Law and gospel

photoOne of the distinguishing marks of the Reformed tradition is its insistence that God’s law (commands) be carefully distinguished from his gospel (promise).  The fundamental reason why there was a Protestant Reformation in the first place is because the Medieval Roman Catholic Church had confused or conflated the gospel with the law when it comes to the sinner’s justification before God.  The collapsing of the gospel into the law has remained the perennial danger of the Protestant church in its many traditional and denominational expressions.  Hence, one of the famous solas coming out of the Reformation: semper reformanda – the church is always reformed according to the Word of God – remains as applicable as ever…

Rev. Michael Horton points out in an online essay called The Law & The Gospel that the Roman Church at the time of the Reformation undermined the sufficiency of Scripture not by denying its divine inspiration but by adding to it and “by failing to read and proclaim Scripture according to its most obvious sense.”   The Reformers sought to address this crucial problem.  Horton observes:

At the heart of the reformation’s hermeneutics was the distinction between “Law” and “Gospel.” For the Reformers, this was not equivalent to “Old Testament” and “New Testament;” rather, it meant, in the words of Theodore Beza, “We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings.” The Law “is written by nature in our hearts,” while “What we call the Gospel (Good News) is a doctrine which is not at all in us by nature, but which is revealed from Heaven (Mt. 16:17; John 1:13).” The Law leads us to Christ in the Gospel by condemning us and causing us to despair of our own “righteousness.” “Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel,” Beza wrote, “is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.”1

Like Luther and Calvin before him, Horton insists that the church must make it crystal clear that while the law is indeed a guide to Christians for expressing their grateful obedience to God for his salvation, it is not, however, the grounds or basis for the sinner’s redemption.

Without this constant emphasis in preaching, one can never truly worship or serve God in liberty, for his gaze will always be fastened on himself–either in despair or self-righteousness–rather than on Christ. Law and Gospel must both ever be preached, both for conviction and instruction, but the conscience will never rest, Calvin says, so long as Gospel is mixed with Law. “Consequently, this Gospel does not impose any commands, but rather reveals God’s goodness, his mercy and his benefits.”6 This distinction, Calvin says with Luther and the other Reformers, marks the difference between Christianity and paganism: “All who deny this turn the whole of the Gospel upside down; they utterly bury Christ, and destroy all true worship of God.”7

How is the the church fairing today?  Horton gives his two cents on the North American context.  How applicable is it to contemporary (South) Africa?

In our day, these categories are once again confused in even the most conservative churches. Even where the categories of psychology, marketing and politics do not replace those of Law and Gospel, much of evangelical preaching today softens the Law and confuses the Gospel with exhortations, often leaving people with the impression that God does not expect the perfect righteousness prescribed in the Law, but a generally good heart and attitude and avoidance of major sins. A gentle moralism prevails in much of evangelical preaching today and one rarely hears the Law preached as God’s condemnation and wrath, but as helpful suggestions for a more fulfilled life. In the place of God’s Law, helpful tips for practical living are often offered. (In one large conservative church in which I preached recently, the sermon was identified in the program as “Lifestyle Perspectives.” Only occasionally was one reminded that it was a church service and not a Rotary meeting.) The piety and faith of the biblical characters are often preached as examples to imitate, along with Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. As in Protestant liberalism, such preaching often fails to hold Christ forth as the divine savior of sinners, but instead as the coach whose play-book will show us how to achieve victory.

Horton ends his essay with some further remarks on the dangers of softening the law to make it “doable” and hardening the gospel into a “new law.”

When the Law is softened into gentle promises and the Gospel is hardened into conditions and exhortations, the believer often finds himself in a deplorable state. For those who know their own hearts, preaching that tries to tone down the Law by assuring them that God looks on the heart comes as bad news, not good news: “The heart is deceitful above all things…” (Jer. 17:9). Many Christians have experienced the confusion of Law and Gospel in their diet, where the Gospel was free and unconditional when they became believers, but is now pushed into the background to make room for an almost exclusive emphasis on exhortations. Again, it is not that exhortations do not have their place, but they must never be confused with the Gospel and that Gospel of divine forgiveness is as important for sinful believers to hear as it is for unbelievers. Nor can we assume that believers ever progress beyond the stage where they need to hear the Gospel, as if the Good News ended at conversion. For, as Calvin said, “We are all partly unbelievers throughout our lives.” We must constantly hear God’s promise in order to counter the doubts and fears that are natural to us.

But there are many, especially in our narcissistic age, whose ignorance of the Law leads them into a carnal security. Thus, people often conclude that they are “safe and secure from all alarm” because they walked an aisle, prayed a prayer, or signed a card, even though they have never had to give up their own fig leaves in order to be clothed with the righteousness of the Lamb of God. Or perhaps, although they have not perfectly loved God and neighbor, they conclude that they are at least “yielded,” “surrendered,” or “letting the Spirit have his way”; that they are “living in victory over all known sin” and enjoying the “higher life.” Deluding themselves and others, they need to be stripped of their fig leaves in order to be clothed with the skins of the Lamb of God. Thus, Machen writes,A new and more powerful proclamation of law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law. As it is, they are turning aside from the Christian pathway; they are turning to the village of Morality, and to the house of Mr. Legality, who is reported to be very skillful in relieving men of their burdens… ‘Making Christ Master’ in the life, putting into practice ‘the principles of Christ’ by one’s own efforts–these are merely new ways of earning salvation by one’s obedience to God’s commands. And they are undertaken because of a lax view of what those commands are. So it always is: a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace.13

We must, therefore, recover Law and Gospel, and with such preaching, the Christocentric message of Scripture, or no good will come of our work, regardless of how committed we are to inerrancy. We cannot say that we are preaching the Word of God unless we are distinctly and clearly proclaiming both God’s judgment and his justification as the regular diet in our congregations. To recover Scripture’s sufficiency we must therefore, like the Reformers, recover the distinctions between Law and Gospel.

Again, Horton’s entire essay can be read here.

Are you getting a steady diet of law and gospel rightly divided and related?  Or is your conscience being tormented by a “glawspel”?

Jesus is the son of David and of God

[Sermon audio here.]

One of the ways that a good book or a good movie keeps us engaged is by creating tension or anticipation.  Oftentimes the close of chapter or an episode leaves us wondering what will come next, especially if it ends with some twist or turn in the story.

Matthew’s genealogy in Matt. 1:1-17 is the first episode as it were on the life of Jesus, which ends on a note of tantalizing incompletion.  If you recall, in Matt. 1:1 Matthew introduces the family history of Jesus with the words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”  In the next 16 verses he proceeds to fill in the history that identifies Jesus as the Messianic son of David.  But the problem is that Jesus does not have a biological or earthly father.  In verse 16 we find a disturbing break in the line of fatherly succession.  We read that Matthan is the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph.  But then Matthew tells us that Mary, the wife of Joseph, is the mother of Jesus.  Joseph is not identified as the biological father of Jesus.

Herein lies profound discontinuity in the royal line of David.  How, then, can Jesus be the son of David and therefore the promised Messiah?

What we shall see this morning is that Jesus did indeed become a descendent of king David by the legal of adoption of Joseph.  The fact that Jesus is the son of David while not being the biological son of Joseph is to fulfill the prophetic promise in verses 21-23 of our passage, which is the focus of my sermon.  While Jesus did take to himself human flesh in the line of David, he nevertheless remains the one born of virgin so that he might be our Savior from sin – as the God-man.

Joseph adopts Jesus as his son

In Matt. 1:18 Matthew signals for us that he is still concerned with revealing the origin of Jesus as the Messiah.  The best translation of the first part of this verse, which connects to verse 1, is as follows: “The Messiah’s origin or Genesis took place in this way.”  In this narrative section following his genealogy, Matthew is still busy with the task of proving that Jesus is indeed the Messianic son of David.

So, Matthew continues telling us the story about the origin of Messiah by introducing a little known woman called Mary, who was betrothed or engaged to a humble carpenter named Joseph.  Now, we must appreciate that engagement back in the first century world was much more serious commitment than what we understand it to be today.  Engagement was a binding contract entered into before witnesses that could only be terminated by divorce or death.  One of the valid grounds of divorce was sexual infidelity.  Only once a couple had moved in together and entered into sexual relations would the engagement officially become marriage.

The engagement of Joseph and Mary was by no means ordinary.  For we are told that: “before they came together” to consummate the marriage, Mary “was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”

Without hesitation and in with a few words, Matthew reports the incredible, something unheard of in the history of humankind.  A woman will conceive a child that is not the result of human procreation or the will of man, but rather the work of the Spirit of God, which is from heaven.

In the incarnation, Jesus did truly become part of the human race.  He assumed a human nature of body and soul from the substance of his mother Mary.  And yet, Jesus was not a human creation, and therefore not the result of a sexual union.  While born to his mother Mary, Jesus, however, never ceased to be what he had always been, which is the eternal Word of God.  In the stupendous mystery of the union of God and man, Jesus took to himself human flesh, while never becoming organically connected to it.  Jesus took to himself a body and soul, while not inheriting our sinful nature in the process – so that he might become the perfect mediator between God and sinful man.

The virgin conception set into motion Christ’s life of humiliation.  By assuming our flesh, Jesus entered into an existence of weakness, suffering and death.  He then lived a life of incomparable suffering as one of us, which culminated with death, so that we might have life.

Joseph, however, was unaware of the supernatural conception of Mary’s child, and the implications of it, at least at this point.  So, verse 19, he “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  Joseph was a just man in that he was a law-abiding citizen.  He knew that the consequence for adultery was divorce and he intended to severe ties with Mary for her apparent unfaithfulness.  However, Joseph planned to do so in a compassionate way by sending her away quietly.  He did not want to expose her to public shame unnecessarily, while still being in the bounds of the law.

So, here you have it, Joseph is about to end his engagement to Mary.  And he has no idea that by doing so Jesus will be cut off from the royal line of David.

Jesus is the Son of God

Verse 20 tells us that Joseph had made up his mind and was ready to act.  Butsuddenly” or “behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…” A messenger from God literally stopped Joseph dead in his tracks and reversed the seeming inevitable.  The angel proceeds to assure Joseph that Mary is guilty of no wrongdoing.  And therefore he should take her as his wife.  Despite the apparent contradiction that Mary is pregnant – but not by Joseph – she is nevertheless free of the charge of unfaithfulness!  For, the Holy Spirit conceived the child in Mary’s womb.

The angel of the Lord continues in verse 21 to declare to Joseph that Mary will bear a son and that he shall call his name Jesus.  Now, Jesus was a common name among the Jews at the time.  It meant, “Yahweh is salvation” or “God will save.”  It would have reminded Matthew’s first century readers of Joshua, the Hebrew version of Jesus.  Joshua symbolised salvation in that he led Israel into the Promised Land of Canaan.  The thing about naming Mary’s son Jesus, however, is that this child is God and he will accomplish salvation in his very own flesh. He will save because he is not, like Joshua, just a man.  But he is the God-man.  This is why the angel carries on by saying: “… for he will save his people from their sins.”

The angel of the Lord prophesies that this child, hailing from the most humble background in the first-century world, will save Israel from her sins.

And yet, as we shall see, as we get deeper into the gospel of Matthew, the Jews did not for the most part recognise Jesus as their Messiah.  Why? Because Jesus did not conform to the popular Jewish expectations of the day.  They were looking for a grand political conqueror who would re-establish the kingdom of Israel in Jerusalem.  In the end, they killed Jesus for not giving them what they wanted.

The thing is that had the Jews understood Scripture, they would have known their greatest need was not for political liberation but salvation from sin.  And in turn they would have recognised Jesus as their promised Messiah.  For notice Matthew’s commentary right after recording the prophetic words of the angel in verse 21.  Matthew states in no uncertain terms that what the angel has just declared is not the wisdom of man, but rather the fulfillment of Holy Scripture.  More specifically, the birth of Jesus is to fulfill the prophesy of Is. 7:14:  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us.)

In verse 22, we have the first of at least ten instances in the gospel of Matthew where he uses something like the formula: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken…” The reason for this is that one of the defining features of Matthew’s gospel is to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of not only explicit and implicit OT prophesy, but also OT stories, historical characters and its cultic patterns, as well as the very law itself.

In his first use of the fulfillment formula in Matt. 1, Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is uniquely qualified as our Savior by drawing lines of connection and development from the prophecy of Isaiah.  Here the Spirit takes the multi-layered prophetic words of Isaiah originally intended for King Ahaz and his wife, and for the House of David, in about 735 BC, and applies them to Jesus. Jesus too will be born of virgin, but conception will come through the Holy Spirit.  Jesus too is Immanuel, God with us.  But he is so much more than what OT ever had.  He is the one prophesied of in Is. 53 as the Savior from sin.

Jesus will come to take away the sins of his people.  This does not mean every man, woman and child.  But, rather, every person that God the Father gave Jesus before the foundation of the world.  Jesus came initially to God’s OT people, the Jews.  But as we shall see from the rest of the gospel, God’s people are not limited to ethnic Jews, but include Gentiles as well.  This fact is already hinted at in the genealogy of Jesus in Matt. 1, where even in the OT times God was pleased to save foreigners, like the Tamar, Rahab and Ruth.  In the NT, however, the floodgates of God’s grace have burst forth to envelope sinners from every tongue, tribe and nation.

We are sons of God through Jesus

In verse 24 of our passage, Matthew recommences his narrative on the origin of Jesus by returning to Joseph, his adoptive father.  He tells us that Joseph woke from his sleep and then proceeded to do what the angel of the Lord commanded him.  Instead of divorcing Mary he took her as his wife.  And instead of consummating the marriage immediately, Joseph chose to wait until Jesus was born.  Why?  So that no one could claim that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus.

Beloved, the point of Matthew’s narrative following the genealogical list of Jesus is to further reveal to us the origin of Messiah.  Matthews chief burden in our passage is to prove that Jesus is indeed the promised deliverer of the OT because he is the son of king David.  In order for Jesus to be recognised as Messiah in fulfillment of Scripture, he had to be a son of Abraham and a son of David.  He had to be of Israelite descent and he had to have royal pedigree.  He had to be one born under the demands of the Old Covenant law.

This is why it is so crucial that Joseph did not send Mary away.  In marrying Mary, Joseph legally adopted Jesus has his son.  In doing so, Jesus became the son of David, while remaining the eternal Son of God.

Brothers and sisters, even though we have all fallen like the first Adam into sin.  Even though we like OT Israel have rebelled against God and broken his law, the good news of the gospel is that God has adopted us into his family because of Jesus: because Jesus is the sinless second Adam and the true Israel of God.  By turning from our sins and putting our faith in him, we too become sons of Abraham and sons of David; we too become descendents of Jesus and sons of the living God.

And yes, like the story of Joseph and Jesus, things in our lives may unfold in ways that often times seem contradictory and even self-defeating.  But, nevertheless, we may take comfort in Christ’s Word to us this morning that while God does indeed works in mysterious ways, his purposes are always for our good and his glory.  If he can fulfill his ancient promise to redeem humanity through the royal lineage, life, death and resurrection of his eternally begotten Son, he can most certainly save us from our sins and sustain us in joy and gladness through this life, and into the life to come.  Amen.


Simon Jooste, RCSS, May 12, 2013