Pastor Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church – Dyer, Indiana
03. October 2010
Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
“The Law/Gospel Diagnostic”
The Law of God is good and wise. It sets God’s will before our eyes. It shows us the way of righteousness and condemns us when we transgress. So begins the hymn by Matthias Loy (LSB 579). Today, Jesus confirms the Law in our hearing. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and will all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
There are two divine words: Law and Gospel. Our God and Father speaks to us with His word of command and promise. This distinction is not only helpful in understanding the Scriptures but it is absolutely essential. Without properly understanding God’s speaking through the Law and the Gospel, we neither understand our Lord nor does the Christian faith remain Christian.
My professor born of Japanese Lutheran stock has a now famous diagnostic for understanding and distinguishing between God’s two ways of speaking to us. The diagnostic was handed over to Him by His professor before Him. The first principle of the diagnostic is: The Word of God that God speaks is always appropriate to the question we ask. For example, if we ask: “what is the greatest commandment for me to keep?” our Lord responds with the Law: “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor.” If we ask, “What must I do to be saved?” he answers “do works according to your calling.” If we ask, “Can those who transgress the Law inherit eternal life?” God always answers: “the sinner will be condemned.” From these and other examples, we learn that God responds to questions of Law with His holy Law. As my professor says: “Ask Law question, get Law answer.”
How do we know these are Law questions? The Law is and always will be command. You are the subject and you are the one doing the verbs. God is one commanding and instructing. His Holy and steadfast Word is full of these commands. The most famous are the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Sinai. You are the subject of these commands and you are the one doing. “You shall love,” “you shall honor,” “you shall not,” and so forth. If we reverse these commandments into questions, you’ll understand the diagnostic. If you ask, “Who shall I love above all other things?” God answers with a Law answer: “You shall love the Lord your God.”
There is a real problem for sinners who ask these sort of questions. If you ask “how can I be a the best parent?” our Lord responds with the commands “teach the child in the way of the Lord,” “do not spare the rod,” and “honor your father and mother.” Taken together, these pose a challenge to the parent. What happens when the child does not honor, obey, or love his parent? You teach them the command according to the Word of the Lord and do not spare from them punishment for their disobedience. How does your child then view you? As an evil and vindictive parent who forces upon them archaic rules.
What happens if you refuse to heed God’s word and spare the child both the rod and the holy fourth command of our Lord? You too are punished for your disobedience. Now, you consider your heavenly Father to be a horrible, spiteful parent who refuses to let you live in the way you would like. Your heavenly Father does not look kindly upon Christian parents who refuse discipline and training of their children in righteousness. He visits His wrath upon them, allowing the world to tempt us into all sorts of vice, allowing our sin to strangle us with infidelity and divorce, and even Satan to cause evil words to spring forth for our lips, cursing our earthly parents and our heavenly Father, and falling into great shame and unbelief.
This does not remove the fact that the Law is good and wise. It is our heavenly Fathers good will that we live in fidelity in marriage, raising children in all Godly virtues, and to train them to honor the Sabbath where all hear God’s Word preached. Faced with this will of God, we have two options. One-we could ignore God’s holy Law and do as we please. Rather than ask God Law questions and so learn what the Law has to say, we could say that God’s Law has no bearing on our living, family, community, or world. Do not be deceived, dear Christians. God’s Law does command much and He expects you to obey. The second path is the way of the Christian-we ask God what He would have us do, how He would have us live, and what He would have us be according to His Holy perfect will for humanity.
The life of the true Christian does not ignore God’s will but submits to it in complete honor, loving the Word uttered from His lips, loving Him with all our heart, soul, and mind. How does one love and honor God with righteousness? By keeping His commandments in fear. Law questions always have Law answers. As the Reformer Philip Melancthon quipped, lex semper accusat, the Law always accuses. You ask what you must do and the Lord will tell you. The Word He tells you will be completely just and holy. As sinners, you will fail in the whole to keep the Law. You will create loopholes, ignore the righteous decrees, and lie to yourself and others about your own holiness. As a result, your life will be suffering and toil. Your family will be full of shame and vice. Your community will be corrupt and unlawful. Your world will murder the innocent children in the womb and destroy itself from within divorce and great sexual sin.
Dear Christian, you are sinner. Ask the Lord, what must I do to be saved, and His Ten Commands will condemn you to death. When faced with this holy judgment, we can only cower in fear, begging and pleading for mercy. Hear God’s Law and repent. Repent, turning from your evil ways and desiring to do better. Repent and plead for forgiveness. The is why the Law of God is good and wise. It gives us knowledge of our sinful hearts, and knowing our utter despair, thus turn to sin and vice to our Lord before it is too late.
There is no more holy work of the Law than to prepare us to ask the Gospel question. Without the condemning Law, there would be no need for the Gospel. If the Law is removed from Christianity, there is no Christianity left. If there is no Law then there was no need for Christ.
Remember the diagnostic: if you are the subject of the sentence and the doer of the verbs, then the question and answer will always be Law. If instead God in Christ is the subject and he is the one doing the verbs, the answer is of a different kind. The answer is the Gospel, the good news, the free and merciful gift of our Lord.
Consider yourself according to the Law: you are dead in your trespasses, wholly sinner and wicked. There is only one penalty, you will suffer in this life and die. Now ask the Gospel question: “what has God done for me, a sinner?” God is the subject and He is the one doing. The answer according to God’s Word is completely Gospel. God sent His only begotten Son Jesus Christ to suffer the penalty of the Law for you, that is the worst suffering and death imaginable. Here God nailed the penalty for your lawlessness upon the lawful one on the cross. There Christ put to death the penalty for our sin, crucifying death and destroying the bonds of sin.
The Pharisees asked “what is the greatest commandment” and our Lord gave the most terrifying and un-keep-able “Love the Lord your God completely and Love your neighbor as yourself.” They asked a Law question and receiving the just Law answer. We, the faithful, are not Pharisees. We know that this Law terrifies and condemns. We also know and have hear our Lord’s promised gifts. He has granted us faith to not despair but to instead return to Him in repentance. We boldly repent saying: “Lord, I am not worthy to be in your presence. You have promised to show mercy and love on your servant.” Having been prepared by the Law, we now ask the Gospel question: Lord, what have you done for me, to save me from my sin, my veil of tears, and my immanent death? This is the Gospel question and our Lord answers with the Gospel. I am the Lord! I have put your enemies under my feet. I am David’s Lord who has defeated your wicked pride, the battle hordes of the demons, and the wicked serpent himself. I paid the debt for your disobedience. I have pardoned your sin, suffering the righteous punishment in my own body. I died and rose, so that you might die and rise to new life. This new and everlasting life of dwelling with the Trinity is a wonderful gift. This is the good news: our sin is forgiven and our lives are being made ready for the eternal banquet with the Lamb who was slain and whose blood sets us free to be people of God. Any modicum of a new life of obedience to the Law is a gift of our Lord.
There is a real danger of asking “How must I live as a Christian?” This is a Law question and will result in only a law answer and the damnation it brings. Ask instead: “How does God create in me a clean heart to live in obedience to His Law?” God is the subject and he is the one doing the verbs. Ask not what you can do for the Lord but ask what the Lord has done for you.
This is how St. Paul speaks in our Epistle text. The grace of God was given to us in Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection. In this gift, our God enriched us in Him to all speech and knowledge and spiritual gift. He continues daily to bless us with hearts of faith and obedience, minds of Godly knowledge, and souls prepared to wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is this grace and mercy of God that sustains us to the end of our lives, keeping us in love and virtue and forgiving us when we fail. It is the shed blood of Jesus that washes from us every spot and wrinkle so that we will stand before the throne guiltless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. As sinners we are unfaithful. As believers, we know and believe that God is faithful. He has called us into fellowship with His Son, when the holy name of Jesus was placed on our foreheads and hearts in Holy Baptism. His true flesh and true blood purges from us our bodies of corruption in the Holy Supper, preparing us to wait for the revealing of Jesus on the last day. God works obedient love for Him and for our neighbor through the Holy Spirit in preaching and sacrament. There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for His friends. This our Lord has done for us. Therefore, let us taste and see that the Lord is good. Amen.