When you think of Jesus' teaching, themes like grace, love, and forgiveness probably pop into your mind. You might think of heart-warming parables like The Prodigal Son or Jesus' promise to give rest to all who come to Him (Mt 11:28). But then you run across passages where Jesus says you cannot follow Him unless you carry a cross and hate your children (Lk 14:26-27).
Uh . . . what?
Read the red letters of your Bible and you will find stories of unprecedented grace. But you will also find harsh and shocking declarations of law. So, how do we make sense of this? Is Jesus double-minded?
What Law Did Jesus Preach?
Jesus preached the moral law that God gave to Moses, which includes the Ten Commandments. When religious people came to trap Him with theological puzzles, Jesus responded: “What did Moses command you?” (Mk 10:3). If someone asked, “What is the greatest commandment,” Jesus provided an answer from Moses' law (Mt 22:36-40).
But it's important to note that Jesus ramped up Moses' law to include not only outward actions of the body, but inward intentions of the heart (Mt 5:27-48). According to Jesus, you must obey the law and do it with the right motivation. You can't just act like you love your neighbor, you can't just be loving toward them, you have to actually love them.
Since law-teachers often made Jesus angry, many conclude that Jesus was opposed to the law. But He absolutely was not! Jesus loved God's moral commands.
But What About Grace?
Like every good grace preacher, Jesus loved the law because He understood the purposes for which it was given. Many Christians today think the only purpose of the law is to be our guide for right conduct. But that is a woefully incomplete view of the law.
God didn't just make up some arbitrary rules and hand them to Moses. God's moral law is a reflection of God's own moral nature. And because the law reveals the holy and perfect character of God, like a bright white spotlight, it serves to expose all wickedness in the hearts of men.
Paul writes in Romans 3: "No one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin" (Rm 3:20).
Paul explains further in Romans 7: "What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet.' But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
Did that which is good, then become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful" (Rm 7:7-13).
These verses caused Martin Luther to conclude: “The chief function or power of the law is to make original sin manifest and show man to what utter depths his nature has fallen.”
The law simply and ruthlessly kills any notions we have about attaining righteousness by good works. For even the "good" works we perform are done with selfish motivations. God's law makes us cry out for God's grace.
So, by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, Jews had fourteen centuries to learn what the law should have taught them – that they were dreadfully sinful and in desperate need of a Savior. However, the religious teachers had muddled the law of God with all their extra rules and traditions. By teaching their traditions more than God's law, they diluted the law and robbed it of its power. They made the law seem doable. Difficult, but doable.
As a result, the people did not see their true condition, the menace of sin was not fully recognized, and the mouths of the self-righteous remained open.
By the time Jesus was born, every Jew should have been saying to themselves what Paul said to himself in Romans 7:23-24:
“Nothing good lives in me. Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Anyone living under the ministry of the law will inevitably ask that question.
But sadly, no Jew was asking it because the Pharisees and other religious teachers had muddied the waters too much. Therefore, Jesus had to do their job before He could do His. He had to return God's standard of morality to its proper level of glorious perfection (Mt 5:48). Before He could preach grace, He had to preach the law in order to make sin truly sinful. Before He could give us Himself as the answer, He had to make sure we were asking the right question: Who will deliver us?!
The Big Mistake
Sadly, lots of churchgoers today are not asking that question. They don't grasp their ever-present need for grace.
Many modern preachers don't know what to do with Jesus' harsh law teachings. So, to escape their harshness, pastors allegorize or soften them. "Well, Jesus doesn't really want you to take up a cross (Lk 14:27), the cross is just a symbol that you should deny yourself more." Or "Well, Jesus doesn't really want you to give up everything to follow Him (Lk 14:33), He just wants you to love your stuff less." Or "Well, Jesus doesn't really want you to gouge your eyes out (Mt 5:29), He just wants you to stop watching porn."
Do you see what's happening? These preachers are making the exact same mistake as the Pharisees – they're watering down God's law to make it doable for us.
The biggest problem in the church today is not cheap grace, but cheap law: believing that God accepts anything less than perfect obedience (Mt 5:48).
And self-righteousness reigns.
The "Try Your Best" Myth
Some Christians will push back at this point and say that Jesus just wants us to "try our best" to follow His commands. We just need to give it the 'ole college try,' that's all. The problem is Jesus never said that.
According to the Gospels, Jesus is the most demanding taskmaster who ever lived. Think of the absurd things He asks of us. He says that in order to follow Him, we must carry a cross (Lk 14:27), we must hate our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and our children (Lk 14:26), we must forsake everything (Lk 14:33), we must love our neighbors equally as much as we love ourselves (Mk 12:31), and we must be as perfect as our heavenly Father (Mt 5:48).
Notice the word "try" is absent from these commands.
Jesus' Two Words: Law and Gospel
When Christians and preachers fail to distinguish between Jesus' death-dealing words of law and His life-giving words of grace, they cause great confusion and great damage. Consider these red letters:
"If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Mt 6:14-15).
This is one of the most quoted passages in the Bible. And that's because people don't see what it's really saying. This teaching from Jesus should send cold chills down your spine. Jesus is saying that God's forgiveness toward you hinges completely on your ability to forgive others.
That's really bad news.
People sin against us all the time. Have we honestly forgiven them all? What if we miss one? And what do we say to those who have been raped or horribly abused? What do you say to a young child who has been molested?
“Sweetie, Jesus says you have to forgive that evil man or He won’t forgive you.”
If you don't know how to distinguish between law and gospel, that is exactly what you'll have to say to that child. After all, Jesus was clear: you must forgive everyone, even the unforgiveable. If you can't, you're in big trouble––the law condemns you as an unforgiver.
Thankfully, Jesus did not come only to preach the law, but to fulfill it (Mt 5:17). We cannot forgive the unforgivable, but Jesus can and did in our place. And His precious blood has removed all our sins, including our sins of unforgiveness (Rm 5:9).
That's really good news. That's the gospel.
The proper way to understand the relationship between law and gospel goes in four steps:
1. Perfect law-keeping is required to enter and stay in God's kingdom
2. None of us can do it
3. But there was One who did it for us
4. We are counted as perfect law-keepers through faith in Him
The law is like the "red-flag" surf warning at the beach. It is sufficient to point out the danger, but powerless to help the drowning victim. It will never dive in and save you from the undertow. It will only stand there and watch you go under. But the gospel of grace comes to us in our despair, drags us back to shore, and breathes new life into our lungs.
Martin Luther said it well: "The law humbles, grace exalts. The law effects fear and wrath, grace effects hope and mercy" (LW 31.50-51).
In short: You're a sinner [law], and all your sins are forgiven in Christ [gospel].
This law/gospel distinction was a central element of the Reformation that has sadly been largely forgotten by the modern church. "The Churches of the Reformation from the very beginning distinguished between the law and the gospel as the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace" (Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, 4th edn., 612).
Luther said: "Virtually the whole of the scriptures and the understanding of the whole of theology–the entire Christian life, even–depends upon the true understanding of the law and the gospel" (Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, p. 111).
Reformer Theodore Beza stated, “Ignorance of the distinction between the Law and Gospel is one of the principle sources of all the abuses which corrupt and still corrupt Christianity.”
Distinguishing law and gospel is the key that unlocks the whole Bible, as both words run from Genesis to Revelation. Of course, the best place to begin this understanding is with Jesus.
How to Spot Jesus' Law and Gospel
Any time Jesus gives a moral command, it's law. Example: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mt 5:34).
Any time you read a conditional statement from Jesus, it's law. Example: “Do not judge and you will not be judged” (Lk 6:37). To avoid something (judgment) you have to do something (don’t judge). This is law – a blessing you have to pay for.
Any time Jesus makes a threat, you should interpret that as law also. Example: “Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Mt 5:22). That’s bad news for anyone with a brother!
But any time Jesus gives an unconditional promise, you should interpret that as gospel – good news. It's a blessing He paid for with His own blood. Example: "He said to the paralyzed man, 'Son, your sins are forgiven'" (Mk 2:5).
To the self-righteous, Jesus gives the law in order to bring them down (the rich young ruler). To the broken, Jesus gives the gospel in order to bring them up (the woman caught in adultery). Sometimes, He gives both words to the same person to address their self-righteousness and their brokenness (the woman at the well).
And that's the whole point.
Christ is not using the law to get us to strive harder; He's using the law to get us to stop striving altogether.
To unbelievers, the law proves that no amount of moral effort can get a person into God's kingdom. To believers, the law proves that no amount of moral effort can keep a person in God's kingdom. We enter the kingdom and stay in the kingdom only by the blood of the Lamb (Heb 10:10). Realizing this allows us to cease the restless activity of trying to "get right" with God. Jesus wants us to set our work boots aside and trust solely in His work (Mt 11:28).
"And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Rm 4:5).
Without question, Jesus is overflowing with grace. But self-righteous law-keeping prevents us from receiving and walking in it. So, in loving-kindness, Jesus gives us the real law, with all its crushing power, so that He can then give us the word of grace that will raise us to a new life of joy and rest in Him.
For Further Reading