Anyone who knows the history of Protestant theology at all knows that the Lutherans have certain key emphases, and that one of them is the distinction they make between the law and the gospel. Pastor Langhans was a faithful Lutheran pastor for many years, and this distinction of law and gospel was one that was dear to him. He went to be with the Lord just shy of his 95th birthday, and he was meditating and writing on this topic just a short time ago.
In the last years of his life, this lifelong Lutheran came to Idaho to live with his family, and began worshipping with us here in our Reformed congregation. He was an honored guest, and was faithful in his worship here. He was also a gracious guest and we had many cordial words at the conclusion of our services. He came to the Table with us and was a living testimony of the truth of St. Paul’s words—one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
He also believed that memorial services, like this one, should be worship services. So nothing would please him more to know that the gospel was declared on this occasion, and that is what I intend to do. And though we might rummage around and find differences of theological opinion under the heading of law and gospel, there is no need to do that. There is a way of declaring law and gospel that honors Christ, warns sinners, and unifies all genuine believers in the Lord Jesus.
The apostle would not have known what sin was if the law had not said, “Thou shalt not covet.” The law reveals sin, and the law even goes beyond that and provokes sin. Whenever the word of God comes to man in his rebellious condition, that word pierces to the heart. We are unholy, and the law of God is holy, righteous and good. There is no way to place something as straight as the law of God alongside something as crooked as our hearts without the difference becoming manifest and plain.
This shows us our desperate need for a Savior. We are commanded not to love the world, or the things in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. This strong pull to worldliness has been an enticement to us from the beginning—our first parents ate the forbidden fruit because it was good for food, desirable to the eyes, and able to make men wise. At each of these temptation points, the law of God steps between us and the object we are lusting after. It may gratify the flesh, but the law says no. It may look really pleasant, but the law says no. It may exalt us to the place where we really want to be—the place of God—but the law says no.
Not only does the law thwart us in our desires, but it does far more than this. The law does not just adopt a defensive posture, standing between us and the objects of our desire, preventing us from grasping them. No, the law is not this impersonal thing, but expresses the character and will of the thrice holy God. This means that the law condemns us for our desires. God told our first parents that the day they ate from the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden, they would surely die. Ezekiel says that the soul that sins shall die. The apostle Paul tells us that the wages of sin are death. Death is the paycheck, the law is the bursar, and the sinful heart of man is the laborer.
But by the sheer grace of God, many day laborers of hell come to their senses at some point in their destructive work, put down the pick axe they were using to dig their own private approximation of hell, and say to themselves, “I have to get a different job.”
The apostle Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death but that the gift of God is eternal life. Notice that there is no symmetry here. Death is the paycheck. Life is a gift. We are not told that the gift of God to the reprobate is death and His gift to His children is life. That would be symmetrical, but that is not what he says. Neither does he say that the wages of sin is death but the wages of not sinning is life. It is not symmetrical that way either. There is asymmetry between what the law dispenses and what the grace of God dispenses.
And so when the sinner repents and says he has to get a different job, this is one of the first misunderstandings that is corrected. Going to hell is a job. Judgment day is payday. Going to heaven is gift. Judgment day is like Christmas, or a birthday. And this, fundamentally, is the difference between how a sinner experiences the law of God and how a forgiven sinner experiences the grace of God.
For those who are in Christ Jesus, there is no condemnation. We still deal with physical death—we are of course reminded of this at a memorial service—but there is no condemnation in that death. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. Death is still something to be overcome and corrected, as it will be on the great day of resurrection, Death is still an adversary, but because of the gospel the sting of death was sin and guilt, and that sin and guilt had the power it did because of the condemnation of the law.
But in the cross of Jesus Christ, all the demands of the law are fully satisfied. God demands the death of the sinner, and in Christ—because we are united with Him—we have the death of the sinner. Jesus did not die so that we would not have to, He died so that we might die. Jesus did not die so that we might live. He died so that we might die; He lives so that we might live.
Because we are united to Christ—by faith alone, let it be noted—there is nothing that God can require of me that I cannot fulfill. He requires satisfaction for the sins I have committed, and because of Jesus I can say that I have been crucified with Christ, and that I no longer live—and to the extent that I do live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.
This is the gospel. This is the good news. This is liberation. If we are a sinful man or woman, a broken man or woman, a failed man or woman—and if we have been listening to what the law says, this would include all of us—then this grace is the only way we can come to the end of our life with any kind of spiritual equilibrium or peace. Pastor Langhans was condemned by the law, just like everyone else in the world. But unlike everyone else in the world, he knew the justice of that condemnation and had turned to Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
And so here it is: the world lies under the condemnation that comes from rejecting God and His holy word. In that condemnation, God offers us hope, the hope of the gospel. Now if we reject that as well, then we are only increasing our condemnation. But if we turn to God through His gracious provision, our sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ. What is that provision? Jesus Christ was born of a woman, born under the law. He lived a perfect, sinless life, meaning that He did not have to answer for any sins of His own. He was obedient to His Father, obedient even to the point of death on the cross. He was flogged, and nailed to a cross of wood. By His stripes we are healed. On that cross, He became sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. His body was wrapped and laid in a grave, where it remained for three days and three nights. He was genuinely dead, as dead as Pastor Langhans is now. But on the third day, God opened the gates of a restored Eden, and Jesus came back from the dead, and walked into it, leading the way for us. This is our faith, this is our hope, this is our love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.