Rev. Donavon Riley
When Lutherans talk about law and Gospel stuff we talk about two kingdoms stuff at the same time. What is “two kingdoms stuff”? That’s the way Martin Luther talked to distinguish between the two different ways God works in and for His creation. One kingdom comes when Jesus’ death and resurrection is preached. In this kingdom sin, death, and the devil are ruled over by God yesterday, today, and all the way until the Last Day. This happens “when God gives us His Holy Spirit so that we may believe His Word and live godly lives…”, as Luther writes in the Small Catechism. Today we receive this in hope but at the resurrection it will come “in heaven forever,” when all the powers of the devil are destroyed once for all.
In the other “kingdom,” God works in and for His creation through relationships, organizations, culture, and all the different ways we’ve set up so we can live side by side with each other in the world. While these ways in which God works cannot bring “the new age,” as the New Testament calls it, they’re necessary for life as we know it. Through the stuff of this world God works to make sure His creation enjoys justice and peace. In this way Lutherans distinguish between God’s Gospel-kingdom and God’s law-kingdom, between heavenly and earthly stuff.
We can also distinguish between these two kingdoms by the things God uses in them. God rules in Christ through the Gospel. Wherever the Gospel is “preached in its truth and purity, and the sacraments rightly administered,” as the Augsburg Confession says, Christians are under the authority and rule of grace and truth. All other earthly relationships and organizations depend on the law to accomplish their plans. In our families, churches, in the different organizations and institutions, even the economy, are the ways which God rules to maintain obedience, cooperation, and mutual support amongst His creatures. The old Adam and the devil love to confuse these two kingdoms, heavenly things and earthly things, law stuff and Gospel stuff, Moses and Christ.
Christians serve freely in both kingdoms. We tell people what Jesus has done in his sacrificial death for “the sins of the world” and we love our neighbors as ourselves. Whether at home, in church, our in our communities, Christians are free to hope in Christ and trust that God is at work in creation for everyone’s good, even when we can’t see it. Even when you buy a jug of milk God is at work for your neighbor’s benefit. The dairy farmer, the creamery, the store and the clerks, the family who gather around their table to drink milk with dinner. God turns all these people and things towards the good of creation with or without our help.
But what happens when things don’t work out the way we expect? What happens when our relationships break down. Abuse shatters a family. Friends accuse us of hatred or bigotry. Our culture suffers moral bankruptcy. Then what? St. Paul says that when the law gets ahold of people it tends to have the effect that we make excuses or accuse other people to justify ourselves. When that happens we go from bad to worse in no time, until we see ourselves or other people as demonic. We accuse them of being allies with sin and death. As St. Paul put it, “The law works wrath” (Romans 4:15). The law can regulate outward behavior but it can’t change the human heart.
Our heart never stops wanting stuff. And our mind never stops justifying what our heart wants. That’s why we can use something as simple as love to turn our relationships upside and down and backwards. Who doesn’t want to live in a house rent free, to eat whatever you want out of the fridge, and let your parents pay for Higher Things conference each Summer? But, then Mom says not this year and our heart treats her as enemy. Then your mind justifies all the ways she’s never loved you, never helped you, never really supported you, and on and on it goes. We do this all the time, not just at home. When the political candidate we voted for loses we vilify the other guy. When the new pastor doesn’t pick the hymns we like we think he didn’t pick those hymns just to teach us a lesson. Whatever our heart wants our mind always justifies for us.
In the fourth question on baptism in the Small Catechism, Luther offers us some help with this. Luther asks what baptism has to do with day to day life. “It means that the old Adam in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through day to day contrition and repentance, and on the other hand that day to day a new man is to come out and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” (trans. mine)
The old Adam loves his projects as much as he loves to be rewarded for the successful completion of his projects. He loves to make God’s commands do-able. He even tries to do it with Luther’s explanation of baptism. He says, “Wait, I have to be contrite and repent every day, then I will be rewarded with righteousness and purity forever? I will do it!” As if he could take charge of his own death. If this were true then what Luther wrote would lead us to throw up our hands in defeat or point at ourselves as the new measure for what it means to be a Christian.
But what Luther says again and again is that we do not choose our crosses. When God comes near to speak to us the cross is always nearby too. You don’t find the cross, the cross finds you. When God lays the cross on you, you receive your limits as a person. With the cross comes built-in repentance. Contrition is built into everything you do in the world. Go to school. Get married. Find a job. Buy a house. Go on a trip. Volunteer at the local shelter. Baptize your baby. And on and on it goes. All this stuff is the cross laid on you. And that’s why, sinner that you are, you will cry out, “I’m sick of this!” “You never help me!” “Why can’t I get away from you people!” “I don’t want to do this anymore!” “I didn’t sign up for this!” “I don’t want to be married in this way anymore!” For the old Adam, all the gifts of God – even love between a man and woman that culminates in marriage – eventually become curses. That’s why the old Lutheran marriage service included these words: “nevertheless our gracious Father in heaven does not forsake his children in an estate so holy and acceptable to him.”
In marriage, God works the death of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new man in Christ. The cross God lays on people in marriage brings them to their knees, to the brink of giving up, even to the point of divorce. Then he brings the Gospel of Christ and faith to restore joy and hope. In marriage, the forgiveness of sins doesn’t come in the form of a moral necessity – do this, or the marriage is over – but as a foretaste of the new creation where we will be in union with our Bridegroom, Christ Jesus, in joy and peace forever. The Gospel opens up the giftedness of marriage to the deepest promises of freedom possible in this life.
In God’s left hand kingdom we bear the cross, suffer, and die in the stuff of day to day life. God’s commands compel us to produce good works for our neighbor’s benefit. In God’s right hand kingdom we are resurrected every day. Through his Gospel the Spirit produces the fruits of freedom, hope, and joy in us, so that sin and death don’t get the last word about our destiny. All this happens to us at the same time, everyday, whether we like it or not.
Don’t try to run away from the cross God lays on you. You can’t. Don’t try to get free from under of it or change the laws to serve your hearts’ desires. That only results in self-destructive relationships and self-serving organizations. Instead, revel in the tension that you are fully sinful and fully righteous at the same time. That your sinful flesh is under the authority of God’s good and holy law and your heart is under the authority of God’s freeing, comforting Gospel at the same time. So then, when things don’t go your way, don’t panic. That’s how stuff goes in this sinful, evil world. That’s our cross. And when things open up in front of us, when forgiveness, grace, and freedom raise us up to a new life to see and hear that all is good gift from our Father in heaven, even our cross, say, “Amen.” Christ is still Lord of heaven and earth. He will never leave you or forsake you. When you are faithless he is faithful, because he cannot break his word: “I am with you always, even until the ends of the ages.”
Rev. Donavon Riley is pastor at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. He is also plenary speaker at Te Deum 2015 in Las Vegas, NV.