’Tis the season of Christmas. And that means a leaflet through our door, advertising various local church services.
What a wonderful opportunity to share Law and Gospel! What a perfect occasion to explain the significance of the birth of Christ!
First, the leaflet would say something of the Bad News: that we all have broken the commands given to us by our Creator God – that we have all failed to love Him and one another as we ought. That we have thereby rightfully earned the fierce wrath of a terrifyingly holy, pure and just God. And that we shall all surely one day stand before His throne of judgment, with no hope of reprieve from the eternal fires of hell – no hope, that is, if we are trusting in our own works, experiences or knowledge for our right standing before God.
And then, the glorious Good News: that the holy and just creator God is also a God of love. That He so loved the world that He gave even His only begotten Son – sending Him into the world in human flesh. That this God-Man was in all points tempted as we are, but lived a blameless life, perfectly obedient and pleasing to God. That this Son of God then died in the place of sinners like us, pouring out His blood and bearing in Himself the punishment of all who trust in Him, thereby appeasing the wrath of God toward them. That whoever is trusting in this Christ is declared righteous on His account, and therefore has no need to fear the coming day of judgment. That these shall not perish on that day, but instead live forever!
And, perhaps, room might even be found to mention the fact that forsaking hope in our own merits and instead trusting in Jesus Christ alone is the only means of salvation – for it is only the blood of Christ that is able to wash away our sin and make us clean in the sight of a holy and just God. Christ alone is the Way, the Truth, the Life.
The leaflet wouldn’t have to use these exact words, of course. Wouldn’t even have to go into that much detail. But, surely, the essence of Law and Gospel would be present? – The reason for the birth of this particular Baby.
And, of course, you’d expect there to be a warm and fullsome invitation, extended to everyone to come to the Christmas services and hear more about this Son of God born into the world to save sinners like us.
And it might even be that, at such a service, visitors would hear something not a million miles removed from the content of this short message:
You’d be right to expect such things.
But what came through our door was this:
And so I ask this: if the so-called church is so utterly ashamed of the Christ and His Gospel that it has forgotten what the Good News actually is – what it is that we are saved from, who it is that saves us, and how He did so – is it any wonder that the visible church is in full-blown retreat before an advancing culture hostile to Christ?
And yet, I do not despair. For it is Christ who builds His church, and He is able to save to the utmost even we who perpetrate such acts of foolishness as this leaflet. Let us therefore repent, and turn joyfully to our Saviour, come into the world to save even such as us!
27 thoughts on “How not to share the Gospel at Christmas”
loved the homily, it was exactly what I would have expected from you, God honoring, Biblically faithful, gospel centered (especially the wrath part) and making the reader think much of Jesus… print it so I can steal it!
Thank you, Bobby 🙂
I have emailed you a PDF transcript of my talk. Feel free to do with that whatever you wish.
I am minded to make the transcript a blog post in its own right sometime next week.
Peace and grace.
Hi Bobby, I’ve now posted the transcript:
Christmas Homily: The Birth of Christ as the Fulfilment of Prophecy
Thanks… I think I will take you up on the ‘get it down to five minutes’ thing. What would I take out… hmmm.
I threw out vast quantities of material even to get it down to 9 minutes. It was a rather painful process, but I think the talk was the better for it!
Yes I think of Steven’s sermon which can be read in abt 90 sec or the Pentecost sermon that saved 2000 which can be read in abt 30 sec or the longest sermon (Jesus’) which takes 18 minutes, the book of Galatians about 20 minutes… you see what I’m getting at? I don’t know why it takes so long to say what the Biblical writers said in a few words. Ahhh, tis the joy of preaching. Merry Christmas!
Well, it’s a question of what one assumes one’s listeners actually to know, and where one believes them to be in their understanding of Law and Gospel.
I mean, I can summarise everything in two words, following Paul’s example: ‘Christ crucified’.
But, then we’d have to explain who Christ is, and why He was crucified. And so we’d start talking about the Law, and our woeful state before a Holy God as fallen sinners. And we’d talk about how God loved the world that He sent His only begotten son. And we’d mention the resurrection. And we’d call people to repentance and offer them the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ…
…and, pretty soon, if we left ourselves unchecked, we’d find that we had been speaking for two or three hours, and still had much more to tell of the glorious riches that are in Christ 🙂
As you say, ’tis the joy of preaching 🙂
I wish you well in your joyful labour, my friend.
Brilliant and somewhat scathing commentary on today’s church. You’re right: instead of wielding the Truth of God’s Word like the mighty and powerful weapon it is – and which this dark world so desperately needs – the church is in full blown retreat. Sad.
Sounds like a typical Hallmark Holiday greeting card. That is the typical American Churchianity.
They love to use the term ‘story’ and ‘characters’ because that is what they are to them… a nice little bedtime story to make the infants feel snug and secure in their fasle security they have been waddling in.
What a sad, sickening and tepid letter.
Hello Brent, thank you for dropping by.
What I didn’t mention in my article is that the opposite page to the letter above simply contained a list of services and events. The very first one was this:
I think that I had better not share my opinion about that.
hi Daniel thanks for writing this article. American Churchianity becomes more abysmal at “Christmas” time. Once the pastor of a local Church came in to a casual restaurant where I was with one of my children, dressed as Santa Clause, ho ho ho-ing. He was giving out the Candy Cane gospel. So I wrote this:
Then another pastor at my local Church, at the “Christmas show” service preached the Rick Warren/willowcreek/ collectivist globalist/ nwo /UN gospel to hundreds:Quote:
“Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing if billions of people all over the world said ‘yes’ to God tonite? Think about how the world would change. Think of what would happen in the international conflicts. THERE WOULD BE PEACE. We would be able to wipe out poverty, reach out across racial, economic boundaries- if people said yes to God all over the world- they would touch the hurting people of the world. There are 40 million people suffering from AIDS in Africa. If we said ‘yes’ to God COLLECTIVELY what would happen? Not only in this country but in this world. I say that because I want to encourage you this Christmas to pray for our world. It is so easy to think about everything that’s wrong and to walk thru life defeated, but you know what? Pray. Pray for our world, for what’s happening around the world that more and more people would ‘say yes to God’….and His gift of love and peace and grace through Jesus Christ.”
(The last part said very quietly.)
This pastor knows better; he chose to preach this false willowcreek gospel.
I want to encourage God’s people to not wait for the Churches to represent Christ and the true gospel; let us, the church, the ekklesia, go out and preach it ourselves as He leads us by His Spirit. The apostate Church goes it’s way, but we must continue following the Lord Jesus in Truth, preaching the Truth in love.
Hello Loretta, thank you for those comments.
Words fail me over the candy cane (non) gospel, and the man-centred quotes aimed at unbelievers that you included in your second article grieve me.
So, yes, let us preach the true Gospel ourselves as we have opportunity, even as Christ holds us firm in the precious promises of His gospel!
I wrote an evangelical tract that I shared with a friend who specializes in street ministries. It is posted here.
It seems fitting for Christmas and may be a blessing to you. I have been deeply enriched in the Lord by your posts.
No worries if you don’t wish to post for whatever reasons, I completely understand:)
May God continue to bless you with His wisdom and discernment. charisse
Hello Charisse, thank you for your comments and your link – I really like the way that you endeavoured to have Scripture speak for itself in your tract!
Christmas is a great opportunity to share the message,so we were told at our church – however, 5 or 6 guest events later I have yet to here the gospel . Still it shouldnt surprise me, we hardly hear it even in regular church meetings anymore and I know my church is not isolated – the sugar coated gospel of Jesus came to show a better way, do you want to experience gods forgiveness and prescence, amongst other trendy phrases litter the rare attempts at evangelism in once solid churces- what annoys me most is these people who know the gospel, and have benefitted from its beauty are too chicken to preach it . They actually believe our cool and trendy methods (which I dont have anything against,well, most of them ) impress people into this vague “Gods kingdom” , a vague salvation. I would happily invite my unsaved family and friends to church to watch a monkey riding a bike on the pulpit if I knew the pastor was going to preach a full gospel message afterwards. I have been able to visit many “growing” trendy churches here in the UK on my travels with a drama group, but it saddens me to see the gospel evapourating in my land…
As you rightly said, Christmas and Easter provide easy opportunities to share the glorious gospel to family and friends who are not concerned about eternity, and most of them are not that impressed or excited by Christian rock worship and flashing lights (I do like most modern worship and hymns..) I remember after one highly modern and relevant service at our church, with music, drama etc , but no gospel, I asked a streetwise , unsaved , cool trendy person what they thought, they replied “yeah, it was good, but I wouldnt come again…” what a shame he wasnt given the opportunity to hear and be convicted by the gospel…
I believe from what I am seeing here in the UK, the gospel is no longer the main thing. Many churces say many of the right things, but seem to be wrapped up in either the supernatural and experiencing Gods prescence, or impacting the community with social action (something which all good Bible believing churches have done for years, but are humble enough not to spout off about – many modern churches just love to tell you about what they are doing in the community, how much more money they need to do it, how much they tithe to other churches on their lovely polished websites…)
I could go on!!! But blessings to you all, keep preaching the gospel in its fullness this christmas, even when it seems your the only one who gets it…
PS Anyone know were I can find a bicycle riding monkey?!
Hi Tom, it’s good to hear from someone on the same side of the pond as me – I’m in the Isle of Man, having moved here from Cambridge back in 2004.
There are still people in the British Isles who understand and proclaim the Gospel, so be encouraged, but I agree with you that this does not seem to be the case for much of the visible church here. It is especially sad to hear of that particular person who had not been given the opportunity to hear the Gospel, and disturbing to realize that this individual’s experience will have been replicated many times throughout the land.
Anyway, thank you for visiting and sharing your impressions. And I’m afraid I don’t know where you can find a bicycle-riding monkey…
Hi Tom, you have almost described my former church (a Baptist Union of New Zealand member church) to the T. I found it’s not those who say these words aren’t saved Christians themselves – it’s very likely they are believers but they have minimised the gospel of the cross, our sinfulness, and what believing in Jesus means. The older generation tends to add in “the peacefulness coming from being with God”, the blessings and manifestation of the Holy Spirit like healing. The people don’t react too kindly when I mentioned the greatest miracles is to preach the gospel and see people saved by power of the cross. They feel particularly offended when I mentioned Jesus’ miracles and Apostles’ miracles were to establish who Jesus was and the authority of the Apostles given by Jesus, and it shouldn’t be expected as a normative practice after the Apostolic times. And certainly the fact that God in His sovereign will may or may not heal a person is something that enrages them.
The younger generation (my generation to those in the teens to early 20s) at the church talks about outreach, and I always hear about “made a commitment to follow Jesus”. Yes the cross is mentioned, and perhaps sinfulness expressed in acts. But what is meant to be born with a sinful nature is never mentioned. The whole lot of spiritual growth process is a shallow d0-it religion that often morphs into sentimental “live the lives on fire for Jesus” and it’s becoming hardly indistinguishable from the fullblown liberalism at the mainline churches.
I’m curious abt your emphasis on the law when you preach the gospel. Here’s why it interests me, it seems not to follow Jesus’ pattern in dealing with people, nor the apostles preaching (the few sermons that are in Acts). Jesus said that the world was condemned already and needed a Savior not a condemner (John 3).
In the states there’s an old adage that “you have to get them lost before you can get them saved” and while that may be true for the Pharisee who Jesus clearly over and over showed them their guilt and stripped them of their self-righteousness in light of the law, for the sinner he was much different than that. He didn’t for instance to Nicodemus, or the woman at Sychar, or the woman caught in adultery, or the man dropped from the roof and many others there was a ministry of the gospel devoid of a condemning spotlight of the law as if that is what leads you to Christ.
Also, in Galatians 3:24 doesn’t the Scripture precisely say that the tutor of the law is no longer for us after Christ and His faith have come. So after Christ fulfilled the law, the law was no longer needed. If I am trying to see the gospel in light of the law it does a couple of things. One, the Jews who were under the law and to whom it was given, failed to achieve it. For us the Gentile, we failed our consciences and that set us “all under sin” (Rom 3:9ff). So the law condemns the Jew and sin condemns the Gentile and we all need a Savior. And Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…
Please show me how and where your emphasis on the fulfilled law has a role in the necessary teaching to the lost or those of faith. I see no use for the fulfilled law at all.
Hi Bobby, good questions.
Simply this: unless someone knows he is condemned by the Law and therefore under God’s wrath, he has no need for the Gospel. The message that Jesus comes to save doesn’t make sense unless someone knows that he is in peril because of his sin, and what it is that he needs saving from (namely, the wrath of God).
(By ‘Law’, I mean here all the things that God has commanded us, summarized by the commands to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourself.)
If we preach the Gospel to people who are unaware of their sin and who are not therefore frightened before a Holy God, it will not seem to them to be relevant – comfortable sinners do not understand that they need a Saviour. (For sure, a few might yet accept some version of Jesus as a moral example. But they will not look to the Jesus-who-is-God-in-human-flesh for the forgiveness of their sins and for their righteousness.) Conversely, if we preach the Law to already frightened sinners, we risk causing them to despair.
Thus, it is crucial to distinguish between Law and Gospel, and use each for the purpose for which it is intended. We preach the Law in all its severity to frighten comfortable sinners, and then the Gospel in all its sweetness to comfort frightened sinners.
As C. F. W. Walther said (heavily quoting Luther):
(I am still working through it myself, but – thus far! – I highly recommend Concordia’s new Readers’ Edition of C. F. W. Walther’s lectures on Law and Gospel.)
Hmm…we must be reading different Bibles, I think 🙂
John the Baptist came preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In that phrase, ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins’, we see encapsulated both the Law (showing us our sin, and therefore our need to repent) and the Gospel (the forgiveness of sins in Christ).
Jesus also preached repentance and the Good News of forgiveness in Him, and so did the Apostles. As Todd Wilken writes in his A Listener’s Guide to the Pulpit:
Wilken footnotes his claim that this message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins is the Apostle’s teaching, and he includes full quotations showing this from those sermons in Acts you mention, starting on p. 9 of his PDF. There’s no need for me to repeat all of those here, but as I re-read them now, I am struck by how powerfully the Law is used to convict the hearers of their sins. Take this snippet from Peter’s sermon from Acts 2, for example:
‘…this Jesus whom you crucified’ – ouch. Law preached to convict men of their sins? Most certainly. And look at the reaction of the men of Judea in Jerusalem:
The Law had done its work! So, now Peter can present the comfort of the Gospel to thirsty hearers who have been smitten by the Law:
Well, you can read Stephen (Acts 7), Paul at Athens (Acts 17), and the rest, and you will see the Law being used lawfully to convict people of their sins and thereby show them their need of a Saviour.
Hmm. Let’s look at that in context:
What Jesus says here is that ‘he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.’
And this is true, someone who does not believe is condemned already before the Almighty and Holy God.
But such a person likely does not realize his state (or, if he does, refuses to accept the reality of it). The preaching of the Law to this person is not intended to condemn him in the sight of God (for he already stands condemned), but to make him aware of his state and its horror, so that he might repent and receive the forgiveness of his sins.
Yes, Jesus became incarnate to save sinners. But do not forget the work of the Holy Spirit whom He sent, which is to convict the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment:
There is thus no contradiction in preaching the Law to someone who stands condemned before God but does not realize it. The purpose of preaching the Law is to relieve him of his ignorance concerning his being subject to the wrath of God, that he might be convicted of his sin, repent and be forgiven in Christ.
This comes back to the question you asked me on Facebook a little while back:
My response was this:
When reading the Gospels, one therefore has to be careful to note the audience of each recorded encounter with Christ. To whom does Christ speak? Is it someone who is already convicted of their sins and who knows himself or herself to be unworthy? Such a person needs only to hear the Gospel. Or is it to someone who believes himself righteousness? That man must hear the Law, so that he might realize his sinful state and need for a Saviour.
For more about how and when to apply the medicine of Law and Gospel, I found this Radical Grace Radio episode on the subject helpful.
[And, incidentally, Jesus most certainly presents the Law in its full force to Nicodemus when He says, ‘…but he who does not believe is condemned already…’]
Yes, one can point to various examples where Christ does not preach the Law, but only the Gospel. But carefully look at those texts to see the state of the person to whom he is speaking. One can equally easily point to examples where Christ does use the Law to show people their sins.
(It might perhaps also be the case that a preaching of the Law does not always occur in the manner we might expect, and so sometimes one can easily miss what is actually happening.)
Consider the rich young ruler, for example. Please see my recent explanation of that passage in a response to another reader’s comment, where I address the very points you are making.
Of course, while we might properly omit the Law if we know we are speaking to someone who has already been crushed by it, we dare not do this if we are preaching to a general audience. To quote Walther again:
Hmm…let’s put that verse back into context, too. Paul writes:
Now, here’s an excerpt of something else I wrote to the same correspondent who was asking me about the rich young ruler:
(That whole discussion is probably relevant here, and I therefore refer you to it at this point.)
So, Galatians 3:24 does not indicate at all that the Law ceases to have purpose after Christ fulfilled it. No, the Law has its purpose, which is to confine all under sin. And it has most certainly done this. Thus, the Scriptures drive us to seek not a righteousness that comes by works of the Law, but rather the righteousness that comes by faith in Christ as a gift.
Now, of course, the one who has already received this gift of righteousness-by-faith is no longer in need of the tutor who brought him to Christ through the realization that he cannot earn righteousness by his own works of Law keeping. But what of he who has not yet come to this realization, he who erroneously thinks that he can somehow earn merit or favour before God by his own deeds? Well, that person certainly needs the thunderings of the Law, so that he too might realize his confinement by it under sin and thus the impossibility of gaining favour with God by works.
Yes, but how do we know sin but by the Law? ‘…for by the law is the knowledge of sin’ (Rom. 3:20).
Now, there is the Mosaic Law, but there is also the Law written on human hearts – including those of the Gentile (Rom. 2:12–16), and one needs to be careful (as I think you are being) to see how Paul is using the word ‘law’ as he develops his arguments. Thus, Paul’s extended argument from Rom. 1:18–3:20 uses the Law to condemn absolutely everybody, both Jew and Gentile. For sure, the Jew has received a fuller revelation of the Law through Moses, but the Gentile nevertheless has the Law accusing him through his God-given conscience.
Well, I hope I have done that here and in the other comments of mine that I have linked to, but if insufficiently, I’d suggest re-reading Romans. In Rom. 1:16–17, Paul introduces the idea that we need to be saved, and that this is by a righteousness that comes by faith. But then see how much time (Rom. 1:18–3:20) Paul immediately spends on the Law to show both why salvation is necessary and why it has to be by faith and not by works of the Law. Only then can Paul proclaim the Gospel of the ‘the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe’ and expect it to be properly understood:
So, again I say, the Gospel only makes sense in the context of the Law, and the structure of Paul’s explanation of the Gospel, preceded as it is by a presentation of the Law to condemn everyone, demonstrates this most clearly. And indeed, this ‘righteousness of God apart from the law’ is ‘witnessed by the Law and the Prophets’, because they show conclusively that all have sinned and that it is impossible for anyone to earn righteousness by his own works. The Law not only shows our need for the Gospel, but it makes plain that salvation cannot come by works, but must instead be by faith.
One final thought: consider Paul’s summary of the Gospel in 1 Cor. 15. It comes down to this: Christ crucified for sinners and raised from the dead. This Gospel makes no sense unless one first understands what it means to be a sinner, and who is included in that category. And that is where the Law comes in.
Well, I am sorry to rush my response – the hour is late and I must soon retire – but I hope that this has been at least somewhat helpful. I do think the various resources (especially Walther) I have mentioned would be even more helpful to you!
Thx again, it is so good to hear you think out loud. I appreciate what you have said and believe I understand how you came to the conclusions you have come to. You agree that one fraught with sin and under its crushing weight may not need to be “kicked while he is down” but loving offered the hope that is in the gospel concerning His Son.
I would offer this for consideration: the gospel contains the wrath of God against all unrighteousness (Rom 1:18) as well as the righteousness of God from faith to faith (v.17). It is not good news that Jesus died a horrible death, it is only good news when I realize that that death was for sinners like you inferred from 1 Cor 15. So inherent in the gospel is an unrighteousness that the righteous one will pay for with all the fury of God against sin so that it ,may at once forgive the sinner who believes and make him fit for the righteousness of Christ. This is the glorious gospel. It is the power of God unto salvation. The power of the law is what? Death to all. The power of the gospel? Life to the believer. After the law was fulfilled in Christ Jesus, Jesus promised to send the Spirit who would “convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
It seems to me that what you infer by your position is that through the preaching of the law the Spirit convicts the world of sin because they do not believe in Him? That the role of the preacher of the law is to get people to believe in Jesus? Hmmm, Andrew comes to mind. “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe?” are Jesus words. And then there were the miracles in which John said over and again that “many came to believe in Him because of the signs”. In these instances what was important was that peoples disbelief of Jesus as Messiah be overcome by the Spirit of promise and a belief in Jesus as Messiah be in its stead. The essence of Pentecost sermon was you killed Jesus, he was the Messiah we have all looked for, repent and believe that he is Messiah. The Scriptures say that Paul and Appolos convinced them that Jesus was Messiah. Thomas believe because he saw and on and on that the convincing of the Spirit to the heart of the unbeliever was “that they believe not in me” not jut that they are sinners, unless you mean the sin mentioned in the text of unbelief in Jesus which is the essence of sin after all, is it not?
I do understand your suggestion that a sinner must be frightened of a Holy God to believe he needs a Savior, I just believe that the witness of Scriptures on how people came to believe is much broader and may be weighted more heavily in “Jesus is Lord” that in “you are a sinner”.
Yes and one other thing…. I see that Galatians verse to means something different than you. I see the verse as Paul indicating that the Law, which had the value of a schoolmaster from its inception long after Creation until Calvary weekend, has completed its purpose and now faith in Christ which what the schoolmaster led us to is fully realized so the law no longer has effect. This is the witness of all Paul writing btw, the law has served it function, Christ is come, the law now fulfilled. It just seems that in these writings there is an effort to get the sinner under the law. The sinner is not under the law. The law is fulfilled. The sinner now is under disbelief. This is ‘the’ work of God, that you should believe on Him who He sent not that you should find yourself under the law. The law is fulfilled. I hope I’m clearly relating what it is I am saying. I can not see from the NT any justification for reinventing a system of law. It is fulfilled, or else Christ died in vain.
Hi Bobby, you really do make me work hard – but it is good for me 🙂
No, not really. The preacher simply does what he is commanded to do, which is to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ:
The great commission is that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in the name of Christ to all nations. Both of the concepts here – repentance and the remission of sins – require an understanding of the nature of sin, and our current guilt before God as sinners. We acquire this knowledge of our sin through the Law (Rom. 3:20), because sin is nothing other than a transgression of God’s commands. Therefore, the preaching of repentance and remission of sins necessarily requires a preaching of both Law (what God commands us) and Gospel (what Christ has done for us).
Thus, the preacher does as he is commanded and preaches the whole counsel of God, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit to regenerate people and bring them to faith and repentance. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17).
I am thus extremely uncomfortable with any formulation that makes it the preacher’s task to ‘get people to believe in Jesus’. (I realize you weren’t stating this as your position, but merely trying to ascertain mine.) No, the preacher’s task is simply to proclaim faithfully the message with which he has been entrusted: repentance and the remission of sins in Christ. If the preacher properly discharges that commission, the results of his preaching are not his responsibility.
I’m not sure that I am exactly following your argument (I’m very tired, so this is probably my fault). Let me say this, then: the Scriptures make clear that no one will trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins except by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in them. And the essence of sin is the transgression of the Law (i.e. anything that God commands us).
Well, you are disagreeing here with a position that I have never asserted 🙂 The central theme of the Scriptures is Christ. They focus on Him, and Him crucified for sinners and raised from the dead. And because they focus on Him, yes, they speak loudly of Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
And so, yes, Jesus is most certainly Lord, and He is Lord of all. But I do not believe this to be the essence of the Gospel message (although it is critical to a right understanding of the person of Christ and His work, His death on the cross and resurrection being the very demonstration of the lordly power of Christ to conquer even sin and death and thereby deliver His people). But the Gospel message itself is not ‘Jesus is Lord’ (though He is, and only the Lord of All has the power to deliver) but, as Paul directly tells us, ‘Christ crucified for sinners and raised from the dead’ (1 Cor. 15). Thus, unless I first realize that I am in the category of ‘sinners’, and therefore that I need Christ’s death for me, the message of ‘Christ crucified for sinners’ cannot be meaningful to me. And how do I come to understand that I am a sinner in need of salvation? Through the preaching of the Law. But the Law itself offers me no comfort or hope, for I find I cannot keep it, and so I must also hear the Gospel of Christ crucified for such as me and raised for our justification.
(As an aside, I think there has historically been far too little talk in evangelicalism about the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. I grew up hearing about Christ dying for my sins, but virtually nothing about His righteousness put to my account. Failing to preach imputed righteousness is to leave people open to the Galatian error that there is still something that they must do to merit or maintain right standing with God. This directly undermines the Gospel that Christ has already done everything for us, and that we are declared righteous solely through His work.)
In many ways, I think you are correct here. But my immediate question for your interpretation is to ask you in what way the Law served as that slave whose job it was to get the student to class on time. You say that the Law led us to faith in Christ, but how, in your scheme of things? Perhaps you are seeing Paul’s reference to the Law here as being primarily the ceremonial aspects of the Law foreshadowing Christ, as does R. C. H. Lenski? This is what he writes (note particularly his comment with respect to v. 23):
I certainly wouldn’t argue with you (or Lenski) for interpreting the passage that way, for Lenski is far more qualified than I, and I find what he says there to be extremely helpful. But I nevertheless do not think that he would argue (as you seem to be doing, but perhaps I misunderstand) that the Law has no use at all for anyone now that Christ has come.
Anyway, while accepting what Lenski says, permit me perhaps to defend my own reading, and also to make an appeal to Luther in support of it.
We must look to the context of these particular verses. Ideally, we’d start at Gal. 1:1, but even if we go back merely to 3:1, we immediately see that the context is Paul’s discussion of how we are to progress in our Christian lives. As Paul asks in v. 3: ‘Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?’
The answer ought to be obvious to the Galatians. No, they began in the Spirit by ‘the hearing of faith’, and that is how they (and we) must continue. This is in direct opposition to the notion that we can add in any way to the work of Christ through our own Law keeping.
Paul goes on to make the case that even Abraham was accounted righteous by faith (v. 6), and states that ‘those who are of faith are sons of Abraham’. We see, then, that Paul is specifically concerned as to how we are accounted righteous. Is it purely by faith, or by faith and the works of the Law (as Rome still maintains)?
The Judaizers wanted to add works of the Law to faith, but they had misunderstood the purpose of the Law, thinking that its keeping was the way to maintain (if not outright earn) right standing before God. Paul’s argument is that we, like Abraham, are justified by faith alone and not by the Law. In fact, he says, not only was the Law not a means to righteousness, it was a curse, because ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them’ (my emphasis). But, Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us, and so we receive the blessing of Abraham in Christ Jesus through faith (vv. 13–14).
Paul then goes on to show how the Law did not annul the promise made to Abraham – for how could it undo God’s prior promise? Paul concludes that the inheritance we have in Christ cannot be of the Law because, if it were, it would no longer be according to the promise God gave to Abraham before the Mosaic Law was given.
Paul’s argument that keeping the Law is not the means to righteousness naturally leads to the objection that Paul anticipates in v. 19: ‘What purpose then does the law serve?’
Paul says ‘It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to who the promise was made.’ Now, I think that Lenski is onto something with his explanation. Because of transgressions, there needed to be a way to deal with sin, until the appointed time when Christ would come. And so the ceremonial aspects of the Law were given as types of Christ. The Old Testament believers looked forward to Christ through these types and were saved through faith in Him, even as we now look to Him and the cross directly and are likewise saved through faith.
I suspect that Paul might also have had in mind the first use of the Law (as the Lutherans would term it): the Law given as a curb, to restrain the sinful nature of His chosen people. And, indeed, Lenski pretty much implies exactly this when he says:
(The first use of the Law continues to be beneficial to us in as much as it is enforced by our governments: it reigns-in some of the excesses of the sinful nature, restraining us from killing one another and stealing each other’s stuff. And, while sin yet remains in the world and even within us, this use of the Law as a restraint upon sin remains valid. But this is not what Paul is intending to teach here – his concern is instead to prove that righteousness comes not by the Law, but by faith alone.)
Paul says that the Law was ‘added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come’ (v. 19). The ‘till’ here is supportive of Lenski’s assertion that Paul is referring to the ceremonial types of Christ, which cease to have operational function once Christ Himself and His work have been revealed. Which is not, of course, to say that their presence in the Scriptures does not continue to teach us much about Christ and the nature of His work. But, the ceremonial aspects are no longer operational: the blood of bulls and goats no longer needs to be sacrificed as ‘a reminder of sins yearly’ (as the writer to the Hebrews puts it in Heb. 10:3), for we now gaze not upon the type, but the very thing typified, even Christ crucified for sinners, His body offered for our sanctification and His blood poured out on the cross for our sins.
Paul continues his argument. He emphasizes again that the Law is not in opposition to the promises of God to Abraham. This cannot be, he says, because ‘if there had been a law which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law’ (v. 21), which it is not. Paul lays plain that righteousness has never come through the Law, and that therefore the Law’s purpose must be other than as a way to righteousness.
Paul then turns to the second use of the Law (in the Lutheran formulation), which is to show us our sin: ‘the Scripture has confined all under sin’ (v. 22). Why was the Law given to do this? Paul answers, ‘that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe’.
Paul’s statement here that ‘the Scripture’ has confined all under sin is intentional. By saying ‘the Scripture’ rather than ‘the Law’, Paul is broadening his discussion from merely the Mosaic Law (and perhaps only the ceremonial aspects at that). And the Scripture has confined everything under sin. As Lenski comments:
And so we see then, that not merely the Mosaic Law, but the Scripture confines all under sin (v. 22). It thereby shows us, both Jews and Greeks, that we are unable to achieve righteousness by works of the Law. Paul thus demonstrates conclusively what he set out to prove in this chapter, namely that righteousness must come by faith and not by works of the Law, because it was impossible for there to have been a law that could give life (as that would annul the promise God gave to Abraham). If this is true for the Jew, who had a special revelation of God’s Law, it is also most certainly true for the Gentile, who does not. And so we see that all the Law accomplishes in respect of righteousness (for it is the attempted use of the Law for righteousness that Paul is arguing against) is to show us our sin.
Now, it is with that immediate context that Paul says (vv. 23–25):
These things are said by way of a vehement argument against the attempted use of the Law for righteousness. And for this use, the Law is a curse, and the Scripture confines all of us and our ‘thoughts, words, and deeds’, indeed, our ‘whole character and life’ under sin, as Lenski shows. The Law thereby proves that righteousness must come by faith and not by works of the Law. And it is this context – and understanding the argument that Paul is making against a particular misuse of the Law – that leads me to interpret those verses in the way I do. The Law frightens us, causes us to despair of our own righteousness, and thereby drives us to Another, who is revealed not by the Law but by the Gospel, whose righteousness is put to our account by faith.
Commenting on the Law as our schoolmaster in this passage, Luther summarizes (my emphasis):
What I am reading from this passage seems to be compatible with what Luther finds there (indeed, my reading turns out to be but a pale shadow of his, which is the best I could dare to expect). Luther and Lenski bring different aspects of the text to our attention, but they seem to me to coexist amicably.
Incidentally, Luther continues at some length in the same lecture to discuss exactly how the Law does and does not continue to apply, dealing with both the unbeliever and the believer. I think he provides considerable helpful food for thought, although there are certain aspects of what he says where I suspect I might presently differ in my understanding (again, I am tired, and my brain is not operating at full efficiency, so I do not wish to state anything further than that). Since Luther’s thoughts are relevant and helpful, I think it is worth including them here:
You go on to state:
Is he not?
(And I mean the Law in its widest sense of everything that God has commanded us in Scripture – in general, this is what I usually mean when I write ‘Law’, although obviously the discussion of Galatians 3 above is mostly referring to the Mosaic Law.)
Are you really asserting that the sinner has no obligation to love God, or his neighbour? Does he not have an obligation to ‘repent’, something Jesus phrased as a command (Matt. 4:17).
Is the sinner not to be faulted and held responsible for his failure to do these things (not withstanding his inability)?
I cannot believe that this is what you mean, so we must be talking at cross purposes (no pun intended).
As Paul says, ‘Scripture has confined all under sin’ (v. 22). And is this not also the very point of Paul’s entire argument in Rom. 1:18–3:20? Paul concludes his argument with this summary, that everyone, both Jew and Greek, stands condemned by the law as being under sin (my emphasis):
Paul writes there of the law speaking still (present tense) to those who are under the Law, such that ‘all the world may become guilty before God’. This is the second use of the Law writ large, bringing knowledge of sin, and confining all the world under sin and proclaiming its guilt before God.
The Law is fulfilled by Christ, and His righteousness is accounted to those who are in Him. Christ’s perfect keeping of the Law – His fulfilment of it – is put to their account, and they are thereby declared righteous. The Law therefore has no hold upon these people, because they have been buried with Christ and raised to new life in Him. They have died to the Law (Rom. 7:1–6).
But none of this applies to the unregenerate person. He is outside of Christ. He shall one day face the wrath of God for his sin (i.e. his transgression of the God’s Law), unless he is granted repentance and trust in Christ.
There is nothing we can do to earn favour with God or merit our salvation, because Christ has done it all. I am most certainly not arguing that righteousness comes by keeping the Law. It was the Galatian error to add lawkeeping for righteousness to the work of Christ. And if this were necessary, it would indeed make the death of Christ of no profit to us, for ‘as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse’. As Paul also said to the Romans, ‘Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes’.
But that does not mean we can throw away a huge part of our Bibles as if the Law were now wholly unprofitable and simply irrelevant. The Law (i.e. the commands of God to us) continue to have their uses, namely as curb (the just ordering of society), mirror (to show us our sin) and guide (to show us what a righteous life looks like). Even the utterly defunct ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law continue to remind us of our sinful fallen state, pointing to the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross where He bore our punishment in our stead.
To focus on the second use of the Law again (which is to show us our sin), since that has been the main subject of our discussion, this is why Luther’s ‘Christian Questions with Answers’ from his Small Catechism begin like this:
It is not accidental that Luther starts off these questions as he does, with our identification through the Law as sinners, nor is it accidental that he begins the Small Catechism itself by enumerating and explaining the Ten Commandments. He uses the Law there both to show us our sin (second use), and what a righteous life looks like (third use). And while sin is yet present in our lives as believers, we continue to need both of these. One day, those uses will no longer be necessary. But for now, we are at war with sin in our members (Rom. 7:23).
What is injurious to the Gospel is not the three proper uses of the Law, but the erroneous idea that we can somehow add to the work of Christ by contributing to our own righteousness through our efforts to keep God’s commands.
In summary, then, I do not wish to innovate in my understanding of the legitimate uses of the Law and its applicability to the unbeliever and the believer, and I am entirely content with what the Reformers taught concerning this. I would therefore direct you to, for example, parts V and VI of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord. And, like Luther’s Small Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism also affirms the use of the Law to show us our sin:
Similarly, the Westminster Confession of Faith ch. XIX (coming rather later, of course) affirms the continuing uses of the Law.
Thus, I believe I am firmly within the Reformation traditions in my handling and use of the Law, and also in conformance with historic orthodox Christianity and the Scriptures themselves.
Now, whilst I am not a Lutheran, Confessional Lutheranism has performed a great service to the Body of Christ by maintaining and emphasising the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, and by being clear about how the Law should and should not be used. It would, I think, be foolish for believers today not to draw upon this treasure. And, thus far, I have found Walther’s lectures on the Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel especially helpful (though I am still working through them), and I suspect you would too (although I am sure you would not agree with all that he says). If you’d like a copy of Concordia’s latest edition of Walther’s Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, email me your postal address and I should be very happy to send you one as a gift.
Well, it is very late again (3 a.m.), so I shall finish there. Again, thank you for the thought provoking discussion – it really is good (although tiring!) to be forced to defend one’s position on some of these things.
Bobby, one more thought. As there seems to be some confusion between us as to what exactly we mean by the term ‘Gospel’, and its distinction to the Law, please do read part V of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord, as I think that summarizes what I mean very clearly.
I suspect you might be working more along the lines of the definition given by Affirmative Thesis 5 there, whereas I am using ‘Gospel’ in line with Affirmative Thesis 6, and using the term ‘Law’ in the sense of Affirmative Thesis 3.
Thank you again Daniel for your thoughtful and thorough discussion of the proper use of the law.
The Scripture has confined us all under sin. The law is the revelator of that sin, what codified it you may say. That is sin was sin before the law, but as Paul said it was given a name and specificity in the law (Rom 7 e.g.). I make a distinction there which I think is important. The discussion in Romans surely clarifies the difference of the law to the those under it (the Jew) and sin and those under it (the Gentile). This distinction is important. Imagine a large bowl of water and then someone emerges a cup in the water. There is water in the cup, the same water as in the bowl, but the water in the cup is distinctive in that it is in the cup. So the law of Moses given to the chosen people of God that revealed their sin was surely not a different sin than the sin that the Gentiles were committing across the Jordan, but it was distinctive in that it was codified for the Jew and not for the Gentile. They are both guilty but in a different way, the way clarified in Romans. So when Jesus came he fulfilled the law in the cup as well as what was in the bowl. So Paul can say to the Jew “much in every way” to his rhetorical question as to their advantage, for to them God lifted the cup out of the bowl and gave them a clear and distinct shadow of a Messiah to come who would drink the whole cup (probably pressing my metaphor but hang with the intent).
Now how does that matter to today when Christ has fulfilled the law? I believe using my metaphor that the cup is no longer in the bowl, for christ has come and it has no further value. Yes we are all still “under sin” and Christ is our only hope for He is our righteousness and no other, but for me the glass is no longer in the bowl.
So for the sinner, he is confined under sin and Christ who became sin for Him is his hope, and for the saint whose flesh still wars against the spirit the life of the Spirit is our only hope of Glory also.
Your view seems to say exactly the same thing, you just leave the cup in the bowl and refer to it. I think I am good wit it either way especially if I have seen it mistakenly from Scripture and there is still a value in seeing the law but for me there is much delight in Christ fulfilling the law and replacing it with something much better as Hebrews seems to show.
I am curious tho and your discussion didn’t address this specifically tho it was alluded to in making a distinction between the sacrificial law and the moral law (and I see none btw except perhaps an economic distinction), how did Christ fulfill the law? It seems your view has him fulfilling it yet remaining in it in some meaningful way, rather than the new which has made the old obsolete (Heb 8, esp:13).
Thank you for your patience.
Sorry for the delay in responding, Bobby.
I still think we are writing somewhat at cross purposes – sometimes written communication is great, and sometimes it is frustratingly limited, and a conversation would be vastly better.
You finished your last comment with a question, ‘How did Christ fulfil the Law?’ That is absolutely key. But first, let me make a few further points (or, at least, reiterate some old ones):
1. I am certainly not arguing that the Mosaic Law was given to the Gentiles. Neither did Luther.
2. Nevertheless, when God says to Israel through Moses, ‘Thou shalt not murder’, we learn something about God’s will for all people, not merely for Israel. And when we see God making sacrificial provision for Israel’s sins, we understand this to be a type of Christ, and we learn something of the nature of sin and of Christ’s work in conquering it. Thus, even the Law given to Israel at the time of Moses continues to teach both Jew and Gentile something of God’s will and purpose – not merely concerning Israel, but also concerning everyone else. And it continues to do so even 2000 years after the Incarnation of Christ and His work on the cross.
3. Furthermore, God’s will for how we should relate to one another as revealed in the Law of Moses is repeatedly referenced in the New Testament epistles and applied to all people, not merely Jews. Thus, Paul writes to the Ephesians not only that God has abolished ‘the Law of commandments contained in ordinances’ (Eph. 2:15), thus reconciling Jew and Gentile believers in Christ, but also that children should obey their parents in the Lord. And he specifically references the Mosaic Law to do this:
And the same Paul who shows that all, both Jews and Gentiles, are condemned by God’s Law in Romans 1:18–3:20, and who then writes of how righteousness comes not through the Law but through faith in Christ (3:21 ff.), writes in the present tense in Romans 7 saying that ‘the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good’. And he writes a little later on in Romans (ch. 13) of the nature of government as an institution of God, and then gives instruction in how we should relate to one another. As to the latter, this is what he says:
Truly, then, Paul does not write in his epistles as someone referencing a Mosaic Law that is now completely irrelevant.
Thus, whatever ‘Christ has abolished the Law’ means, it does not mean that the Law no longer has any kind of didatic use or applicability.
4. Much of the Scripture (OT, as well as NT) speaks directly of God’s will for all mankind, not merely of His will for Israel. For example, the commands that God gave to Noah in Genesis 9 were surely Law for all people everywhere (and many have observed the parallels between Genesis 9 and the instructions given in the Acts 15 settlement). The Jewish sages understood Genesis 9, for example, to be the point where God institutes courts of justice (and, by extension, government):
Thus, there is, even in the Old Testament, Law given directly to all people everywhere, not merely to Israel. And so we understand that Christ fulfilled not only the righteous demands of the Mosaic Law, but of all God’s Law concerning all people everywhere.
5. Again, then, I emphasize that when I talk about ‘Law’, I mean generally God’s commandments for all people everywhere as revealed throughout both the Old and the New Testaments. Yes, the Mosaic Law given specifically to Israel is a part of that revealed will, but it is by no means all. And whenever we see the commands of God revealed to us, we see ourselves falling short of them, and our sin is laid bare. Thus, Scripture confines all under sin, because it lays bare the sin of all, how all have sinned and fall short of the mark, even ‘the glory of God’, as Paul puts it (Rom. 3:23).
Paul does not stop there, of course, (how could he?) but goes on to tell the Good News that all believers are ‘justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’.
6. As well as the Law given in the written word, there is also a lesser, general revelation of God’s will, written in human hearts (Rom. 2:12–16). Thus, although there are those who have not received the written Law, they shall nevertheless still stand before God and be rightly judged for their works. Thus, the condemnation of the written Law applies even to these, because they ‘show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness…’
Having made those points, we come to the question of how Christ has abolished the Law. We have seen from both Romans and Ephesians that this cannot be interpreted as meaning that there is ‘no use for the fulfilled law at all’, as you wrote previously. No, we dare not understand the writer to the Hebrews as being against Paul in Romans, neither can we interpret Paul in Eph. 6 as being at odds with himself in Eph. 2. We would have to discard very significant portions of the New Testament, as well as the Old, if we really find no further use for God’s Law.
Christ has abolished the Law by having become a curse for us and fulfilling on our behalf the Law’s righteous requirements. We escape the Law’s clutches in Christ, because we die to the Law and are buried with Him:
The accusations and cursings of the Law are thus silenced for believers in Christ, because the Law does not apply to those who have died to it, and Christ’s death ‘to sin once for all’ is now ours through faith in Him:
We have been freed from the Law’s accusations and curses through our death to sin and burial into Christ. Christ’s death becomes our death through faith, even as his resurrection and righteousness become our life. As Paul writes, ‘you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead’.
In this sense, the Law truly has been abolished by Christ for those who are in Christ by faith. As Luther writes concerning Gal. 3:13 (‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written: Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree.’):
We are no longer slaves to sin and under the curse of the law, because in Christ we died to the law and sin, and His fulfilment of the righteous requirements of the Law is put to our account. His death and life have become ours by faith.
Now, though ‘sin, death and the curse have been abolished’, we are not now lawless (that is, without law), but ‘slaves to righteousness’. Lawlessness in fact characterizes the unregenerate state, and is contrasted with the life of the regenerate (my emphasis):
We are ‘married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God’. We now ‘serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter’. We are slaves to the righteous will of God, and the new nature inside us longs only to do the will of Him who loved us so much that He gave Himself for us.
And where do we see that will of God for us revealed? In all the things that are commanded and exhorted throughout the Scriptures.
Thus, for the believer (and the believer only), the Law now has a third use, which is to show us the good works that God has prepared for us to do to serve one another, thereby revealing to us the nature of a righteous life. And this is why Paul can legitimately direct his believing readers (Gentile as well as Jew) to the commandments given through Moses, even though Christ has abolished the Law (which is to say, all its cursings and accusations against us), and even though ‘Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes’ (which is to say, righteousness is by faith and not works of the Law), as He has fulfilled all of its righteous requirements on behalf of all those who have faith in Him.
Therefore, Paul does not write to the Ephesian children that they should obey their parents and thereby be saved by works of the Law, for that would be wrongly to make righteousness a fruit of the Law. Rather, he shows them by means of the Law the fruit of the Gospel being outworked in a child’s life, even that good work prepared for godly children with eager hearts thankful toward Christ, namely that children should love and serve their parents by giving them honour.
(And, of course, even in this, the command might nevertheless accuse the conscience of a disobedient child, and the Holy Spirit might then work repentance, bring such a one to Christ by the Gospel, and comfort him there with the forgiveness of all his sins, even that of failing to love and honour his parents as he ought. Righteousness comes through faith, not by works of the Law.)
Thus, for the believer, the threatenings and thunderings of the Law against us are silenced and abolished through faith in Christ. And instead, the Law takes on a new dimension, not only revealing to us our sin (in so much as we still battle with the flesh), as it did before, but now also showing us the good works that are the fruit of the Gospel for those who have already been declared righteous in Christ.
And so Paul is able to write to Timothy of the (continuing) profitability of the whole Scripture – whether Law or Gospel – to the man of God. The Scripture both makes him wise for salvation through faith and instructs him in righteousness (my emphasis):
Well, I shall finish there, as I am not sure that I have anything more that it would be profitable to say here on this topic.
Peace and grace.
Thank you so much for your continued answers. I surely see your point. Your words are profitable and I have referred people interested in this to our discussion.
You have thoughtfully set out a use for the law for the lost, a use for the law for God’s own and finally Christ as the one who fulfilled the law on our behalf.
Thank you to God be praised for His indescribable gift!
Thank you, Bobby – you continue to be more than generous toward me.
And, yes, thanks be to God for not sparing even His own dear Son, and for the precious gift of Scripture, which shows both our need for a Saviour and reveals Him to us!
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