Dean's List: The Law Is for You Even Now
By Aaron T. Fenker
The Law is a good gift, just like the Gospel is a good gift. Scripture consistently reminds us that: "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17); "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8); because God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--does not change, we are not consumed (Malachi 3:6), and that means the Gospel doesn't change. Jesus died and rose for you. That's an eternal, unchangeable fact. But God's Word of Law, His eternal will, also doesn't change. Both the Gospel and the Law are good gifts from God that do not change and both are given for one reason: your salvation.
But the Law Can't Save Me, Can It?
Now I know what you're thinking: "But how can that be? The Law doesn't save me." That's true. God's Word of Law doesn't and can't possibly save you! It is still given for the sake of your salvation. You see, God's Word of Law was chiefly given "to increase the trespass (sin)" (Romans 5:20) because "the Law was our guardian," our bailiff, drill-sergeant, "to bring us to Christ" (Galatians 3:24). In driving, killing, binding, and burdening, God's Word of Law shows us our need for a Savior, our need for Christ, who died and rose for us, setting us free from the burden, condemnation, and curse of God's Word of Law.
Does the Law do anything else? Why yes, it does. In fact, God's Word of Law has three functions or uses, and so it impacts people in three ways. First, God's Word of Law acts like curb, to stop, discipline, and punish wild, disobedient people (Romans 13). Second, it acts like a mirror, for "through the Law comes the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20). Third, the Holy Spirit uses the Word of the Law to teach what is God-pleasing according to God's eternal and unchangeable will.
But who is the Law for? St. Paul says, "The Law is not laid down for the righteous," but for the unrighteous (1 Timothy 1:9-10). You are righteous--clothed in Christ's own perfect righteousness (Galatians 3:27). You are a baptized child of God, and so the curse that comes from God's Word of Law cannot touch you. That's what Paul means. Jesus Himself bore that curse for you (Galatians 3:13). But still God's Word of Law is for you, because you're simul justus et peccator--righteous and sinner at the same time. God's Word of Law with its curse, coercion, and condemnation is not for you in your inner man, who you are in Jesus, but it is solely for your outer man, your flesh.
Already, Not Yet
You are renewed. Renewed in Holy Baptism, new life is yours and the Holy Spirit is yours. Free salvation is given as a gift from God at the font (Titus 3:5). Yet you are not completely, 100% renewed in this life. If you were, you wouldn't need God's Word of Law. Not one bit! If you were completely free from sin, you wouldn't need any teaching, admonishing, urging, driving, force, or compulsion from God's Word of Law. Instead, you would, by yourself, do everything that is God-pleasing according to His Word of Law, and you'd do it completely voluntarily, from a free and willing heart. You'd be just like the sun, moon, and stars in all their splendor and beauty, doing everything according to God's good order.
But you are not completely renewed. And so you do need God's Word of Law in this life, until you're dead. Because your flesh doesn't have the pure desires that the spirit--not the letter--of the Law requires, you need the Law. You need to be taught, admonished, warned, and threatened by God's Word of Law, and you also need punishments or consequences. Why? To keep your Old Adam, your flesh, in check. Yes, your new man is in Christ, in as much as He's perfectly renewed in life and doesn't need the Law, but the new man rejoices in the Law because the Law is death to the flesh. God's Word of Law forces and punishes and curbs the Old Adam to do what he doesn't and will never ever want to do. God's Word of Law not only teaches you what is good and right and perfect, but God's Word of Law also teaches you, as in a mirror, that your works are imperfect, so your flesh doesn't trick you into man-made, self-chosen good works. The teaching, the guiding of God's Word of Law, is just the curb and mirror of God's Law applied to you as a believer.
But God's Word of Law has its limits. It teaches you what is good and perfect, but it does not give the power and ability to begin to do it. The Holy Spirit does that through the Gospel. There's no "beginning in the Spirit and finishing in the flesh" (Galatians 3:3). God's Law demands and even teaches--to death!--but it cannot enliven or empower. Not only that, the Law doesn't make your good works acceptable to God. Your love for your neighbor, your love for God are good works, and they really are acceptable and pleasing to Him. Why? Not because of the Law. It teaches that they're imperfect. But Jesus' blood and death and resurrection, the waters of your Baptism, wash away everything imperfect about your works, so now you and your works are pleasing to your heavenly Father. Because you did them? No, only because you are in Christ.
Remembering Who You Are
Who are you? You're a baptized child of God. You have the Holy Spirit. You also have your flesh. You are simul justus et peccator: righteous and sinner at the same time. Righteous in Jesus; sinner in yourself. And the Law is for you (simul). It's not for your new man, but for your flesh. Your Old Adam clings to you until the grave. As far as he's concerned, he must be driven by God's Word of Law and punishments. He is unruly, stubborn, and will never do what God desires in His Word of Law. But you are a believer, and so far as you are enlivened by the Spirit, you act without constraint and with a willing spirit to do what no threat or teaching or punishment of the Law, however severe, could ever force you to do.
You are righteous in Christ now, but you will be fully renewed and righteous forever on the Last Day. You won't need the preaching of the Law then. You do now. The Law is for you now. The Gospel is, too. But you won't even need the Gospel then. You'll see God face to face, and you'll do God's will with unmingled joy--voluntarily, with purity and perfection, all by God's indwelling Spirit. You know that. You believe that. You were taught that. By His blood and death, Jesus made you His own, and you will "live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true!"
Rev. Aaron T. Fenker serves as pastor of Bethlehem and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Bremen, Kansas. He is also the dean of theology at Higher Things.
This article was originally published in the spring 2019 issue of Higher Things Magazine.
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