“The Law and the Gospel”–Trinity 18 2014.
18th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 22:34-46
October 19, 2014
“The Law and the Gospel”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Every week the catechumens are supposed to write a worship report where they summarize the sermon. At the end of it there are two questions: “How did the sermon proclaim the law?” And, “How did it proclaim the Gospel?”
The Gospel reading for this week shows us an example of this distinction between the law of God and the Gospel of God. So, I hope the catechumens are paying attention! I know a lot of you still have trouble telling the difference between the law and the Gospel. And oftentimes older Christians struggle with it too, the distinction between law and Gospel. And even those who know the difference between law and gospel still struggle with applying the law and the gospel in their lives. And yet our salvation depends on the law and Gospel being rightly applied to us. We teach this to kids, but it is not child’s play!
In this Gospel reading we can see the law and the gospel in the questions asked by the Pharisees and Jesus. The Pharisees ask about the law of God: “Which is the greatest commandment?” But Jesus asks the Pharisees about the Christ. And the Gospel of God, His good news, is good news about the Christ, the Messiah.
The Pharisees ask Jesus this question about the law to see if they can get Him to say something wrong. They knew that no part of God’s law could be set aside or minimized. But because Jesus was so friendly and gracious to sinners they couldn’t imagine that He would uphold God’s law.
But Jesus did. In fact, earlier in St. Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)
Jesus was kind and compassionate to sinners, yet He did not relax any of God’s laws. This was hard for the Pharisees to comprehend. And it’s hard for us to comprehend in our time. We think mercy and compassion means you set aside the strict requirements of the law. So when people find it too difficult to wait until they’re married to have sex, people think it’s mercy for the church to overlook it and not insist on the 6th commandment too strictly. Or they think it is merciful to no longer say homosexual activity and lust is sinful.
But Jesus was compassionate toward sinners without relaxing the law of God in the least. His answer to the Pharisees about the great commandment of the law was one with which any traditional Jew of his time would have agreed. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and great 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.”
The first great commandment which Jesus quoted was actually part of a creed or prayer that Jews were supposed to say every day. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
It was something they were supposed to say every day. But saying it is one thing, and doing it is something else. This is what the law does and teaches. The law says what we are supposed to be and to do to be pleasing to God. What if you fall short of it? The law doesn’t make any exceptions or give any breaks. If you want to be pleasing to God you have to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. If you don’t love the Lord your God that way, God says in His law that you are a sinner and condemned.
The Pharisees asked about the great commandment of the law. But it didn’t occur to them that even if they knew it and said it every day they didn’t keep it. This is the way people naturally think. They figure that God wants us to be good and do good, but they also figure God’s standards for being and doing good aren’t so high that we can’t reach them. They figure God’s requirements are within the reach of human beings.
But the Law of God exposes this as falsehood. It says, “Unless you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, you are displeasing to God and a sinner. God will not accept you as you are. He wants His commandment kept.”
Think about what it means to love God with all your heart. If we suddenly got a check, unexpectedly, for 20,000 dollars, who wouldn’t be on top of the world? It would be hard not to tell everyone about it.
But at Church we hear the Gospel that God is pleased with us and has given us eternal life. We receive the body and blood of Jesus that take away the sins of the world. And yet it barely affects us. What does this show us? It shows us that we don’t love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. If we did we’d be far more happy to receive God’s grace than a check for a big sum of money.
But we are fallen and unable to love God above all things. Adam and Eve were that way, but we are not. And as long as we are the way we are we are transgressors of God’s commandments.
If the Pharisees had taken this to heart, they wouldn’t have been so eager to ask Jesus about the great commandment of the law. They would have been asking, “How can I be saved when I can’t do what the creed I recite daily says?”
This is the law’s work. It exposes sin. It reveals that we are sinners; it exposes God’s holiness and it terrifies sinners. It shows us what is good and pleasing to God. But we are not able to fulfill it. That’s why people always try to relax the law and make it so that we are able to fulfill it. But God’s law, when it is preached correctly, doesn’t allow that. It holds us captive and condemns us, even when our sin is not murder, adultery, or stealing, but simply that we don’t love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.
Then Jesus turns and questions the Pharisees. He doesn’t ask them about what God has commanded. He asks them about what God had promised. And what had God been promising all the way through the Old Testament? Alongside the law which Jesus has just summarized here, God always had the prophets deliver His promise that He would send the Messiah, or Christ, who would deliver people from the curse and condemnation pronounced by the law.
This is the question the Pharisees should have been asking. “Who is the Christ?” Because actually without answering that question they can’t begin to keep the great and first commandment, “Love the Lord your God.”
“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” The Pharisees say, “David’s Son.” That was right, as far as it went. The Messiah was supposed to come from the house and lineage of David and reign on his throne forever.
But there is more to the Christ than that. Jesus quotes a psalm to them, where David wrote: “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” And He asks them, “If David, speaking by the Holy Spirit, calls the Christ Lord, how can He be David’s Son?”
Why does David call the Christ “Lord?” Because the Christ is equal to God. God has Him sit at His right hand and puts His enemies under His feet. God is a jealous God. He doesn’t put a mere human being at His right hand. He doesn’t make an angel or a human or some lesser being equal to Him. The Christ is David’s Lord because He is the LORD, YHWH.
He is David’s Lord and David’s Son, being born of a virgin betrothed to one of David’s descendants. This is the Gospel, God’s good news. God’s good news is the Christ, who is true God and true man. Why is that good news?
Because the law condemns us for not loving God with our whole heart. But here in the Christ God comes to us and becomes one with us under the law. He takes on our flesh and blood. He takes on our human nature. And He comes to fulfill for us the law in its entirety. He is what the law commands us to be. He loves God with all His heart and all His soul. He loves us, His neighbors, as Himself. Soon the priests will be plotting to kill Him. Judas is only a matter of hours away from betraying Him. And Jesus, the Lord and the Son of David, is preparing to lay down His life to cover and atone for all our transgressions of the law.
What the law commands and we have not done, Christ is coming to do on our behalf. The Son of God dies for our violation of the law. He has made our enemies—sin, death, and the devil—His enemies by becoming the Son of Man. He has already defeated those enemies in His death on the cross. And He reigns at the right hand of the Most High until all those enemies are put beneath His feet forever for our sake.
It is the LORD who has come to our rescue. In the Gospel, He proclaims us released and forgiven of the sin that remains in us. He proclaims us free from the law’s condemnation. He proclaims that we are counted as having fulfilled it for His sake. He fulfilled it and by faith His obedience and His death for sins are counted to you.
Now do you grasp the distinction between the law and the Gospel? I hope so. In the law God proclaims His requirement and command that we love Him with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. He exposes our sin and our powerlessness to keep the law.
The Gospel is when God proclaims His promise to cover our sins for the sake of the Messiah, who is true God and true man. He has fulfilled the just requirements of the law and justified the lawless by being put to death for our sins and raised for our justification.
There is one thing that remains to be said, and that is about the proper application of these two words from God. Who is to hear the law and who is to hear the Gospel?
The law should be preached to everyone, but especially to the godless and unrepentant. That includes people who are living in sin and committing great crimes and who are not worried about their souls. But it also includes those who look righteous to the world, who live upstanding lives, and yet they do not love God with all their heart. The law reproves the whole world and shows it that everyone is godless and wicked who trusts in their own righteousness while they don’t love God with all their heart, soul, and mind. It proclaims the coming wrath of God on all breakers of His law.
But the Gospel is for repentant sinners, for those who are terrified because of their sins. The good news is for those who are condemned by the law and fear God’s punishment. To them God wants the Gospel to resound, so that they hear that “while we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5).” To repentant and terrified sinners, God wants them to hear nothing but the good news that Christ was crucified for them. That the true and living God became flesh and blood for them, served under the law for them, fulfilled it in their place, and gave Himself up as the atoning sacrifice for their sins (1 John 2).
To crushed and terrified sinners God has only this word to say to them: “Be of good cheer. The Lord God of hosts, your Lord, has become man to cover your ungodliness and to blot out your transgression with His blood.”
This Gospel is truly good news. In the Old Testament, the people of God only heard again and again that the Christ would come to redeem them from their transgressions. But they had to believe and wait in faith and hope for His coming. Today God’s good news to us is that the Christ has come and that He has redeemed and justified us from the curse of the law by His one sacrifice on the cross. Now He reigns at God’s right hand to put all our enemies under His feet—to put sin, death, and Satan under His feet and ours. It is not just good news that is to come—that we will reign with Christ in innocence and blessedness and no longer have sin. But it is good news that has already come—that our sins are already blotted out and not counted to us by His one sacrifice on the cross.
This is the good news that the most Holy God wants proclaimed to those who feel the law’s condemnation. He wants them to hear His good news and believe it and live in confidence because of it. His good news is that the Lord Himself has become man and freed us from the guilt of our sins by His obedience and death. He covers the sin that remains in us while He daily puts to death our old nature until we come into the fullness of our inheritance and are wholly in the image of Christ. The Pharisees were busy asking about the great law, but Jesus was eager to proclaim the good news of the Christ and to fulfill that good news by going to the cross.
So be comforted by the Gospel, all sinful, anxious hearts! It is the Lord of heaven and earth who became man to save you. It is the Lord who was born of a virgin who died to blot out your transgressions! You are wrapped in the Lord’s own righteousness and cleansed with the Lord’s own blood.
The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria