By Paul Koch –
I’ve never been big on conspiracies. I don’t think that the government is tracking me. I don’t fret over the supposed workings of the New World Order or the antics of the Illuminati. However, some things happen with such consistency in our world that it is hard to not think there is a conspiracy behind it – and the church in not immune from such things.
At the seminary, Dr. Norman Nagel taught us that we could do things in both the way of the Law and the way of the Gospel. He also warned us that the way of the Law was always the most comfortable. When faced with the brokenness of our world and the brokenness of the lives of the children of God, we could forgive and set free with the word of the Gospel, the word of Christ alone. But it would usually be the word of correction, guidance, and measurable success (the word of the Law) that we would opt to use. It just makes sense: the Law, even in a distorted sense, is written upon our hearts. It’s what we know and what we love. When someone begins to tell us his problems, we immediately begin to evaluate where he went wrong and how he could fix it. The word of forgiveness, unless they’re expressly asking for it, doesn’t even register. We are going to help him work it out.
The Law keeps us working and searching for the best way to better ourselves. It takes on the titles of “discipleship” and “walking the talk,” and “following Jesus.” Remember the “What Would Jesus Do” craze? That was the work of the Law. The Law is the never finished task of humanity. It promises to move us forward as a society and talks about holiness and morality and fairness. The Law, though, is never completed by us. The Law is always demanding something more, expecting us to try harder, or at least to try again. In the end the Law will always reveal that there is something wrong with us. The Law is clear. Yet we never fully do what it commands. In the end, we know what we should do but we don’t do it. Even when we want to avoid certain things, we find that we do them anyway.
In his letter to the church in Ephesus, St. Paul describes with great clarity the problem with us and the Law. What the Law reveals about us is that we are not just slow to act, not just confused on the right things to do, and not just selfish or greedy. In fact, we are dead. Paul says that mankind is dead in their trespasses and sins. This, he says, is the course of the world. All people are born as children of wrath. So here’s the thing, mankind does not necessarily know it is dead. It goes along living its life, seeking after its desires and passions. But what the Law of God does is reveal to us the true nature of things: we are dead. Dead, not just sick, dead. We don’t need encouragement, we don’t need enlightenment, and we don’t need motivation. We need life itself. The dead cannot fix themselves; they cannot change their situation or better their circumstance.
Then Paul speaks of something outside of all the encouragement and life lessons of the Law. He speaks the sweet words of the Gospel. He speaks the only thing that can actually affect the dead and give them life again. He says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved… By grace you have been saved though faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Your salvation, your life, your hope rests outside of all your works and all your efforts. It is a gift of grace alone.
So, those who were dead find that they have life again. Life is given, not because of their keeping of the Law, but because of the works of Christ alone. Christ fulfilled the Law. Christ died bearing your transgressions and so you then find that you are given life in the proclamation of that gift to you. You have been baptized into our Lord’s death. You have been crucified in your flesh and raised again to a new life in Christ. You then are declared to be the saints of God, made so by the pure blood of the Lamb. You are given to not only know the depth of your brokenness but to rejoice in the free gift of salvation that fills you with joy. You hear that bold word declare, “I forgive you all of your sins, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” His work becomes your work, your sin becomes His burden, and the dead come to life.
I know that you’ve heard all this before. This incredible and powerful word of St. Paul is not new to you. The church is built on the foundations of this Word. This Word of the Gospel is the source of the light that shines on the hill and it is the fuel the drives the Church. It is the Word that we are called to proclaim to a world full of dead people, those who cannot achieve the demands of the Law. This Word is what we do, and this is where the conspiracy arises. Perhaps it’s just that old love affair with the Law. Perhaps we are simply afraid of what it might mean to simply declare people to be free in Christ. Whatever it is, again and again, we find that when we hear this Word we respond with a “Yes, but…”
By grace you have been saved through faith. Yes, we say, yes, but still you need to show some evidence of this new life. You need to at least have an active prayer life or read your Bible more. You need to show up for church once in a while and try to not spend too many nights out carousing at the bar. This faith is not your own doing; it is a gift of God… yes, but we still need to volunteer our time and make sure our kids are enrolled in confirmation classes. We are saved by faith alone… yes, but we need to at least show remorse for our sins and our repentance needs to be evidenced by others. The “Yes, but…” conspiracy hears the life giving Word of the Gospel to a dead and broken world and then rushes headlong to escort the Law back into our lives.
The freedom of the Gospel seems terrifying. To not bring the Law back in, to simply leave the Word of forgiveness in Christ alone, is to court disaster. It goes against everything we know about how the world works. It would be like leaving my kids at home for the entire day without any rules or threats of punishment. I would certainly come home to a disaster. I’m pretty sure every scrap of slightly unhealthy food would be devoured, no one would pick up anything, the dog would be running amuck, and they would all be glued to the TV set. So, we forgive and we set free, but then we bring the Law back in to make sure everyone behaves as they’re supposed to.
But Paul isn’t talking about the running of a home or the conduct of the government or the structures of our business world. He is speaking about our standing before the Almighty God. He is speaking to those who are dead in their trespasses and those who are broken and hurting. He is speaking to you. And he doesn’t have room for the “Yes, but…” conspiracy. He doesn’t allow the Law to steal away what you have been generously given in the free gift of the Gospel.
Instead, he declares to you that you are free in Christ. You are saved by His blood, saved by faith alone. Breathe deep my brother and sisters, take in the freedom that is yours in Christ. In fact, this life is so rich and complete that even good works flow from it. Paul doesn’t need to reestablish the Law. For he says, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The love, mercy, kindness, and generosity that mark the saints of God flow from being made a new creation in the gift of Christ. It is Christ who is the author and perfector of your faith.
Let us end the “yes, but…” and boldly proclaim the Word of the Gospel. Let us continue to make known what is the heart and life of the Church. Let us go the way of the Gospel and show the world that the dead certainly live again!