Law and Gospel: living in the tension between sin and salvation

We Christians talk a lot about the Gospel.  It’s a term so basic we don’t often stop to define what we mean when we say it, but let’s take the time now.  “Gospel” can actually mean two things: first and most obviously, the four Gospels are the four books of the Bible that chronicle the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  But there’s a deeper meaning.  “Gospel” literally comes from an old English word meaning “Good News.”  “Evangelism” is derived from an old Greek word meaning “Good News.”  On a fundamental level, the Gospel is the Good News that God loves us and wants to save us from our sins, to make us happy and healthy and whole and in a right relationship with God and with our fellow human beings.  Gospel, then can be found in more places in the Bible than just the four Gospels.  The Gospel can be found in every single book in the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation.  (“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” Isaiah 40:1, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Genesis 28:15, etc.)

But there’s more in the Bible than just Gospel.  Before you can talk about the need for healing, you have to understand that you’re sick.  Before you can see the need for salvation, you have to be able to see sin.  That’s where the other thing in the Bible comes in: the Law.  The Law is the stuff that points out just how far short we fall of the life God intends for us.  The Law is not just the legal codes in Leviticus and other places in the Old Testament.  Just as there is Gospel in the Old Testament, there is also Law in the New Testament.  The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13 is a good example.  The bridesmaids were to meet the groom with lamps lit.  Five brought enough oil, five didn’t.  The groom was delayed.  The five who ran out of oil left to find more, and when they came back they found they had missed the bridegroom’s coming and were not allowed to enter the wedding.  It’s an allegory for the coming of the kingdom of God, and the message is that if you’re not prepared, you don’t get to come in.  After two thousand years of waiting, how many of us are truly ready for the coming of God?  This passage is law because it points out to us just how unready we are for God’s coming into our lives, and because the redeeming mercy of God is not shown to the bridesmaids who weren’t ready.  Will there be mercy?  Yes, because God is a merciful God.  But before there can be mercy, there must be the recognition of a need for it.  The Law convicts us, and the Gospel saves us.

We are redeemed by God’s love manifest in Christ Jesus.  But sin is the default condition of the world and everyone in it, and this will be the case until Christ comes again.  We still sin, every day, which is why we still need God’s love and forgiveness.  We are saints–people made holy by God–who are also sinners.  If we forget that we are saints, we turn away from God in despair at our brokenness.  If we forget we are sinners, we turn away from God because we think we can rely on our own merit, and we become self-righteous hypocrites who condemn sin in others without recognizing it in ourselves.

We need both law and gospel.  We need the law to remind us of our need for God, and we need the Gospel to remind us that God answers our needs.

If you have any questions about this article, or any aspect of Christianity, please comment and I will address the question next week.


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