Summary: The first in a series celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Lean the importance of distinguishing between the two main teachings of the Bible: law and gospel.
If you wake up in the middle of the night with a sore throat, do you reach for the After Bite cream? No, you find a throat lozenge. If your head hurts, do you gargle with salt water? No, you take aspirin. If your stomach is upset, do apply Vicks VapoRub to your belly? No, you gulp Pepto-Bismol. There may be more than a dozen medications in your bathroom cabinet, but you know exactly which one to reach for depending on the ailment. You also know how dangerous it is to apply medication in an inappropriate way. Taking too much aspirin, for example, can lead to stomach problems.
Well did you know that opening your Bible is like opening a medicine cabinet? What you find is the cure for sin and its sentence of eternal damnation. But the medication comes in two parts: law and gospel—the two main teachings of the Bible. If we don’t understand what these teachings are or how to apply them, we can do eternal damage to our soul and body. Let’s find out more as we begin this new sermon series celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Let’s learn how the Lutheran mind is a biblical mind when it comes to knowing the difference between law and gospel.
In our text the Apostle John introduces Jesus to his readers. He makes clear that Jesus is the Son of God who came from the Father to save us from our sins. John’s aim was to get his original readers, the Jews of his day, to put their faith and trust in Jesus. However, most of the religious leaders thought that Moses and his teachings were the end all be all. Of course Moses himself hadn’t come up with any teachings. He received those teachings from God on Mt. Sinai, the most famous of which are the Ten Commandments.
So what is the purpose of the Ten Commandments? I bet most people would answer that question like this—the purpose of the Ten Commandments is to show us how to get into heaven. Now it is true that Jesus himself said that if we could keep those commands perfectly all the time, then we would earn eternal life. But what many people don’t realize is that from the moment we are conceived we inherit sin from our parents. We’re defective, like a bicycle that’s missing its wheels. Even if you pedal furiously on such a bike, you won’t get anywhere without wheels. Likewise no matter how hard you try to keep the Ten Commandments, you can’t do so perfectly to earn eternal life.
So why did God give the Ten Commandments to people he knew were unable to keep them? One reason he gave us those commands is to teach us the best way to live—just as the user manual for your phone will tell you the best way to operate it. If we all followed what God has to say about marriage, or about telling the truth, or about being a faithful employee, life here on earth would be good.
But the main purpose of the law is not as a user manual for life. The Apostle Paul explained the purpose of the law when he wrote to Christians living in Rome: “Therefore 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” (Romans 3:20). The main purpose of the law is as a mirror because it shows our sin.
Since law exposes our sin, you probably don’t enjoy hearing the law. I don’t. Take the Parable of the Good Samaritan for example. Jesus told that parable to illustrate what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. It means that you willingly stop and help whoever needs your aid, no matter who that person is, and no matter how busy you might be. We’re to be like the good Samaritan who not only offered first aid, but also paid for the man’s ongoing medical bills.
That parable always makes me feel guilty as I think about the many people I’ve walked by without offering help. “But I’m a busy pastor who is already spending my life in service to the Lord. Let someone else look after that guy on the side of the road.” That’s often what I think, but that excuse limps when I hear the Apostle Paul quote Deuteronomy 27: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (Galatians 3:10). Every time I walk by someone who could use my help, I ought to be damned, regardless of the excuse I might offer in my defense.
So where does that leave us? Well if I can’t keep God’s commands I’m doomed! That’s what Martin Luther realized. And he wasn’t the type of person who brushed away God’s law as if it was nothing more than an annoying cobweb in his path. No, Luther was terrified at the thought of spending an eternity in hell. So he tried harder to obey God’s commands. It was one reason he became a monk. He thought that if he could dedicate his life to prayer and good works, he could somehow get closer to God. Luther distinguished himself as a monk with his pious life and his hard work, but it didn’t bring him peace. It just made him more afraid as he realized that he still failed in showing love to his neighbor. The harder Luther tried, the more of a failure he realized he was.