There is a danger in the Gospel.
Now, I should clarify that the danger is not in the Gospel itself. The Gospel is holy and true, perfect and glorious. Since it is from the Lord God, through His Son Jesus Christ, there can never be anything wrong with the Gospel.
But the problem in the Gospel is what we sinners sometimes do with it. We like to grab onto whatever is easiest and feels best. When the Gospel comes along, promising and bestowing life and forgiveness, then the sinful flesh wants to misuse it. To paraphrase Saint Paul, we want to still live in sin even though we died to sin with Christ.
This problem is often hard to spot in ourselves because we may do it in a subtle way. Lutherans should not fall for these problems, since we are supposed to be firmly rooted in Law and Gospel as well as the three uses of the Law. So we find ingenious and cleverly disguised ways to do them, so clever that we disguise them even from ourselves. Mind you, few if any people realize that they are purposely abusing the Law this way. Yet it happens nonetheless, and may happen to us as well.
One reason Lutherans deceive ourselves is that we may be afraid to talk about obedience in the Christian life because we think that would be legalism. But simply talking about the Law is not legalism. Insisting that we follow the Law as Christians is no more legalism than insisting that you must breathe is slavery. If we are alive, then we breathe. If we are alive in Christ, then we do good works. Talking about which works we should do is therefore healthy and useful.
A pastor may often encounter a variation on this problem when talking about discipline for someone living in sin. The response to such discipline is almost always, “But a sin is a sin, and we are all forgiven.” This is seductive and destructive. We might as well be saying, “Let us sin that grace may abound!”
When we sin, we should repent most sincerely. Feel genuine pain and sorrow that you broke God’s Law. Do not just feel sad that you got caught. A mopey, mild discomfort when you sin instead of deeply heartfelt contrition may be a sign that you are not taking the Law seriously.
Nor should we simply wait till we have sinned, notice it, and then repent and receive the Gospel. We should also be trying hard in our lives to do better. We should fight against temptation. We should not say, “Oh, I am so sorry that I sinned!” and then go on committing the same sin with token or no resistance.
Our Lutheran Confessions maintain that good works are necessary – just not necessary for salvation. They are necessary because we are no longer dead, unbaptized heathens who are lost in sin. We are saints made alive in Christ through the washing of rebirth. We should act like it, instead of acting as if it does not matter what we do.
This sort of soft lawlessness may express itself this way: “I am a sinner, but that’s okay because Christ died for me.” Although there is a grain of truth in that saying, it is nevertheless most dangerous. If we treat the atonement of Christ as if it makes it okay for us to sin, then we are acting as if the Cross is our license to sin whenever we want. Our response should be as Paul said it: “By no means! May it never be so!”
Nowadays, if a Christian gives thought to good works at all, he may end up with a squishy form of Law. For example, he may be sure that he is supposed to feel love in his heart for others. But that kind of love does not necessarily show itself in any specific actions. It is easily extinguished if people do not treat him the way he wants to be treated. Love becomes a concept that is molded to fit whatever emotions the person feels.
May it never be so among us!
Instead, let us give full attention to the Law of God. It should be our delight and joy. That does not always mean that it is pleasant to us. Sometimes it means sacrifice and pain for the sake of a neighbor. Sometimes it means giving up something pleasurable because it is sinful. But we will still fervently desire to follow the Law’s direction, because we love the Father who gave us this Law. We want to be pleasing to Him.
Although we are pleasing to God by the forgiveness we receive from Christ through faith, we also want to be pleasing in our actions. Or as Paul puts it, “We were buried therefore with Christ by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” As the Small Catechism affirms, Paul is talking here about righteousness, purity, and repentance. That is what our baptized life should look like.
But if we take our Baptism as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, then we can do whatever we want. Then we may live in unrighteousness, impurity, and impenitence, all the while we think that we are just fine the way we are.
Instead of that wicked path, the Spirit with His Word will guide us into a much better path. This path is Sanctification, which is a part of the Gospel. For God does not only give forgiveness and life. He also gives new life and righteousness through His Spirit. This is His gift to us.
Therefore we should never turn away from this blessed path upon which all the saints before us have walked. And God will guide us to walk in newness of life, dead to sin, raised with Christ as surely as we have been baptized into His death.
In His Name. Amen.
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