There’s a song by the Bobby Fuller Four, in fact one of the very few well-known songs from this group, called “I Fought the Law” It’s a pretty simple song but it’s always captivated me from the time I heard it when I was little, listening in the car with my mom to the oldies station out of the big city. Maybe it’s the simple story I liked, “I’m in a hard-labor prison because I robbed people at gunpoint and now I miss my lady.” Perhaps it was the Texas rock and roll sound you can find in much of Buddy Holly’s music too. Maybe I just thought it was neat to hear a song about policeman and the law (I also really liked Dragnet as a kid). There’s also that really cool part in the song when the music stops and the drums play alone to mimic a revolver… “Robbin’ people with a… pop. pop. pop. pop. pop. pop…. six gun…” At any rate, whenever I listen to this song, I get the feeling that I could listen to it 40 or 50 more times before I noticed that I’ve wasted half of the day away.
I have a similar captivation when I listen to sermons and use the Law | Gospel paradigm.
Law | Gospel is a tool, and a Lutheran distinctive. It’s not something you find in an evangelical church. It’s an equipment one learns in order to understand scripture: how terrible for sinners is God’s law, and how great is his gospel. However, it’s more than that. It’s the underpinning of the scriptures. Without a correct understanding of God’s Law, one never learns the depth of his sin nor his total inability to please God. Without a proper understanding of the Law, one never appreciates the gospel for what it is –free salvation from and because of God. Salvation is never understood because one never learns from what it is they are being saved. Without a correct understanding of Law | Gospel, the sinner is constantly forced to look inward for the signs and security of salvation, and never to the promises of God in the finished work of Christ.
As a FE, I’ve taken part in many sermons, lessons, and conversations pertaining to the believer’s assurance of salvation. In FE circles, this boils down to two distinct positions: those who hold to the Doctrine of Eternal Security (Once Saved, Always Saved or OSAS), and those who not. OSAS essentially says that once a man has truly believed on Christ and made his confession (sometimes involving Baptism), then he will not, under any circumstance, face the threat of God’s eternal judgement. Opponents of this doctrine would say that it is a false one.
There are various verses in the scriptures that are used to support either doctrine. Yet neither position is impervious to the question “what of those who fall away?” This question is important, because it is where the doctrines take form, and there are various degrees of adherence to the positions in each camp.
OSAS has a class of believers where assurance of eternal salvation comes from the promises of God so that even if a believer would renounce his faith and commit murder, he would still be saved. In this scheme, sanctification is entirely divorced from salvation. The books of James and Galations demonstrate the false nature of this doctrine, and I wish to devote no further time to it.
The remaining class of OSAS believers who say that if a believer falls away then he was never really a believer (including the Calvinistic Perseverance of the Saints), as well as those who believe that in the end, it’s really man who decides to keep himself in God’s grace, suffer from a different problem. They suffer from having no means to offer security to the believer, because the security is based on man, not on Christ!
I don’t think that it’s unfair for someone to ask “OSAS assurance is based on man, not on Christ? How can this be? I can understand this being said about non-OSAS believers, but not OSAS believers.” Yet, it’s just as true in either circumstance. This begs the question “Ought a believer even have assurance of salvation?” To that, I give a resounding “yes,” but not because of any OSAS doctrine (and in fact, the scriptures do speak of the dangers of leaving Christ). To better understand and illustrate this, let’s consider the OSAS FE’s.
I single these OSAS FE’s out in particular not because I believe in the works-based economy of salvation that their counterparts believe but because between the two groups, the OSAS FE’s would seem to be the ones closest to believing solely on Christ’s work for the permanence of salvation. The words are there. They even invoke the name of Christ and the promise of God in this OSAS doctrine, yet in practice this is because saying “In the final analysis, I trust in my own efforts to keep myself in faith, obedience, and under God’s favor” is too crass to seem biblical. To cover the baldness of a works-based salvation, a OSAS FE clings to that prayer, or to that experience, or to his continued commitment to good works and steadfast upholding of God’s law.
But these sources of comfort ought to instead strike terror in us!
We say a prayer, so we’re saved? What if I haven’t got the words right? OK, so it’s not the words, it’s what’s in the heart that counts? What of the prophet’s words, that every man’s heart is full of deceit and nobody but God can know it? How do I know that I meant the prayer that I prayed?
Our experience tells us that we are saved? What of the various cults and world religions that emphasize experience as assurance of salvation or lack of condemnation? What made that one experience so salvific that it should never be overridden by the very next experience when we were practicing the deceit in our heart?
A commitment to good works and fruitful growth? To a point, this cannot be denied –by our fruit we are known. Yet, which fruit of ours should we be willing to hold up to God’s righteous judgment in which nothing short of absolute, sinless perfection (in thought, word, and deed) will stand? This is the law speaking. When one is told to obey something, he ought to obey. Yet such obedience can never save him because we are now incapable of perfect obedience. If one is to believe the Bible, the entire time while a man is examining his fruit for evidence of saving faith, he must stare into the law as a mirror, a mirror which points out his every flaw.
See, that’s the real drag about the law. When we see that our works do not meet God’s standard in the law, we see that there’s no hope to be found in us. That’s a miserable place to be. At this point of misery, we have three options:
- Call that which is good (the law) evil, because we cannot keep it. This is the equivalent to a toddler stomping his foot in a tirade. Perhaps we even create new laws (Teetotalism? Specific types of music in worship? Refusal to watch certain television shows?) for us to follow and adhere to them, finding a new source of justification by works and calling it “obedience in faith.” But the law as it was given was perfect enough! The law isn’t the problem, we are the problem! Paul wrote about this, saying that the law is good but the evil in our flesh is not.
- Lower the standard. Make the law more palatable, justifying our sin against others by suggesting that they had it coming to them or simply being content to say “Hey; nobody’s perfect!” or “God understands.” Christ addressed this, saying that Heaven and Earth may pass away, but not one jot or tittle of the law shall pass. We cannot escape it; the law hangs heavy on our necks.
- Believe God. Look outside ourselves for salvation and trust nothing within or springing from us for our salvation, lest we malign God’s words about our sinful nature. We can fight the law, but the law will always win. Instead, we must look to Christ, who has perfectly fulfilled the law in the flesh and secured our salvation. This is the gospel, the good news!
This is the Law | Gospel distinction: The law brings condemnation, the gospel brings promises of salvation. The law brings a now-impossible standard (God’s standard), the gospel tells us how our representative has met the standard. The law brings frustration and terror, the gospel brings calm assurance and joy unbounded.
Let’s look at two scriptural examples.
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
It really is that simple. Let’s look at another example, a little more “advanced.” In the fourth chapter of Matthew, we find the narrative regarding the Lord’s three-times temptation. Go ahead. Click the link. I’ll wait here. You’ve read it? Great. Now, let’s move on.
If you’ve heard the same type of sermons on this passage as I have, then you’ve been preached Christless sermons. How can we call this a Christless sermon when Christ is mentioned in the passage? Because these sermons are typically an admonishment. They’re usually about how to defeat sin, or knowing your scriptures better, or instructions on how it is that the devil tempts us. The difficulty is that these are good topics, each of them! Yet they are not the Gospel. If they are anything but sidebars in the sermon, then the sermon is Christless, and where there’s a Christless sermon, there’s also a gospel-less sermon. The one who has heard such a sermon has been left under the law, to be justified by his own efforts against God’s holy judgment.
What would turn this into a gospel sermon?
There may be no greater passage to demonstrate the love our savior had for us in becoming identified in the flesh with us. These temptations were real to him. He bore the infirmities of our sinful flesh, and lived sinless. In his sinless posture, he became a perfect lamb for the sacrifice. Indeed, as Hebrews said, he has become in every way like us, yet was without sin. His righteousness is imputed (attributed) to us, our sin is imputed to him, and by the acts of the Holy Spirit, we believe this and are saved. Praise be to Christ for his righteous work! Praise be to Christ for saving us!
Christ lived as we do. Christ was perfect. Christ took on the sin of the world. Christ died and rose again. Christ sits at the right hand of the father. There is nothing in this story about us… except our sin! …our sin as is exposed by the law. But where the law is powerless, grace is all the more powerful.
And that is the distinction in Law | Gospel. Praise be to thee, oh Christ!