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 examples of unprecedented grace. But you'll also find harsh and shocking moral demands. So, how do we make sense of this? Is Jesus double-minded?
What Moral Law Did Jesus Preach?
But it's important to note that Jesus drilled deeper into Moses' law to reveal 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.
The Purpose of the Law
Like every good grace preacher, Jesus loved the law because He understood the reason it was given.
Most Christians think the purpose of the law is to be our guide for righteousness. But that's not what the Bible says. Paul says the law has two functions: (1) to restrain sin and (2) to reveal sin.
Paul writes in Galatians 3:19, "Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come."
The law was given to hold back the world's wickedness, but NOT to solve it. The solution wouldn't come until Jesus, the Seed, is born.
Paul writes in Romans 3:20, "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."
Paul explains further in Romans 7:13, "Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it [the law] used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful."
One thing then is for sure: the law does NOT provide righteousness for the believer. Paul is emphatic: "If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (Gal 2:21). And in Romans: "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes" (Rm 10:4).
This 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.”
Primarily then, you can think of the law as a bright white spotlight that serves to reveal the wickedness of man.
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 essentially replaced God's law with their own watered-down version (Mk 7:6-8). By teaching their rules more than God's law, they robbed the law of its power to expose sin.
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. Therefore, Jesus had to do the law teachers' job for them: He had to bring "the hammer" as Luther called it – the unadulterated law of God.
The Big Mistake
Most preachers today don't have a clue what to do with Jesus' harsh commands.
So, to escape their harshness, pastors allegorize or soften them. They'll say, "Well, Jesus doesn't actually want you to love your neighbor equally as much as you love yourself, He just wants you to be nice." 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 replacing Jesus' law with their own watered-down version.
The biggest problem in the church today is not "cheap grace," but cheap law: inventing our own moral law and then believing we've earned righteousness by obeying it.
And self-righteousness reigns.
Two Completely Different Words
When Christians and preachers fail to distinguish between law and gospel, they cause great confusion and great damage. Consider these words from Christ:
"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 Jesus is really saying. Jesus' words here should send cold chills down your spine. He's 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. Through faith in Him, His perfect righteousness is credited to our account and His blood removes all our sins, including our sins of unforgiveness (Rm 5:9).
That's really good news. That's the gospel (1 Cor 15:1-5). It is a different word from God altogether.
How Law and Gospel Work Together
The law and the gospel have very different functions but they work perfectly together. God uses the law to bring people to see the depth of their sins and helplessness. God then uses the gospel to bring people to see the heights of his love and power to forgive. The great Reformer Philip Melancthon wrote, “The Law shows the disease, the Gospel the cure.”
The relationship between law and gospel goes in four steps:
1. Perfect law-keeping is required to enter and stay in God's kingdom (Mt 5:48)
2. None of us can do it (Rm 3:10-12)
3. But there was One who did it for us (2 Cor 5:21)
4. We are counted as perfect law-keepers through faith in Him (Rm 3:21-26)
So, any time you run across a law passage from Jesus (or anyone else in the Bible), don't panic. Just run through these four steps in your mind. Let the law humble you and the gospel encourage you. God's law is designed to drive you to God's grace.
Jesus' use of law or gospel all depended on His audience. To those who thought they were righteous, Jesus humbled them with the law (e.g., the rich young ruler). But to those who already knew they were sinful, Jesus comforted them with grace (e.g., the woman caught in adultery).
That's how the law and gospel function together. Martin Luther explained: "The law humbles, grace exalts. The law effects fear and wrath, grace effects hope and mercy" (LW 31.50-51).
And that's the whole point.
Only one Person in history could carry that burden. Jesus not only lived and died to take away our sins; He lived and died to give us His righteousness. He perfectly obeyed and fulfilled the law in our place, thereby destroying its power over us.
Jesus does not use the law to get us to strive harder; He uses the law to get us to stop striving altogether. For believers, Christ alone is our righteousness (Phil 3:9).
Without question, Jesus is overflowing with grace. But a misplaced focus on watered-down law-keeping prevents us from 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.
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). For everyone's sake, these two words desperately need to make a comeback in the evangelical church.
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