do mean a legal act on the part of God, by which He places in us, makes us possessors of, a rightness which was not ours, which we did not earn, which we do not deserve, which we did not merit. In other words, we do not receive what we deserve, eternal damnation in hell, rather we receive what Christ has deserved for us. In our world today we might just say, praise the Lord that we do not get what we are entitled, hell. Rather we get what Christ is entitled, life in heaven.
Finally, Paul tells us how we are to respond to God’s gift of Law and Gospel. Yes, even Paul, in good Lutheran fashion, answers the question, “What does this mean?” We read,“27Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (v. 27-28). Paul begins by reminding us that we are to respond to the Law and Gospel by humbly being given the gifts God has to give to us. We are not to boast which includes holding anything back from the Lord as if we have any part in obtaining the gifts that He has to give to us, in other words, thinking we are doing God a favor by coming to worship and Bible class, thinking we are doing God a favor by putting some of our earnings into the offering plate, thinking we are somebody because we are members of St. Matthew Lutheran church, especially if we are members in name only and do not take part in the whole life of the church, or simply thinking more highly of ourselves rather than thinking of ourselves as servants of the Lord.
Paul reminds us that we are to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. All of our offerings, all of our good deeds, all of our prayers, all of our time, all of our anything will not save us. Only all of Jesus’ work on the cross will save us. How true, how humbling, and how wonderful! Jesus did it all, for us, because of His great love for us.
Paul, then, reminds us that our response to the Law and the Gospel is to humbly give thanks to God with our fruits of the spirit. We are given God’s gifts and show that we have been given His gifts by our actions, by our living in peace, in joy, in patience, and so on. We are given the gifts from God by boasting only in the cross of Christ, recognizing that we are justified, are made right before God and have access to heaven by faith apart from our observing the law.
Reformation Day is an important day, not because of some man named Dr. Martin Luther, but because of God’s work through this man and because of His work through the means of grace, through the Word and the Sacraments, through which He daily and richly works to strengthen us in our faith, to remind us of our forgiveness and to remind us of our salvation. To God be the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.