Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” – St. Matthew 22:37-40 (NKJV)
When we speak of “the Proper Distinction Between the Law and the Gospel,” we usually mean by “Law” the Ten Commandments or, if we use Jesus’ summarizing them, the Two Tables: Love God and Love your neighbor. The Gospel, we say, is about what Jesus does. The Law, we say, is about what we do, or at least what we are supposed to do. Thus, the Gospel is about Jesus and the Law is about us.
It comes out sounding something like this in our theology: We are sinful, so we break the commandments. Our sinfulness means we can’t keep the commandments. If we don’t keep the commandments, we’ll go to hell. Therefore, God sent His Son, Jesus, to keep the commandments in our place and to give His life as a sacrifice that forgives our sins of breaking the commandments. Then, with the Holy Spirit as our Helper, we go and try to keep the commandments. The problem with this approach is that it makes the Law about us when it’s really about Jesus.
Look closely at Jesus’ words above. “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” The “Law” means the “Torah” which is what the first five books of the Bible are called. “Torah” means more than just “Law.” It could be translated as “teaching” or “Law and Gospel.” And the “Prophets” refers to rest of the writings of the Old Testament through which the Lord promised the sending of our Savior. So when Jesus says “the Law and the Prophets” He means Himself! That’s because He is the fulfillment of everything written in the Law and the Prophets (Luke 24:27, 44). So, everything in the Law and the Prophets-that is, Jesus!-hangs on these two commandments: Love God; love your neighbor. And the word there really is “hang,” as in “hang on the cross.” Now, consider that Jesus is both true God and true man in one person and all the pieces click together.
The law says we must love God and love our neighbor. In Christ, God and man are together in one person. And that Person, Jesus, loves God the Father above all things. He loves the Father in such a way that He even obeys the Father in dying for sinners! That’s the First Table of the Law. But He also loves His neighbor as Himself, even more than Himself, because He undergoes suffering and death for you! You can’t love others more than Jesus did-dying for their sins when He didn’t deserve to! So there it is. The Law. Love God. Love neighbor. And Jesus hangs on that Law on Calvary. There, He does what you don’t do. And He pays for what you did and haven’t done according to the Law.
So, the Law is not first and foremost about us. It’s about Jesus! Jesus, who perfectly loves God the Father and who perfectly loves and serves His neighbor. The Law pointed to Jesus and it is kept and fulfilled by Jesus. Everything the Law does-command obedience and punish sin-lands on Jesus on Calvary. He truly does hang on the commandments of the Law. So what does that mean for you? Do you have to worry about the Law? Do you have to bother doing and not-doing what it says to do and not do? The Law will always do its job to our Old Adam: crucifying the sinful flesh with its passions and desires. But the Spirit, by whom we have Christ’s forgiveness, dwells in us to bring forth the fruits of faith, namely, obedience and keeping the Law. Or, as St. Paul puts it, it’s not you living but Christ living in you. Or, even better, we learn to see the Law-the commandments-for what it really is: a gift!
You see, rather than just arbitrary rules God throws out there to trip us up and give Him a reason to condemn us, the Law is a list of all the gifts God gives us, beginning with Himself. The real nature of our sin isn’t that we “broke a rule” but that we have rejected a gift. “You shall have no other gods.” But we don’t want the true God. We want other gods. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But we don’t like the people God has given into our lives and so we treat them badly and strive to please ourselves with other people. But Christ lives as if there is nothing better than loving God and receiving every good thing from His Father’s hand. And that life of Christ’s is now yours through your baptism into Him.
Sure, the Law is for you and about you, but only in and through Jesus. He is the great filter by which your sins against the commandments are forgiven and in whom your obedience and works are counted as perfect and pleasing to your Father in heaven. What we need to watch out for is getting hung up on the Law as if we could keep it ourselves or as if we could ever please God. Rather, because Jesus hung upon the Law as He hung on the cross, He has kept it for you and made you perfect in God’s sight. Touch the Law apart from Jesus, and it will bring down the damning curse. But in Christ, the Law is for you a gift that is delivered through Christ’s hanging on it and keeping it for you. So no more getting hung up on the Law since Jesus already was…for you!
Rev. Mark Buetow is pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in McHenry, Illinois