There are two sure things in this present life: death and taxes. So, in our lives we know that we will always endure taxes; but, we also know that our death frees us from our taxes. Once we die, the IRS no longer has any hold over us (except I suppose, for estate taxes)
Paul in his letter to the church in Rome speaks of a similar issue (Romans 7:1-13). He says that God’s Law “is binding on a person only as long as he lives.” He uses the example of a woman who is bound to her husband in marriage; she is freed from that bond through the death of her husband.
Paul’s example is meant to call to mind the requirements that God’s Law makes upon us. God’s Law places demands upon us; it shows us His will for our lives. We are to love Him above all things and love our neighbors as ourselves; this summarizes the commandments He has given us.
And yet, through these demands, the Law also accuses it. We look at God’s Law and then we look at our own lives and we realize that we haven’t fulfilled the Law the way God intends; we are sinners. The Law is good, because it reflects God’s holy will for our lives, and yet it produces in us not righteousness, but sin. This is because the Law tells us what is good and right, but we see in our own lives the failure to do these things which are good and right. And so like a child whose desire for something only grows when you forbid it, our sinful nature is provoked by the Law into wanting to do the very things which the Law forbids.
But, God’s Law is good, because it is His Holy Will for our lives. As Lutherans often talk about three uses of God’s Law.
The first use is to maintain outward order in the world and to curb gross sin. All people have the Law, for God has written it on our hearts. This is what we call natural law. Thus, all people are without excuse, for God has given everyone His Law; the Law as given to Moses is simply a clearer exposition of this natural Law that God has written on our hearts. God has ordered the world around His Law, instituting civil authority in order to enforce and keep order. So, through His Law, God enforces order by giving civil authority the sword by which to keep that order.
The second use of the Law is to show us our sins, as a mirror by which we judge our thoughts, desires, and actions in light of God’s will for our lives. It is this use of the Law that convicts us of sin and shows us that we are sinners. Left to ourselves, we would judge our thoughts and actions by comparing them with the thoughts and actions of others. And so we could judge ourselves righteous because we have not murdered, have not committed adultery, and have not lied. We would be like the Pharisee who stood on the steps of the temple, boasting in his own works and judging those of a tax collector he saw, saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12).
But, God steps in with His Law to tell us that this is not good enough in His sight. For we have committed murder by hating others, we have committed adultery by lusting after another, and we have lied by engaging in gossip. The Law shows us that we have not truly loved the Lord God with all our heart, soul, and mind; for if we did, then we would not feel the need to hate, lust, gossip, steal, or kill. And so we have also not loved our neighbors as ourselves; we have loved ourselves above all things and love our neighbors in so far as they can be of benefit to us. So, God’s Law works as a mirror to show us our sinful nature. And this recognition of our sin drives us to seek salvation where it may be found; it drives us to exclaim as did the tax collector who felt his sins: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The Law is thus a servant to the Gospel, driving us to seek God’s grace through Christ.
And yet, although everyone has some innate knowledge of the Law, the Gospel must be revealed to us. The Gospel is foreign to what we would expect. Look at the reactions of people in our world to the understanding that they are sinful. Now, they may not understand sin as “sin” as such or as the rebellion against God’s holy will that it is, but they recognize the brokenness and pain in their lives that is caused by sin, even if they don’t understand that sin is the root cause of this pain and brokenness. They have a sense that things are not as they are meant to be.
But, in our sinful nature, we tend to look to our own works to be saved or to fix this brokenness and pain. That is why there are really only two religions in the world. There’s a religion of works, under which you could place Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Communism, Atheism, Evolutionism, or any other of the mishmash of “isms” that exist. These religions place the focus on where sinful humanity has always placed the focus to fix the ills of the world: on us, on humanity.
Adam and Eve in the garden ate the forbidden fruit because they wanted to know good and evil directly; they didn’t want to receive knowledge from God, they sought knowledge apart from God, and in so doing, they sought to be their own gods. And so, in this religion of works, humanity places its hopes in what it can do and in what it can accomplish. God, if He is even acknowledged, is turned into an idol who is expected to reward us for what we bring to him. The focus is turned inward on our spiritual development or our spiritual path. This is sin as man turned in on himself.
The other type of religion is a religion of God’s grace; this is what we as Lutherans, along with the rest of the apostolic Church, confess. The focus is on what God has done for us through Christ. The focus is back on receiving knowledge and all things from God; the revelation that He has forgiven us of our sins and restored our brokenness through Christ, this is the revelation of the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this religion of grace, humanity receives from the God who gives freely for the sake of Christ. He created us, He redeemed us, and He brings us to faith to reconcile us to Him. The focus is turned outward to gaze at the death of Christ and His resurrection; the cross and the empty tomb for our salvation.
And so we are freed from our sins through death, just as Paul noted. The Law kills us, it shows us that we are sinful and condemns us to death. But, through the death of Christ, we are freed from the reach of the Law. For through Baptism, we share in Christ’s death. We have died to the Law. And not only that, but we now live through Christ, we share in His resurrection. God has assigned us to Christ through Baptism and given us the benefits of his death and resurrection, which is eternal life with Him.
So, as Paul says, “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4). The Law no longer has any hold over you. You were once wed to sin and death, but now you – as the Church – are wed to Christ. And whereas before you bore the fruits of sin, which are dead works and eternal death, now you bear the fruits of Christ, which is a living faith that brings forth the works of Christ. As St. Paul wrote to the church in Galatia: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).
And this, then, brings us to the third use of the Law. You have died to the Law and are now alive in Christ. And you will bring forth good fruit. But, to where should you look as a guide for how you may live in the light of grace which God has freely bestowed upon you through Christ? What next?
This is where God Himself again steps in to answer your questions. He tells you not to seek answers in your own thoughts or ideas about what it means to be holy. He tells you that you are holy already through Christ, apart from any works of your own. For you have been set apart – this is what is means to be holy; you have been set apart for salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection that God has bestowed upon you when He baptized you. But, in response to God’s grace He has given you, if you wish to respond with the fruits of thanksgiving, look at His Law.
His Law shows you what pleases Him, it is His holy will for your lives:
- You shall have no other gods
- You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain
- You shall honor the sabbath and keep it holy
- You shall honor your father and mother
- You shall not kill
- You shall not commit adultery
- You shall not steal
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s house
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his servants, his cattle, nor anything that is his
I won’t go into detail on each on of these Ten Commandments now (Luther in the Small Catechism does an excellent job of that). But, these are the things that please God: loving Him with all your heart, soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. If you want to walk in the light of the grace you have received, then God calls you to look to Him for all good things and to live out your vocations in the world with conscientiousness and faithfulness. And remember always that God has given you salvation freely through Christ as you have been buried and raised with him. Amen.
(Image: Bible in Greek, Romans 1:1-7, [Papyrus, ca. 300-ca. 350 AD]. MS Gr SM2218, Houghton Library, Harvard University. By Unknown – Houghton Library at Harvard University, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35811455 ).