I started Christian College with a guy who was there studying to become a minister just like I was. But after a couple of years he dropped out and disappeared. Years later I found out from a mutual friend that he had become a police officer, and when my friend asked him why, that guy told my friend that he discovered that he didn’t have enough mercy in him to be a minister, but that he did have enough justice in him to go into law enforcement. I’ve thought a lot about these words in my 40 years as a minister, and about the interplay between justice and mercy.
Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, believed that God only speaks two words to us – the Law and the Gospel. The Law came to Moses by way of Mt. Sinai and it tells us what God wants us to do. The Gospel came through Jesus by way of Mt. Calvary and it tells us what God has done for us. In Christian College I was told that the most important page in my Bible was the one that separates the book of Malachi from the book of Matthew, the Old Testament from the New Testament. Drawing the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is more complicated than this, but generally speaking, this is where it starts. “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came though Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
The Law usually gets heard by us as a “no.” Growing up I prayed a prayer of confession when I was in church that said – “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.” The Law is God’s moral instructions to us, and so it was the Law that made clear to us what we had done and left done for which we needed to be sorry. As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, the Law takes our moral measure and shows us just exactly where and how we come up short (Romans 3:19-23).
I hear this “no” most clearly in the Bible’s “woes.” A “woe” is the exact opposite of a blessing. In fact, in Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (6:20-26), after four Beatitudes, after four “blessed are you if…,” we are given four corresponding “woes,” four “woe to you if….” A “woe” is a prophetic word of judgment. It’s not a word that gets spoken lightly. It’s a word that only gets spoken with great seriousness and sadness. A “woe” is a very clear, and a very emphatic – “don’t do this!” And it begs a question, at least in my mind – “When do we say this about anything?”
Racism certainly demands a clear and emphatic woe. So does the random slaughter of our children in school, as does sexual abuse in the workplace, or anyplace for that matter. The book The Death of Outrage was published some 20 years ago. In it the author wondered about why more people weren’t more alarmed by the moral decline of our society. And at least part of the answer he offered was “relativism,” the idea that nobody is really evil, and that nothing is finally wrong, because we don’t really have a sure way of knowing what’s good and bad.
The Bible disagrees, in fact, this viewpoint even gets a “woe.” Isaiah 5:20 says – “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.” The whole point of the Law is moral clarity, knowing what’s right and wrong. “You have no right to say that Hitler was wrong,” a teacher reports hearing from a student in her class during a discussion, “because he thought he was right.” That’s relativism, and it’s outrageous because Hitler was wrong, and so is racism, and gun violence, and sexual predation. How do I know? Well, the Law tells me so.
The Law is God’s “no” to anything and everything that’s contrary to God’s good intentions for creation, to anything and everything that diminishes our dignity as bearers of God’s image, to anything and everything that threatens our well-being or that interferes with our flourishing as human beings. God says “no,” and we should not be reluctant to repeat it. But we shouldn’t just stop with the “no” either.
God says “no.” But “no” is not the only word that God says, nor is it that last word that God says. God also says “yes.” In fact, the “no” of God’s Law is a preparation for the “yes” of God’s second word to us – the Gospel. Rather than being opposed to each other, the “no” of God’s Law and the “yes” of God’s Gospel actually “require” each other. It’s the “no” of the Law that actually opens our hearts to receive the “yes” of the Gospel.
Jerry Cook, the pastor of a church in Portland, Oregon, for many years, was soundly criticized by a number of his ministerial colleagues in that city for welcoming into worship one Sunday morning a high profile minister he knew from the community who had left his wife for another woman, and who had lost his ministry and reputation as the result. That man called Jerry to ask if he could come to church. It seems that he had gone to other churches and had been asked from the pulpit to leave. Some pastors had actually called him and told him that he would not be welcome at their churches. And so this man called Jerry to ask if he, his new wife, and their little baby could slip into church after the service started, sit quietly on the back row, and then leave during the closing hymn without drawing any attention to themselves? Jerry told him to come and that he would be at the front door to greet them. And when he came, and Jerry was there to welcome him, this man grabbed Jerry, and buried his head into Jerry’s shoulder. Weeping like a baby, he held onto Jerry like a drowning man. “Jerry,” he asked, “can you love us? I’ve spent my whole life loving broken sinful people, and right now I really need someone to love us.”
People who have heard the “no” of the Law need to hear the “yes” of the Gospel. Their hearts are ready for it. In fact, they’re desperate for it. Its love, acceptance, and forgiveness, not hatred, rejection, and condemnation that change people. This is why Jerry made a “minimal guarantee” to anyone who showed up at his church –
First, we are going to love you – always, under every circumstance, without exception. Second, we are going to accept you, totally, without reservation. And third, no matter how miserably you fail, or how blatantly you sin, unreserved forgiveness is yours for the asking with no bitter taste left in anyone’s mouth. (11)
God speaks two words to us. It’s not just one or the other – a “no” or a “yes” – the Law or the Gospel. It’s both – it’s both “no” and “yes” – it’s both Law and Gospel. And as hard as it is for us to do, we’ve got to hang onto both of these words. The “no” of the Law is not harsh and unyielding, God’s only and final word. Without becoming sentimental, or being indifferent to the wrong done by us, or to us, God’s “compassion grows warm and tender.” In the “yes” of the Gospel God’s mercy prevails. As the old Gospel hymn put it so well –
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.
Understand this, and you will know what it means to be forgiven. Understand this and you will find in your own heart, and discover in your own experience the tools that are necessary for you to be forgiving. DBS+