By Bob Hiller –
Every other month I get invited to have coffee and breakfast with a group of Reformed Baptists. I call it “Coffee with Calvinists.” They don’t. Anyhow, a few months back I was given the opportunity to present on the topic of my choice, so I decided it would be fun to talk Law and Gospel. I presented the standard Lutheran view: the Law primarily kills and the Gospel alone gives life, the preaching of the Gospel produces good works, putting the emphasis on my holiness (fruit inspection) is deadly, etc. I was met with what I have found to be a disturbingly common response: “Yes, yes, the gospel is the most important thing! We love it. It’s just that…well…if we preach it that way we’ll have a bunch of antinomians on our hands. People will think they are free to sin! In a world plagued by moral relativism, we need to emphasize the truth of God’s demands.”
Sigh. Oh well. That is why I’m Lutheran, I suppose. This idea that the preaching of the free gospel produces antinomianism (that is, life with no regard for the law) or its sister, moral relativism, is constantly leveled against the preachers of grace. St. Paul, Augustine, Luther, Koch, etc. always face this attack. Preaching Christ alone, and not moral improvement, it is suggested, will lead to moral disregard for God’s law in one way or another. We must not be found teaching…and here comes that ridiculous and abused Bonhoeffer catch phrase co-opted by so many legalists…cheap grace (cue scary music).
But, this is just shotty theology. Not only is it blasphemous to suggest the Gospel produces lawless sinning, but the opposite of the argument is the case. It is not Law/Gospel preaching that produces licentiousness, but I would suggest that it is a preaching of the Law alone that produces moral relativism. Let me offer an example from the Hall of Fame voters.
Every year when it is time to vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame the question arises: should players who have been known to take steroids be allowed in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame? The most recent players who are eligible for the Hall of Fame played in a generation of baseball where the vast majority of players were taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). The best of the best: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmero, Mark Mcgwire, are all known for taking PEDs. Thus, many of the writers say they should not be in the Hall. It is not a place for cheaters. The law which says, “Cheaters never prosper,” is upheld by some of the writers with great moral fortitude.
However, to some the law seems too strict. So they argue, these players should all be welcome into the Hall. After all, everyone was doing it, therefore it was okay. We should just ignore the law and let everyone who has performed above average into the Hall. The law is too strict, it gives no wiggle room. It doesn’t take extenuating circumstances into consideration. You know, extenuating circumstances, like, the law never thought that virtually everyone would cheat! So, due to the law’s unwillingness to budge, let’s ignore the law altogether. We’ll simply make the law relative to the morals and actions of the players.
Notice what happens here. Because the law offers no give to an entire generation of cheaters (which it shouldn’t, for what its worth), instead of doing the right thing and saying, “An entire generation deserves to be banned from the Hall” these pseudo-moralists in the sports world search for a way around the law. They look for loopholes on behalf of the transgressors. They seek some room to breathe under the law’s suffocating weight. When no recourse is found, some voters abandon the law altogether and vote for the cheaters.
This is what happens in churches where the Gospel is paid lip-service, but the law and demands of God are emphasized. Over the years, evangelicalism has been marked by a legalistic fundamentalism that demands everyone conform to its (sometimes) Biblical moral standards. If you want to be in the church, you must obey all their rules. To prove they weren’t Roman Catholic, they would confess with their mouths that salvation is by grace alone, but not believe it in their hearts. In practice, Christ was never proclaimed and Christianity became about strict obedience to moral standards.
Recently, there has been a great push back against this and the evangelical church has claims to be focusing more on grace. This is a noble effort. The problem, however, is that instead of upholding the Law as true, they have begun to react against this poisonous legalism, not with the Gospel, but with an attitude of lawlessness. It’s not forgiveness for the sinner that is proclaimed, but the message is that sin is no big deal. God loves everyone no matter what. Nothing makes him angry. So, everyone is in! The reaction against legalism is lawlessness. The real issues is cheap law!
The answer to the preaching of the Law alone is not to abandon the Law. The Law is not the problem; the Law is right. You, the sinner, are the problem.
You can’t just pretend like the Law is not there and you’re not guilty. It’s not moving. It is still and always condemning you. The only answer to this attack of the Law is the Gospel. And it is not that “gospel” which says, “Jesus loves you anyway, so don’t worry about your sins.” That is actually both cheap grace and cheap law. Far from circumventing the Law’s condemnations (because, hey, everyone’s doing it) Christ chooses to be born under the Law and condemned for your sins and the sins everyone is doing! He takes your real transgressions and becomes the transgressor in your place. He takes your cheating and becomes the cheater in your place. He takes your sins away from you and makes them His own. He takes credit for them. He takes the blame for them. And you? Well, you He calls righteous, holy, and pure. He calls you forgiven. That gracious title ain’t cheap; it was purchased with His precious blood. It’s the Word made flesh hanging from the cross being condemned in your place that frees you from the Law’s condemnation. Yes, the Law kills you. It must. For only when you’re dead will Jesus raise you to a new life!
But, but, but… doesn’t that free me to sin? What? That’s your response to the gratuity of God in Christ? You hear about the merciful gratuity of Christ and want to go sin? Well, why would you want to do that? Does freedom from condemnation make you want to be condemned? You’re free! And, that freedom ain’t cheap. It’s the most valuable thing in the world!