The Law, the Gospel, Luther, and the Little Red Hen

In my life I've been burdened, often to the point of complete hopelessness, with the guilt that comes from legalism - that idea that I gain God's favor by my good behavior, and lose it by my sin. I've often felt alone in this struggle, seeing so many people who seem to have it all together, who "do" the Christian life so well, who, even when they will admit to struggling make the struggle sound so spiritual that I feel I can never even sin as spiritually as they do. The truth is, I know for a fact that nothing I do is ever good enough, or pure enough, to measure up to the standard Christ set in His Sermon on the Mount. In my efforts I've ended up swinging like a pendulum between the twin sins of hopeless antinomianism and prideful legalism. I've tortured myself with second-guessing; I've agonized over conversations, worrying that my speech may not have been edifying; I've lived in fear that every wrong decision was my fatal error, the one that perhaps proved I'm not really God's child, or the one that destroys my usefulness in this life forever.

Even when I came to trust Christ five years ago, I was left with some very faulty notions which I'd acquired over decades within the church. These ideas are deeply fixed and don't yield easily to being uprooted; but ever since my conversion I've had this sense that I'm getting it wrong, that I'm missing something, something critical. There were verses like this in my Bible:
"For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? (Heb. 10:1-2, emphasis mine)

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:1, emphasis mine)
No "consciousness of sins", "no condemnation"? What?

This is not altogether descriptive of my experience, but I want it to be. And so, for the last year or more I have been on a mission to grasp the greatness of God's grace. This mission is in a sense selfish, in that I am in desperate need of God's unmerited favor, knowing as I do the depth of my own sin. But I also know that I can not share with others what I myself do not possess in abundance.When I have an inadequate view of God and His grace, I spread that view wherever I go. If my view of God leaves me feeling weighed down with guilt, this guilt will be my "gift" to others. I want to be joyful and free, and share that gift of freedom and joy with whoever I meet.

That is the background. In this quest I've had my ups and downs. I've found resistance in myself and from others to this grace. I've heard an awful lot about the Law. I've seen a lot of folks try to bring it to bear on the lives of Christians, heaping guilt upon them in the process, and have struggled myself to come to understand the place of the Old Covenant" in this New Covenant life of mine, with some real satisfaction along the way. And interestingly enough, it has been the study our ladies group is doing through Charity and Its Fruits which has inadvertently given me a lot of help along the path, and not just the study itself, but the ladies. Iron really does sharpen iron, in ways we might never expect, and in ways we will never experience if we withdraw from fellowship with one another (Prov. 27:17; Heb. 10:25-25)

But let me back up a few weeks. Our little church has been reeling recently in the wake of a tragedy which struck a family we were dearly fond of. A child has died, apparently as a result of the legalistic belief/discipline system. This has led to a great deal of soul-searching in our community. In my own efforts to come to some understanding I've spent quite a bit of time studying the belief system that led to all this and, as a result, have found my world shrouded in gloom and darkness. I never dreamed that I could still be so terrorized by purveyors of legalism. I learned that my grasp on grace was not as firm as I had hoped. So I've run to the Gospel for help, in particular the book of Galatians and the gift I received for my birthday (six days before the tragic event), Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians. And this is where I finally get to the point of all this.

In spite of all the comfort I've received from these readings, I still was being haunted by the Law, and all the conflicting reports from Christians on what it was supposed to mean to me. "Law and Gospel, Law and Gospel, preach the Law and the Gospel," rang like some sing-song taunt seemingly everywhere I turned. But I don't want that Law! That Law destroys. I need hope. I need the Gospel. And even Luther himself confused me. First he would give me hope. And then he would say some things I just couldn't understand - like this:
"Whoso then can rightly judge between the law and the gospel, let him thank God, and know he is a good minister. In the time of temptation, I confess that I myself do not know how to do it as I ought. Now the way to discern the one from the other is to place the gospel in heaven, and the law on the earth. Call the righteousness of the gospel heavenly, and the righteousness of the law earthly, and put as great difference between the righteousness of the gospel and of the law, as God hath made between the righteousness of the gospel and of the law, as God hath made between heaven and earth, light and darkness, between day and night.
If your conscience be terrified with the sense and feeling of sin, think this within yourself: You are now remaining upon earth; there let the ass labor; there let him serve and carry the burden that is laid upon him; that is, let the body, with its members, be subject to the law. But when you mount up into heaven, then leave the ass with his burden upon earth, for the conscience has nothing to do with the law or works or with the earthly righteousness. So does the ass remain in the valley, but the conscience ascends with Isaac into the mount, knowing nothing at all of the law or works thereof, but only looking to the remission of sins and pure righteousness offered and freely given to us in Christ.
Contrariwise, in civil policy, obedience to the law must be severely required. There nothing must be known as concerning the gospel, conscience, grace, remission of sins, heavenly righteousness, or Christ Himself, but Moses only, with the law and the works thereof. If we mark well this distinction, neither the one nor the other shall pass its bounds, but the law shall abide without heaven, that is, without the heart and conscience, and the liberty of the gospel should abide without the earth, that is, without the body and the members thereof.
Therefore, as soon as the law and sin come into heaven (that is, into the conscience), let them be cast out. For the conscience ought to know nothing of the law and sin, but of Christ only. On the other side, when grace and liberty come into earth (that is, into the body) then say: you ought not to dwell in the dregs and dunghill of this corporal life, but you belong in heaven....let every Christian learn diligently to discern between the law and the gospel. Let him suffer the law to rule over the body, and the members thereof, but not over the conscience. For that queen and spouse must not be defiled with the law, but must be kept without spot for her only husband Christ, as Paul says (2 Cor. 11:2): 'I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.'"
I've been carrying this passage around in my head for weeks, puzzling over it like a great mystery, wanting desperately to understand what on earth he is talking about, knowing we cannot live a life of lawlessness, but not understanding how rule of law can co-exist with grace.

And that's where my ladies group has once again come to the rescue. It would seem I'm not alone in this confusion. We are all still sorting this out. One gal in particular, a dear friend with small children, has been deeply moved by the desire to parent by grace and to live and teach the gospel of Christ to her children. In the conversation following our study we were discussing how we filter what books, movies, etc. we bring into our homes. This gal told us how she had thrown away her copy of The Little Red Hen because it didn't teach Christian love. This is the story where the hen got some wheat and was forced to do all the work herself to turn it into bread because all her barnyard friends refused her requests for help. In the end, when she had her loaf of bread, she refused to share it with the lazy folks who'd refused to help her along the way. Once she'd reminded us of the plot, we expressed some puzzlement over why she'd objected to the book. My 13 year old niece, who'd been paying attention to the conversation piped in, "But they didn't deserve the bread!". To this my friend replied, "None of us deserve the grace God gives us!"; Well, I couldn't get this conversation out of my head so it followed me home.

The thing is, my friend and my niece were both right. My friend, being an adult and a mommy who loves the Gospel, had read that story from the perspective of the Hen, thinking of how a Christian grace-filled hen should behave. My niece, being still a child, in a home full of children, heard it from the perspective of a child...which is who the story is intended for. She understood that the moral is: "...If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat" (2 Thess. 3:10). The point of the story is an earthy one, that no one in this world should presume upon grace. Even Christians, people saved by the free grace of God are not to give food to people who habitually refuse to work for it. Nor would a Christian have refused to help the Little Red Hen and then expected some of the bread. Suddenly it became clear that there is a place for law and grace, even in the lives of Christians, and that in society at large, and in parenting in particular, it is very important to discern the proper place for both. Suddenly Luther's meaning, (and that of so many Scriptures) seemed so simple, so obvious. How could I have missed it all my life? The mystery of "Law and Gospel" and the puzzling words of Luther had been unlocked for me.
"...the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian." (Gal.3:24-25) 
"...believers have another schoolmaster in their conscience: not Moses but Christ, who has abolished the law and sin, overcome the wrath of God, and destroyed death. He bids us who labor and are oppressed with calamities to come unto Him. So when we fly to Him, Moses with his law vanishes away..." Martin Luther
The Law was never meant as a means for attaining righteousness or justification. If we learn anything from the book of Hebrews it should be that everyone who has ever been saved, under the Old Covenant or the new, has been saved by grace, through faith and not by works of law. "Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made..." (Gal. 3:19) That offspring is Christ, and we who are in Him. It is we who are in Christ over whom the Law holds no sway. He is the fulfillment of the Law on our behalf and He has written His law, the law of freedom, on our hearts. No one who lived under the Law was saved or in any way justified by their keeping of it, no matter their diligence. In fact, Paul counted his blameless keeping of the Law rubbish - something to be discarded in light of Christ.

As Luther later says:
"We must learn to discern all laws, yea, even the law of God, and all works, from the promise of the gospel, and from faith, that we may define Christ rightly. For Christ is no law, and therefore He is no exacter of the law and works, but 'He is the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (Jn :29). So victory over sin and death, salvation and everlasting life, came not by the law, nor by the works of the law, nor yet by the power of free will, but by Jesus Christ only and alone."

The Law cannot change our hearts or make us want to obey, or make us love God. That is not what it is for. What it can do is cause us to see how far we fall short of God's holy standard. Beyond that, a work of God is necessary to make us flee to Him for help rather than away from Him in fear, or shaking our fist at Him in anger and rebellion. It was never intended to give spiritual life as it is not of faith.

So law is for the flesh, and those who are of the flesh, and we answer in the flesh for deeds committed in the flesh. Let me see if I can explain. Suppose a person commits a murder and is sentenced to death. Imagine, that while she is in prison, awaiting execution someone has compassion on her and tells her the good news that God sent His Son to pay the penalty for her sin, and she believes and is saved. In the weeks before her sentence is carried out she becomes a new creature, and yet we cannot ask the governor of the state to overturn her conviction based upon this. She must face the penalty for the deed committed in the flesh in her flesh. But, in the sight of God, she is innocent, all her guilt is gone. She can face her death in hope of eternal life in Christ. Her life no longer consists of the life in the flesh. Her life is hidden in God. Likewise, all of us, even if we become Christians, still face the fleshly penalty for our sin - death.

Now, let's imagine that this same murderess rejects the Gospel of Christ and goes to her death with the same murderous heart with which she lived her life. She, by dying pays the penalty of her sin in the flesh, but this by no means atones for her sin before God. In a sense she has paid for her sin against her fellow man, but has yet to answer for her rebellion against the Creator of them both. No amount of fleshy penance can pay for sin of the spirit. This is what Christ was teaching in His Sermon on the the Mount, when He said, for example: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart." There is a level of sin which the law never addressed, which Christ introduced - a kind of law which no fleshly obedience or penalty could ever touch. There is a law of the spirit, a law which answers not to flesh and blood councils, but to God. Temporal penance cannot purge the soul of guilt, and was never intended to.

We, if we are Christians, live by the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), the law of freedom (James 1:25;2:12), which is of the spirit. No temporal law can ever touch our hearts, and should not be allowed to mar our conscience. In the sight of God we are as perfect as if we never sinned. No temporal law, or sin we commit, changes how He sees us, and yet while we live in the flesh, we are subject to such laws. So, if I exceed the speed limit and am caught, I must pay the fine. But before God I am still righteous. If allow my dog off the leash and it harms another person, I must bear the earthly responsibility for whatever happens, but I can still approach my heavenly Father with boldness, assured of His love for me. Of course we are not to use our freedom as an occasion to sin (Gal. 5:13), but if we do sin, we know that if we confess our sins He will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

Now, let me get back to The Little Red Hen. As we have seen, law is given as a guardian for those not yet ruled by the Spirit of Christ. It is for children and unbelievers, and indeed guides us all as to deeds of the flesh, since none of us are yet perfect in godliness. In this sense, it is important that we not lose sight of the benefits of law. We live in a sinful world in which the existence of a rule of law sets some limits on the acts of the flesh, preventing anarchy. It is our fleshly duty as parents, as well as the loving thing to do for them, to teach our children to honor the laws of our land and the Ten Commandments. It will save them and those they come into contact with a great deal of avoidable suffering. If the Little Red Hen were to habitually give away bread to the lazy, she would not be teaching them to help others, but to use others as a means to their ends. She would be teaching them to presume upon her kindness, to think it is owed to them. Grace is given to those who truly recognize how undeserving they are. We need to be taught, from childhood, what right behavior looks like, whether or not we will be able to live up to it, because it honors the Creator, because it makes this world a far less monstrous place, and because it is in our falling short of a recognized standard that we will truly understand our need for grace.

Finally, though law is essential in parenting and in public life, we must never lose sight of its limitations. Law cannot change the heart. The most careful obedience may make us fine, upstanding citizens, but cannot earn us right-standing before God. Nor can temporal penalties can ever purge a heart of sin or guilt. If I steal from my neighbor, and return what I stole, with interest, I have repaid my neighbor - that is all. I have not absolved my guilt before God. If my child disobeys me, all I can require is a temporal recompense, whatever is appropriate to the offense. I cannot absolve her guilt before God. I am also free to extend grace to my child, forgiving his offense against me and requiring no penalty, but this will not be seen as grace unless some understanding of law has been established. And so I find myself finally and joyfully able to understand and concur with Luther when he describes the true rule of Christianity this way:

"...a man must be taught by the law to know himself, so he may learn to say: 'All have sinned and come short of the glory of God' (Rom. 3:10); also: 'Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned' (Ps.51:4). When a man is humbled by the law, and brought to the knowledge of himself, then follows true repentance (for true repentance begins at the fear and judgment of God), and he sees himself to be so great a sinner that he can find no means how he may be delivered from his sin by his own strength, endeavor and works....Terrified by the law and utterly despairing of his own strength, he looks about and sighs for the help of another, a mediator and savior. Then comes in good time the healthful word of the gospel, which says, 'Son, thy sins be forgiven thee' (Mt. 9:2). Believe in Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins. If you feel your sins and their burden, look not upon them in yourself, but remember that they are translated and laid upon Christ..."


WhiteStone said…
Thanks, Laurie, for a good read.
Kerri said…
What a wonderful post.
I have been a Christian for over twenty years but I still struggle almost daily with the sin/law issue. There is no safe place for a troubled conscience but Christ and him crucified.
God bless
Anonymous said…
Quite a discourse, Laurie! And very good. It struck me for a couple of reasons. One, I've had the some of the same struggles. Two, I had seen this quotation (attributed to Spurgeon) just a little earlier today on Facebook:

"I have never known what it is to be out of the seventh of Romans, nor out of the eighth of Romans, either—the whole passage has been solid Truth of God to my experience. I have struggled against inward sin and rejoiced in complete justification at the same time."
Laurie M. said…
Kerri & Barry,

Thanks for your input. I've gotten a fair amount of feedback from this post, from people like you who have been in the faith much longer than myself, which leads me to believe that this is not a struggle that really goes away. There will always be "forces" at work trying to snatch grace from our hearts, luring us into legalism, or else luring us in the other direction, using grace as a license for sin. That's why it's so important we don't lose sight of grace, what it really is and how it really operates in our lives.

Thanks for the words of wisdom and encouragement.
Excellent post! I love Luther. He was so good at hitting the nail right on the head. And in such a colorful way.

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