by Rev. Charles Schaum
We’ve all heard of Law and Gospel. But how does that help us understand our relationship to Christ, the cross and each other?
Why do people read the Bible? Some read it for the inspirational accounts of Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and his family, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Ruth, David, Solomon, Esther, Jesus, Paul, the various Marys of the New Testament and others. Are these just goodstories like any other human story, or is there more to them?
Others read the Bible to find out what sort of statutes, commands, judgments and guidelines God established to set us on the path of right belief and right living. They see examples in the figures mentioned above that lead them to be better and do better. Yet, after all is said and done, does such an approach really get them closer to God? Are they left wondering how He might be inclined to them?
Christ the Judge
Those who are seasoned enough in years to remember Laugh-In and Hee Haw will recall the shtick routine that spoofed normal court etiquette. As is often the case with humor, however, its ability to be funny depends on the seriousness of the real thing. In the Middle Ages, no one was laughing. God, the holy and perfect Judge, would return in righteousness to judge the living and the dead. The result of His judgment would be either eternal life or everlasting death. Building on Jewish mysticism that had existed from a couple of centuries before the time of Jesus, the idea of payment for sins in the afterlife and a bridge from torment to blessedness took shape. This turned into the teaching about purgatory.
The Crusades, a Christian military response to the military and religious advances of Islamic jihad, provided a new dimension to this teaching by allowing people to buy forgiveness in this life. Their money would fund monasteries, churches, the holy war and the cause of God. This soon made the church richer and more corrupt than ever. But still, human attempts to reach heaven failed.
Christ the Savior
The answer of Martin Luther to this complicated mess of bad human behavior and false righteousness echoes that of Scripture when it says that God’s Word does not merely float out there as an example or as a guide. It seeks you out, and it drives into your deepest heart—and then it kills you.
Yes, you have to die to sin. You have to feel the cross utterly crush you, make you despair of any attempt you might try to please God. This is more than just a matter of your own feelings. All our sins were put on Jesus and hung on a cross 2,000 years ago, along with everyone else’s. You participated in Christ’s death just as much as you participated in Adam’s fall.
You have a relationship with Christ and the cross. That relationship will kill you, either in Baptism or at your death and judgment. Yet, when Christ pours out His grace on you through Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper, that body, that blood, that holy name, that risen and exalted Lord make you so alive that you can never die again. Even if you depart your body, God has a real and certain way of putting all of you back together forever, whole, sinless and so full of joy and peace that even the sad things of this life will become blessings.
Scripture wasn’t written in a vacuum. It comes from the Father. It is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Its central theme is the Person and work of Jesus Christ (John 5:36–40; 1 Peter 1:21; Luke 24:26–27, 44–49). In these three statements, God is active and at work. This action works through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It goes beyond feeling good and right living to Jesus, the Source of all goodness and love. And He is there for you. That is why Law and Gospel shape how we read and apply the Bible, and that is why we study Scripture.
Life: then and now
Jesus did not heal people to be famous, as in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Yet, the Gospels record more miracles than any other Bible books. With Jesus comes a foretaste of eternal life. Through Jesus, the kingdom of God is at hand. Peter and Paul followed mightily with the other apostles after Jesus, and the Kingdom grew. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God’s kingdom will come in us. As it does, we become so rich that our goods and even are lives become easy to spend for God because we know He will restore everything and more.
Law and Gospel open up avenues of reward and sacrifice for families and individuals that allow God’s kingdom to come into us for the salvation of others. Even as we groan with the church on earth, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
About the Author: Rev. Charles Schaum is editor of professional and academic books at Concordia Publishing House.
“One-third of Americans today believe the Bible is absolutely accurate” (2007 Gallup).
19 percent of Americans say the Bible is “a book of ancient fables, legends, and history as recorded by man” (2007 Gallup).