August 16, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
The Law of God tells us what we ought not do, but also what we ought to do. For every, “Thou shalt not,” there is also an implied, “Thou shalt…” This is the way of the Small Catechism which evangelically explains each commandment of God both with a negative prohibition and a positive explanation. What’s left unsaid, however, by the Ten Commandments is how these things are actually accomplished.
In his great work, the Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther argues that the imperative verb, or the command, only shows what God’s expects. It doesn’t imply that we actually have the power to do what God expects. As an example, think of the game Simon Says. Simon gives an imperative, and you have to do it if Simon says. But if it’s only an imperative, and Simon doesn’t say, you’re out. But what would happen if, in the course of the game, the leader would say, “Simon says, ‘Walk through that brick wall.’” Then the game would be in a quandary, because even if you wanted to do what Simon says, you don’t have the power to do so.
Simon has now revealed to us that, while our human will is free in some matters, it’s not absolutely free. We do have a measure of freedom in things below us—we can choose Cheerios or waffles, boxers or briefs, Ozarks or Branson. We can even choose to be a fine, upstanding member of society or a slothful drain on our neighbors. This is civil righteousness and you don’t need faith or any grace from God to achieve it. In fact, some of the best practitioners of civil righteousness are not believers at all, but people who’ve developed a good work ethic and don’t take advantage of their neighbors. You don’t need the Bible for this sort of righteousness, only good philosophy.
And this is why the Pharisee is not justified before God, despite his keeping of the Law. The Pharisee, who was standing to himself, prayed this: God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men—swindlers, unrighteous, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I tithe all that I own (vv 10-12). He comes before God in prayer—itself a good work commanded by God—but it’s the content of his prayer that reveals his true colors. Although he kept the Law, his attitude about it had not changed. He was in the religious game for its rewards (or at the least to avoid punishment), but as our Lutheran confessors wrote, For as long as a person is not regenerate and guides himself according to the Law, he does the works because they are commanded. So from fear of punishment or desire for reward, he is still under the Law (SD VI.16).
This is why it’s important that even the Christian needs to have the Law set before him. You don’t give up on the Law once you’re baptized. Just as the Law shows you your sin and points you toward Christ and His forgiveness and reconciliation, it also prevents you from overcorrecting and driving off into another ditch.
And so God’s Law also prevents us from creating works to lay before God. This doctrine of the Law is needed by believers in order that they may not make up a holiness and devotion of their own. Using God’s Spirit as an excuse, they must not set up a self-chosen worship, without God’s Word and command. For it is written: “You shall not do according to … whatever is right in [your] own eyes,” but “be careful to obey all these words that I command you,” “you shall not add to it or take from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:8, 28, 32) (SD VI.20).
The Pharisee had taken God’s Law and turned it into something it was not. Fasting was commanded by God from time to time in conjunction with ritual acts of the Jewish people. Fasting was meant to shift focus from filling your belly to being filled with God’s good gifts and Spirit. But the Pharisee points to his fasting as evidence of his own discipline and not God’s gift. Likewise, he takes tithing to a new level. He tithes not just on his income, but on all that he owns. “Look at what I’ve done for you, God.”
This false worship and hyper-sanctification reached epidemic proportions in the medieval Roman Catholic Church with the practice of monasticism. In the medieval scheme, in order to do a truly good work, you had to renounce the world and enter a holy order where you would do the commands of God, but turned up to 11 on a scale of 1-10. The monastic rule created new laws that must be obeyed to reach a higher level of sanctification than your rank and file Christian. And so fasting became a thing to itself, instead of a means of focusing on the blessings of God.
Yet you don’t have to put on a burlap robe and shave the top of your head to do the same thing. Whenever we put sanctification, that is, doing the works of the Law, before justification, we will end up right alongside of the Pharisee, heaping up our own works and tearing down our neighbors.
In contrast to the Pharisee stands the tax collector. But the tax collector, who had been standing far off, did not wish even to lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his chest, saying, “God, be propitiated to me, a sinner.” I say to you, this one went down into his house from there having been justified; because everyone who lifts himself up will be brought low, but the one who brings himself low will be lifted up (vv 13-14).
Outwardly, the work of both the Pharisee and the tax collector were indistinguishable. Both of them went up to the temple to pray, and thus both fulfilled the letter of the Law. But the difference is in the person, and that difference is revealed in the content of their prayers. While the Pharisee was full of himself, the tax collector was full of the Spirit. He was driven to despair of his own works and to lean fully on the mercy of God.
Be propitiated to me. That’s one of the $200 words in the Bible. It’s the same word used for the Mercy Seat in the tabernacle, the place where the blood of the sacrifice went for the forgiveness of the people’s sins. So the prayer of the tax collector was that his sins be forgiven for the sake of the shed blood of another. He recognizes that there is no sanctification unless he first be justified—reconciled to God. His sins cannot be cured by a few good works, but by the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
This man went back down into his house having been justified. His prayer and work were acceptable before God, not because of the quality of his prayer and work, but for the sake of Christ. And with that forgiveness came also the gift of the Spirit. The Pharisee thought he became holy from the outside-in, that the goodness of his outward works made him holy. The tax collector became truly holy from the inside-out. With the blood of Christ covering his sins, the Spirit began a new work in him—St. Paul calls it the new man, or the inner man—a holy creation free from the stain of sin.
Martin Luther observed that an imperative only shows what God’s expects, not what we are able to do. But the interesting thing is that God doesn’t use a simply imperative command when He gives His commandments. He uses a future tense, which in this case is an intensified command. You know how this works in English. You shall have no other gods means, “Don’t have any other gods.” But there’s something more to the command.
If you’ve ever seen The Lord of the Rings, it’s like when Gandalf stood at the bridge of Khazad-Dum to protect the fellowship from the demonic balrog, a being of great malice and power. As he stood on the bridge, he didn’t simply say, “Don’t pass.” He said, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!” And then he proceeded to prevent the balrog from passing. The one who gave the command was responsible for the command being carried out; it had nothing to do with the one who received the command.
In a similar way, if there’s any hope to keep the commands of God, the power must lie with God. We are powerless to do what He commands; in fact, we even rebel against Him. But it’s God’s action that carries out the command. He creates a new creation whose will is perfectly aligned with His.
When a person is born anew by God’s Spirit, liberated from the Law (i.e., freed from this driver), and led by Christ’s Spirit, he lives according to God’s unchangeable will revealed in the Law. Since he is born anew, he does everything from a free, cheerful spirit. These works are not properly called “works of the Law,” but works and “fruit of the Spirit” (SD VI.17).
Sanctification is the gift that follows justification. Not because we have a new ability to follow the Law more boldly or effectively. We are sanctified—that is, made holy—by the holiness of the Spirit. He is who makes us holy people who do holy works. The difference is in the person.
The Law still remains for the Christian, but it has no power to produce what it demands. The Spirit is the One who produces in you what the Law demands—like a tree producing fruits. Yes, the flesh still clings to you, and rebels against God’s Law, refusing to do the things you should do and instead doing what you ought not do.
Although in this life the good works of believers are imperfect and impure because of sin in the flesh, nevertheless they are acceptable and well pleasing to God. However, the Law does not teach how and why the good works of believers are acceptable. It demands a completely perfect, pure obedience if it is to please God. But the Gospel teaches that our spiritual offerings are acceptable to God through faith for Christ’s sake (1 Peter 2:5; Hebrews 11:4; 13:5) (SD VI.22).
You Are Justified for Christ’s Sake, and So Your Works Are Holy and Pleasing to God
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard