Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Law and Gospel

I get (well, mostly) the Great Lutheran Dialectic, "Law and Gospel."  At least, I think I do.  I understand the point that sometimes God speaks "a word of Law calling you out on your shit" (aw, geez, now I sound like I work for the ELCA), and sometimes "a word of Gospel reminding you that He loves you," depending on what our own personal needs happen to be at the time.

But there's a lot of people who are very concerned about specifically, properly, and accurately "dividing" Law from Gospel, and I'm not convinced that it can be so easily done.  In the first place, what may be "Law" to one person could very well constitute "Gospel" to another.  For example, "Thou shalt not commit adultery."  Clearly, that is "Law."  Do Not Do This, lest you bring the wrath of God down upon you.  And so, spouse A, who on occasion has a bit of a wandering eye, toes the line of marital fidelity due to fear of the wrath of God.  Meanwhile, spouse B, (see how openminded and inclusive of non-gender-specific relationships I am??) knowing that spouse A has a bit of a wandering eye, but also knowing that spouse A has a fear of God's wrath, hears the commandment as gospel, as knowledge that God is protecting the heart of spouse B and the fidelity of the relationship.  "God loves me so much that He, excuse me, It, wants to protect the lifelong, monogamous nature of my marriage." 

I worked as a volunteer counselor at a crisis pregnancy center in college, and there was one girl who was in to see us just about every month, convinced that she was pregnant.  She was maybe 13 years old or so.  She was born when her mother was 16.  Her sister was 17 and had a couple kids of her own.  A sweet (but hardened-by-life) girl, all of our attempts at "sex ed," politely trying to point out "cause and effect," fell on deaf ears.  Finally, another counselor, out of love or frustration or sheer maternal instinct, (metaphorically) grabbed her by the shoulders and said, "You. have. to. stop. doing. this."  Big ol' dose of law, right, and good thing, too, because that's what she needs, can I get a "Amen!" ??  No.  This girl started crying - that was pure Gospel to her.  No one had ever told her that life could be different.  No one had ever told her that teenage pregnancy wasn't normal.  No one had ever told her that sex at 13 was inappropriate and emotionally harmful.  No one had ever told her that she didn't have to do this.  So...

Q: What was preached there, Law or Gospel?
A: Neither, because the counselor was a woman!  (Hahaha, I digress...)

Ok, back on topic.  The second thing I dislike about this "dialectic" is the idea that the primary function of the Law is to show us what miserable people we are.  A "mirror," if you will, that reflects our own sinfulness.  We wouldn't know we were sinners if we couldn't see how often we "break the Law."  This is sort of in the same category of statement as "How would you know what happiness is if you were never sad?"  Well, yes, I suppose.  But.  Whenever "Law" is "given" in Scripture, I just don't read it as "I'm telling you this so you'll know how rotten you are."  Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the First Use here.  I'm by no means denying that it exists.  Obviously, if no one ever teaches you that you need to honor your parents, then you'll never know that you're sinning by not doing so.  If no one ever teaches you to "turn the other cheek," you would probably never stop to think about what a wretched, vengeful person you are. 

But I perhaps wonder if the Second and Third Use (egads!  I know.  Deep breath.  Grab a paper bag.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Slowly.  Again.) are really actually the primary functions.  When God gives the Ten Commandments at Sinai, He says, "I brought you out of the land of Egypt, therefore..."  "...therefore, I now give you these rules so that you will know how rotten and undeserving you are"?  No.  At least, that's not the God I know.  "...therefore, live as my people, according to my rules. 'so that it may go well with you in the land that I am to give you.' Egypt doesn't tell you who you are, I tell you who you are.  And if nothing else, even if you're not personally a fan of the rules, live this way out of gratitude for the fact that I brought you out of slavery."  That's the God I know.  And I think this reading, this interpretation of the purpose and use of the "the law" fits the typology of "rescued from slavery of Egypt" = "rescued from slavery of sin."  Sort of like "But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed..." (Romans 6:17) or "Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy....[rules for general living (Law?)]...Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God."  (1 Peter 2:10-16)

Now look, I do not in any way want to underestimate the wrath of a holy God that comes about because of our breaking the Law. God hates sin and evil and wickedness, and I think that we don't contemplate often enough just how much sin and evil and wickedness we ourselves - individually and corporately - possess and enact. 

But I also think that when we hear "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8) it's far too easy to spend too much time looking at the "while we were still sinners" part.  In the rest of Romans 5 there, Paul really does a number on "the Law" (which, by the way, is not a direct reference to 16th c. RC indulgences, but that's a whole other post...), concluding with "now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more..." Yes, indeed, grace abounded all the more.  And in Romans 6, Paul, having shown us "where we came from," so to speak, moves on to say, in essence, now, therefore, look ahead, look forward, "...present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace."  It's as though, as Lutherans, we dismiss any attempt to "live by the rules" as "works righteousness," rather than hearing Paul and Peter say that "living by the rules" is precisely what we are to do, and, in fact, empowered to do, because we have been redeemed, brought out of the land of slavery, rescued from sin, baptized into Christ's death, etc...

The other thing that bothers me about current trends in Lutheran application of the Law is the way the statement "the Law always accuses" is used.  I'm not entirely certain that this is true, as I've sort of alluded to above.  Sometimes, I think, the Law is just the Law.  Nevertheless, there seems to be a tendency among the "By God, we're LUTHERAN! (pound fist on table) crowd" to also adhere to the inverse: "if one is feeling accused/pinched/hurt/condemned, that is a sign that the Law is being properly applied and your Old Adam is experiencing a slow, painful death."  All too often, I think this is used as an excuse to justify trafficking in rudeness, offense, uncharity, callousness, and 'failure to listen.'  Sometimes people really do need to hear "The Law," and that can sting.  Or maybe somebody's feelings are hurt and it has nothing to do with "God using you to speak a necessary Word of Law" and almost everything to do with the fact that you're kind of a jerk.  Sometimes God really is letting us feel guilt and shame to bring us to repentance, but sometimes the devil gets in our heads and makes us feel guilty and shameful over stupid things.

Finally, my last issue with the "God relates to us according to a divine recipe of Law and Gospel" meme is that it makes God sound like a giant computer-in-the-sky, always looking down on us, waiting to add a 1/4 cup of Law or 3 tablespoons of Gospel...But that's not relating.  That's pulling strings.  That's not love; it's not covenant.  God loves us for us - the scandal of particularity, from Abraham (Adam?) on down.  Does he hate sin?  Absolutely.  Was He grieved that the death and resurrection of Jesus was (and continues to be) necessary?  I'm sure.  But why?  Because of some arbitrary standard of holiness?  No.  Because of who we are, who He has made us to be.  Back to 1 Peter: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."  You are not a cosmic chemistry experiment.  You are not a pot of turkey soup that could use just a little more salt.  You are not a generic Human Being who needs to soak in a bathtub of two parts Law, one part Gospel.  You are you, and He loves you.

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My Comments Policy: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." Galatians 5:22-23