Christians often wish that God would speak the way that he used to speak to his people—audibly, through burning bushes, dreams, and doves descending from the sky. That way, it would seem so much easier to discern what he is saying. Today, most Christians agree, the main way God speaks to his people is through the Bible. For too many, though, what he says there is a complete mystery, impossible to understand.
It doesn't have to be.
Many people read the Bible as if it were fundamentally about us: our improvement, our life, our victory, our faith, our holiness, our godliness. We treat it like a disconnected series of timeless principles that will give us our best life now, if we simply apply them. We read it, in other words, as if it were a heaven-sent self-help manual, a divinely delivered to-do list. But by reading the Bible this way, we—like the two companions on the road to Emmaus—totally miss the point. As Luke 24 shows, it's possible to read the Bible, study the Bible—even memorize large portions of the Bible—and miss the main point of the Bible. In fact, unless we go to the Bible to see Jesus and his work for us, even devout Bible reading can become fuel for our own self-improvement plans, a source for the help we need to conquer today's challenges and take control of our lives.
God's goal in speaking to us in the Bible is profound, but not complicated. In fact, we can say that all of God's Word comes to us in two words. And if we are going to understand the Bible rightly, we have to be able to distinguish properly between these two words.
Different Job Descriptions
The Protestant Reformers were all in agreement that all of God's Word comes to us in two forms of speech: law and gospel. The law is God's word of demand, and the gospel is God's word of deliverance. The law tells us what to do, while the gospel tells us what God has done. If you pick up your Bible and turn to any page, you're going to find one of two things: either a passage that demands something from you (law), like "Honor your father and your mother" (Ex. 20:12), or a passage that delivers something to you (gospel), like "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16, ESV). Everything in both the Old and New Testaments comes in one of these two forms. "Hence," wrote Martin Luther, "whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the law and the gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture."
Obviously, both God's law and God's gospel come from God, which means both are good and necessary for us to hear. But they do very different things. This distinction may seem irrelevantly abstract—something that would fascinate only the theologian or linguist—but serious life confusion happens when we confuse law and gospel, when we fail to understand their unique job descriptions. John Calvin's protégé, Theodore Beza, went so far as to say, "Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity."
So what are the "job descriptions" of God's two words? Let me answer by way of illustration.
My wife and I have three children: Gabe (18), Nate (16), and Genna (12). In order for us to function as a community of five in our home, rules need to be established. Laws need to be put in place. Our kids know that they can't steal from each other. They have to share the computer. Since harmonious relationships depend on trust, they can't lie. Because we have three cars and four drivers, our sons can't simply announce that they're taking one of the cars. Each has to ask ahead of time. Rules are necessary. But telling them, over and over, what they can and cannot do won't change their hearts or make them want to comply.
When one of our kids (typically Genna) throws a temper tantrum, thereby breaking one of the rules, we can send her to her room and take away some of her privileges. But while this may rightly produce sorrow at the revelation of her sin, it does not have the power to remove her sin. In other words, the law can crush her, but it cannot cure her—it can kill her, but it cannot make her alive. If Kim and I don't follow up the law with the gospel, Genna would be left without hope—defeated but not delivered.
In Romans 7, the apostle Paul makes it clear that the law illuminates sin but is powerless to eliminate sin. That's not part of its job description. It points to righteousness but can't produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. The law can inform us of our sin, but it cannot transform the sinner. Only the gospel can do that. As Luther said, "Sin is not canceled by lawful living, for no person is able to live up to the Law. Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God."
The law is God's first word, but the gospel is God's final word. The gospel alone is "the power of God unto salvation," which means that the law forces us to face our sin, but only the gospel can forgive us our sin. The law accuses us, while the gospel acquits us. The law exposes, but only the gospel exonerates. The law may curtail bad behavior, but only grace can transform the heart.
The law, to paraphrase Luther, is a divinely sent Hercules sent to attack and kill the monster of self-righteousness—a monster that continues to harass the redeemed. Christians, in other words, need the law to regularly reveal that we are worse off than we think. We need to be reminded that there is something to be pardoned even in our best works and proudest achievements.
But then, once we are recrushed by law, we need to be reminded, in the words of an old hymn, that "there is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel's veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains." We need to hear that the sins we cannot forget, God cannot remember, or as another old hymn puts it, that "though th' accuser roar, of ills that I have done, I know them well and thousands more; Jehovah findeth none." We need to hear over and over that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, that nothing can separate us from God's love, and that Christians live their lives under a banner that reads, "It is finished."
Christians who talk a lot about grace are thought to have a low view of God's law. Correspondingly, those with a high view of the law are thought to be legalists. But the late Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen says this gets the matter backwards: "A low view of the law always produces legalism; a high view of the law makes a person a seeker after grace." This is because a low view of the law encourages us to conclude that we can keep it—the bar is low enough for us to jump over. A low view of the law makes us think that its standards are attainable, its goals reachable, its demands doable.
A high view of the law, however, demolishes all such confidence. It leaves us no room for supposing that God supplies helpful tips for practical living, rather than demanding absolute perfection. We'll always be suspicious of unconditional grace as long as we think our own moral efforts are sufficient. Only an inflexible picture of what God demands reveals the depth of our ongoing need for the gospel.
This means that, contrary to what some Christians would have you believe, the biggest problem facing the church today is not "cheap grace" but "cheap law"—the idea that God accepts anything less than the perfect righteousness of Jesus. Essayist John Dink writes, "Cheap law weakens God's demand for perfection, and in doing so, breathes life into the old creature and his quest for a righteousness of his own making. . . . Cheap law tells us that we've fallen, but there's good news, you can get back up again. . . . Therein lies the great heresy of cheap law: it is a false gospel. And it cheapens—no—it nullifies grace."
Only when we see that the way of God's law is absolutely inflexible will we see that God's grace is absolutely indispensable. A high view of the law reminds us that God accepts us on the basis of Christ's perfection, not our progress. It reminds us, then, to seek deliverance only in the gospel. In other words, a high view of the law produces a high view of grace. A low view of the law produces a low view of grace. God's good law reveals our desperation; God's good gospel reveals our deliverer. We are in constant need of hearing both.
When talking about "the law," we need to know the difference between what I call "big L" law and "little L" law. Big-L law is what I've been writing about so far. It comes from God and is outlined in the Ten Commandments, reiterated in the Sermon on the Mount, and summarized by Jesus as the command to "love the Lord with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength" and "love our neighbor."
But there's another law (little-L) that permeates daily life. Paul Zahl, in his wonderful little book Who Will Deliver Us?, writes that "law with a small L . . . is any voice that makes us feel that we must do something or be something to merit the approval of another. . . . In the Bible, the Law comes from God. In daily living, law is an internalized principle of self-accusation. We might say that the innumerable laws we carry inside us are bastard children of the Law."
You're familiar with this kind of "law," even if you've never described it that way. It comes in the form of internal "musts."
The "oughts" of life are numerous. You feel them every day: infomercials promising a better life if you work at getting a better body, a neighbor's new car that you can't afford, a beautiful person you can't hope to compare to, the success of your more talented coworker. All of these things have the power to communicate, "You're not enough." Maybe you feel that you have to be on top of everything if you're going to make it; that you have to infallibly parent your kids if they're going to turn out okay; that you have to control what others think about you if you're going to get respect; or that you have to be successful to satisfy a deep desire for parental approval.
Not long ago, I was driving down the road near my house, and I passed a sign in front of a store that read, "Life is the art of drawing without an eraser." Meant to inspire drivers-by to work hard, live well, and avoid fretting over possible mistakes, it instead served as a booming voice of little-L law: "Don't mess up. There are no second chances. You better get it right the first time."
How do we deal with these ruthless musts and demands? Is there any hope?
At least twice in the past year, I've been late for a meeting or an appointment and haven't been able to find my car keys. Certain that either my wife or one of my children had misplaced them, I've frantically run from room to room assigning blame. "Who was playing with my keys? I put them right here on the counter and now they're gone. They didn't just vanish into thin air! Who picked them up? Where are they? I'm late." And right when I'm about ready to order mass executions, I walk into my bedroom one last time to look (huffing and puffing, moaning and groaning), put my hand in my pocket, and find my keys. They'd been there the whole time.
Every time I tell that story, people laugh. And rightfully so. Who frantically looks for car keys that are in his pocket? Me. That's who.
The truth is, we all typically live this way: frantically and frustratingly searching for something we already have. The gospel is God's good news announcement that everything we need we already possess in Christ. Because of Jesus' finished work, Christians already have all of the justification, approval, significance, security, freedom, validation, love, righteousness, and rescue that we desperately long for, and look for in a thousand things infinitely smaller than Jesus. When we work so hard to appease those little-L judges, we forget that the big-L judge—almighty God—has already been appeased in Christ. We allow our internal voice, one that constantly says, "Do this and live," to drown out the external voice that shouts, "It is finished!"
The Work of the Redeemer
Before God's holy law and our own personalized laws, we are judged and rightly found wanting. I am not the follower of Christ that I ought to be, nor am I the father, husband, pastor, or friend I should be. I wish I could say I do everything for God's glory. I can't. Neither can you. What I can say is that Jesus' blood covers all my efforts to glorify myself. I wish I could say Jesus fully satisfies me. I can't. Neither can you. What I can say is Jesus fully satisfied God for me.
If law were the one word of God—if the Bible were basically a book of instructions—we would be doomed. Jesus announced that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Jesus fulfilled all of God's holy conditions so that our relationship to him could be wholly unconditional. The primary message of the Bible, then, is this: The law-maker became the law-keeper and died for me—the law-breaker.
The Bible is one long story of God meeting our rebellion with his rescue, our sin with his salvation, our guilt with his grace. The overwhelming focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. Which means that the Bible is not first a recipe book for Christian living, but a revelation book of Jesus, who is the answer to our un-Christian living.
Tullian Tchividjian is senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is the author of the forthcoming One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (David C. Cook).
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