Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Picture of Law and Gospel

It seems like Christians love to argue about law and gospel. Does the law mean that we are still at risk of damnation when we sin, even if we believe in Jesus? Does the gospel mean that the law is obsolete? Do we need the law anymore? Should we still be concerned about sin, or should we just focus on loving each other? Are people confusing grace with a blank check to do whatever we want?

It all seems very complicated. We are, after all, both sinners and beloved children of God at the same time, and that's a hard thing to wrap one's head around. So I've decided to try to explain it (to the best of my understanding) with a diagram:
Imagine that the spiritual world—our true existence, so to speak—has two dimensions. Spiritual life is one and death is the other. Life is tied to righteousness and death is tied to sin. When God is telling his people to choose whether or not they will serve Him in the promised land, He declares, "See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction." (Deuteronomy 30:15) He tells the people that following Him leads to life, and rejecting Him (sin) leads to destruction. These two dimensions are separated by the law, which tells us how to choose righteousness and warns us to avoid sin.

God gives us life, and the law instructs us on how to keep it. However, none of us can keep the law perfectly. None of us can always please God and avoid sin. As much as we want life, sometimes we court death instead. We all have a reckless and rebellious streak in us. So when that happens, we end up "on the wrong side of the law", so to speak:

Uh-oh. This is not where we want to be. It doesn't feel at all good to be covered in sin, and what's worse sin is contagious—by hanging out on this dimension, we inevitably bring spiritual, emotional, and/or physical harm to ourselves and those around us. When our sin drags us over to the wrong dimension, we usually have one of three reactions:

  • Denial. We're not sinners. We haven't done anything wrong. That big wall labeled 'law' is all in our imagination, so how could we possibly be on the wrong side of it? Everything is fine, and this side of the spectrum is no different from the other side. This approach is bound to get us into trouble. Just because we say nothing is wrong doesn't mean nothing is wrong. Our sin will continue to pollute our lives and those around us until we face up to it.
  • Atonement. We try to climb back over the wall to the righteousness side by atoning for what we've done. Unfortunately, this doesn't really work. We aren't really capable of rescuing ourselves from our own sin, and our righteous deeds simply aren't going to erase the failures that dumped us over here in the first place. The sad fact is that law is a bit like a one-way door—it convicts us of our sins but has no power to pronounce parole for good behavior.
  • Repentance. This is the only real way to get back to the side of life. When we ask God to forgive us, the sin that sent us over here in the first place is erased, and voila:
 We're back on the side of life again! Of course, that forgiveness erases the act, but not all of the damage that act caused. We may still be hurt, and some other people may be too. But we are back on the side of life and on our way to recovery. We cannot get back across that wall on our own—we need God to carry us.

I hope that this diagram points out a few important truths:
  • This is not some tiresome exercise in legalism. This picture does not tell the story of an angry God who wants to punish us for breaking the law and crossing into the realm of sin. The truth is that God wants us to be on the side of life, and he teaches us righteousness because righteousness leads to life. It is the sin itself that harms us, and that is why God warns us so strenuously not to sin. If He wanted to, God could just leave us there to suffer, but He doesn't. The second we humbly ask Him to make things right, He accepts our apology and carries us back over to life.
  • The law serves a useful function, even for those who believe in grace. It's kind of a guidepost that helps us figure out where we are on the spectrum. Without the law, we may not realize it when we cross over into the bad land of sin and death. By pointing out what we've done wrong, the law reminds us that we need to get help to go back to where we want to be.
  • We don't want to be righteous just so we can be God's little 'A' students. We want to be righteous because we want to live. We want our souls to flourish and be healthy. We want to have joy. This spectrum should not be an exercise in pride. The fact is that we only ever made it to the side of righteousness in the first place because God put us there Himself, and on our own we'd be mired in the land of sin and death before the day is out. Every one of us. Even Mother Theresa would have been lost without God's mercy and forgiveness. None of us can stand in the land of the living by our own power.
So, really, I think law and gospel are partners. Neither one makes complete sense without the gospel. Law shows us where we are on the spectrum, and gospel helps us get to where we want to be. Without the law, how would we know that we need to move? We would never take advantage of the gospel if we didn't know we needed it. Without the gospel, the law is very depressing. We find ourselves in a dark land with no way to get out. But together, law and gospel provide us with the clarity and help we need to successfully navigate our faith.
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