Lord, I am Obedient, Help Thou My Disobedience

By Scott Keith

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“Some will object that the Law is divine and holy. Let it be divine and holy. The Law has no right to tell me that I must be justified by it. The Law has the right to tell me that I should love God and my neighbor, that I should live in chastity, temperance, patience, etc. The Law has no right to tell me how I may be delivered from sin, death, and hell. It is the Gospel’s business to tell me that. I must listen to the Gospel. It tells me, not what I must do, but what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has done for me.” Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians – Chapter 2.

How do I make someone obedient? If I had an answer to that question, my book on fatherhood would be flying off of the shelves. What parent, boss, teacher, college professor, or police officer wouldn’t pay good money for the answer to that question?

It seems; the most widely used answer to that question is to apply more law to the mix. School shooting; enact more gun laws. Kids are doing drugs; enact more drug laws. People smoke too much; make more “smokeless” cities. Kids drink too much soda; remove sugary drinks from schools. This is the principle upon which governments and institutions alike operate.

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The concept that application of more law produces more obedience would seem to be a valid logical inference. Though even in the civil realm, this is rarely effective. The power that the civil authorities possess is that of the sword (see Romans 13). Governments and civil institutions enact laws, and when those laws are broken, the wrongdoers are punished. In this way, at least in the civil realm, the Law has a leg to stand on.

So too, in some churches the same seems to be true. Some churches pile on the Law waste deep and their numbers seems to be ever increasing. Meanwhile–– as we are about to celebrate another anniversary of the Reformation––the Lutheran church seems to be lacking the mental acuity to pick up on the aforementioned logical inference. That is that more Law will produce more righteousness and obedience. But will it?

Luther was clear: “The Law has no right to tell me how I may be delivered from sin, death, and hell.” The Law’s seemingly innocent power and appeal are seductive. It is more like Houdini than a choir boy. The Law is a master at getting loose, escaping its chains. And once loose, it does what it knows how to do so well; maraud and kill. Properly speaking, that is what the Law does; kill, so that the Gospel may make alive.

A Law oriented view of righteousness works in the civil realm because in the civil realm we are only concerned with those actions that are enacted on the outside. Outwardly, have you killed, raped, pillaged, or plundered? If the answer is yes, then you are punished. If the answer is no, then you are set free until the next set of accusations comes your way.

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But this is exactly why the Law is limited where faith is at play. Faith lives in the heart. Faith is beyond the reach of the Law. Though the Law may attempt to escape its chains and reach us where our faith lives, the Gospel breaks in and puts that escape master back in its cage. In the life of faith, we ask not only for a change of behavior but for a change of heart also. And this change must be done to us, not by us. This is why Luther says: “I must listen to the Gospel. It tells me, not what I must do, but what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has done for me.”

So, what has Christ done for me? He has, as Luther says in the Small Catechism: “redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

The Law exists for the limited purpose of keeping the world in outward order, providing outward peace and outward justice, and in the proclamation of the Church, to drive the sinner to Christ. What then produces true obedience within me? The key is to remember that the obedience of the heart is beyond our ability to manipulate and beyond the reach of the Law. The obedience of the heart is produced by God on account of Christ alone. This is what we celebrate this week as we look forward to the anniversary of the Reformation.

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We cry aloud with the Psalmist: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10) The Lord has decreed that His Church preaches both the Law and the Gospel. The Law is preached to kill; the Gospel is preached to make alive. In the preaching of the Gospel, God has promised to send His Spirit to enliven us, bring us to faith, and turn us toward Him.

This is clear from the words of Paul in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,” and Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” When the Gospel is preached, the Law is told to go back in its cage and not come out again until it is called for. Then, the Holy Spirit goes to work on us.

Through the continued preaching of the Word of life, and through the sacraments, the Holy Spirit works; killing us and making us alive, condemning us in our sin and showing us a new way in Christ. Only when these have occurred can we talk about a new heart. A heart that doesn’t hide when God comes calling loves God, trusts God, and loves neighbor on account of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit’s work through the proclamation of the Gospel that brings us peace, and thus even a modicum of the obedience that comes from the heart. The power of the forgiveness that we have in Christ alone, as brought to us on the lips of another, through the power of the Spirit, is the only answer to our original question. I hope you have/had a blessed celebration of the Reformation.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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