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The Memorial Moment is a devotion written every weekday by Pastor Scott Murray of Memorial Lutheran Church and School, Houston Texas. It includes a quotation from a church father, Pastor Murray’s ruminations on that text, a related Bible text, and a prayer. It is read all over the world by more than a thousand subscribers. It will arrive in your email every morning to start your day off right. Click here to subscribe.
Below is today’s Memorial Moment:
We must make a proper distinction between law and gospel. Yes, of course. C. F. W. Walther lectured to young theologians in 1887-1888 at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis about the proper distinction between law and gospel. To him this distinction was crucial to the right preaching of God’s Word to God’s people. His students took short hand notes of the lectures and a book containing those lectures became a classic among Lutherans the world over: The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. In his lectures Walther quoted primarily from the works of Martin Luther, who had likewise emphasized that, for the sake of the clear proclamation of the free grace of God given to sinners for Christ’s sake, the distinction between law and gospel needed to be carefully maintained in the church’s teaching and preaching.
But this is none too obvious to many theologians, preachers, and commentators on Scripture. When I was a graduate student at a Baptist seminary, my Baptist colleagues thought of the distinction as a Lutheran imposition on the text of Scripture, not a distinction drawn from Scripture. However, the distinction between law and gospel did not originate from Luther. It is not a uniquely Lutheran theological tool. The whole “distinction” language can be traced back at least to St. Augustine, who spoke of the distinction between the law of works and the law of faith. This language arose out of Augustine’s consideration of biblical texts as he battled the Pelagians, who taught that righteousness before God could be achieved by human obedience to the law of God. The Bible certainly demands obedience to the divine law, but that implacable demand shows the need for the divine grace in Christ that is received by faith, not by works; and for that reason excludes boasting in God’s sight.
The distinction between law and gospel is made only to retain the pure gospel in the preaching of the church. Where the distinction does not exist, the gospel inevitably becomes a human achievement of some sort, whether that is an external or psychological achievement. When we point to our church works as signs of our holiness in God’s sight, these are external achievements. “Hey, God, look at me, I cleaned up the whole church kitchen after Easter breakfast” or “I kept the Vigil on Easter eve. Aren’t you glad I gave you these great works?” The more insidious work righteousness is that which is purely psychological. In this form of work righteousness we turn our attitude or faith or trust or feeling of obedience into a work offered to God. “See, God, I have made Jesus the Lord of my life.” In this way we have turned faith into a meritorious work and we sooth our consciences by claiming that we are just being faith-filled Christians, when in fact we are (at best) just full of ourselves. The distinction between law and gospel is pivotal in keeping us from turning God’s gifts to us into our achievement for Him. As soon as the outcome is my effort, we are again children of the law. This is how Augustine was using the distinction between works and faith in his reply to the Pelagians. The distinction is nothing new.
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
The law of deeds, that is, the law of works, through which boasting is not excluded, and the law of faith, by which boasting is excluded, differ from each other. This difference it is worth our while to consider, so that we are able to observe and discern it. Indeed, hastily one might say that the law of works lay in Judaism, and the law of faith in Christianity. This is so insofar as circumcision and the other works prescribed by the law are just those which the Christian teaching no longer retains. But there is a fallacy in this distinction, the greatness of which I have for some time been endeavoring to expose. To such as are sharp in appreciating distinctions, especially to yourself and those like you, I have possibly succeeded in my effort. Since, however, the subject is an important one, it will not be unsuitable, if with a view to its illustration, we linger over the many testimonies which again and again meet our view. Now, the apostle says that that law by which no man is justified (Rom 3:20), entered in that the offence might abound (Rom 5:20), and yet in order to save it from the aspersions of the ignorant and the accusations of the impious, he defends this very law in such words as these: ‘What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness’ (Rom 7:7-8).
St. Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, 1.21
Lord Jesus Christ, only You have been able to keep the law perfectly. You have done so in our place, becoming our substitute. Keep us in Your perfect obedience that we might never boast in ourselves but ever and only in You. Amen.
For all those who suffer the results of broken marriages, that they would seek divine mercy in the midst of suffering
For all those who are graduating from college and high school that they might be led by God into vocations in keeping with their gifts
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