My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Law and Gospel:
Q: I have heard preachers say that a person is saved by “grace alone,” as God’s gift, but when I read the Bible, I see so many laws and instructions that tell us what God expects. If God saves as a gift, why does the Bible spend so much time saying what we should do?
These two messages in the Bible can often be an obstacle for Christians when they are reading their Bibles or attempting to understand theology. On one hand, the Bible has very clear statements such as, “By grace you have been saved, through faith, not by works…” while there are others that say such things as “Do this and you shall live.”
This is because there are really two types of teachings in the Bible. The first is called the Law. The Law tells humans what God expects them to do. The clearest example of this kind of teaching in the Bible is the Ten Commandments. The trouble with this teaching, if we look at it in isolation, is that requires perfect obedience for anyone to be saved through it. If any person would present their good deeds to God as a reason to be rewarded, they must keep God’s Law flawlessly. Since no natural human has ever accomplished this, we would be led to believe that all people will be eternally condemned.
Thankfully, the Law is not the last word in the Bible. This is where the other teaching comes into play. This teaching is called the Gospel. This teaching states that, in spite of the fact that no human can satisfy God’s demands by their good behavior, God Himself took on a body, becoming a man Himself, and fulfilled it in place of humanity. After Jesus had done this, He was abandoned by God while He was being crucified, and in that event, He also suffered punishment in place of humanity.
The Law tells us what we must do. The Gospel tells us what God has done. Anyone who trusts that Jesus has fulfilled the Law in their place and suffered punishment in their place, receives the reward earned by Jesus’ perfect life and innocent death—namely eternal life.
The Law has absolutely no power to save anyone, because no person can keep its demands. Instead, the Law works in service to the Gospel. First, it shows every person who hears or reads it how badly they have failed to please God, and forces them to seek a solution outside of themselves. When a person has been forgiven for their sins by God, through trust in Jesus, they then desire to do God-pleasing things, and the Law shows them which things are God-pleasing.
These two teachings create a balance which Christians, even preachers, often have difficulty maintaining. When one strays to one side, it is often tempting to say that one must behave according to the Law in order to be saved. In that case, our behavior, not the work of Jesus would be the cause of salvation. When one strays to the other side, it might be said that because we are saved as God’s gift, our behavior is unimportant. In this case, the Law is completely irrelevant. When the tension between these two teachings is maintained appropriately, we say that Jesus saves without any human contribution, but that the Law of God still stands, first to reveal sin and force people to look to Jesus, then to guide and inform Christians, not as a cause of salvation, but as its result.