God's Two Contradictory Words
Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:20, 21). He told the Romans, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:21, 22). God has given us two words—two contradictory words existentially. These two words are Law and Gospel and they both deal in their own righteousness, one unattainable on account of our sin (our condition and our thoughts, words and deeds) and one given only as a gift, imputed.
There is no more natural place for human beings to look for righteousness than to the Law. We messed up according to the Law, so it only makes sense to try to fix things the same way. If we gain weight by eating too much, we eat less. If we lose friends over our anger, we work on our patience. If we get in trouble for being late, we try to get there early. So it goes in this life and in this world. Not so with God, though. We certainly do mess up according to the Law, and we can fix some things here on earth. But we simply cannot be righteous before God by the Law, because we can’t keep the Law, not perfectly. We can do it to an extent, but we can’t fulfill it. As Paul said above, “If righteousness were through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21).
The Law will tire you out. That’s part of its purpose after the Fall. Its commands come one after another. Its demands do not take a break. It measures and scrutinizes and judges, and we fall short in every way. And, so, when we’re good and tired, there’s little more we can do than listen. Paul knows that, and so he speaks, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). We may be able to gain some righteousness in the eyes of the world, through our neighbors and friends or coram mundo as we say in theology. But righteousness before God (coram deo) comes in only one way. Paul insists, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28).
Both these words, Law and Gospel, are from God. The sinner needs both of them. Both are true and good. But they are not the same and they aren’t for mixing. We drink each straight. The Law must be preached as if every last soul is on the highway to hell, foot on the gas. The Gospel must be preached as if every last soul is saved, feet firmly in heaven.
This is the tension of the Christian life, as hearers of the Gospel. We hear the Word, and that Word is preached with a word that condemns and a word that absolves, a word that kills and a word that makes alive, a word that accuses and a word that acquits. We live as sinner-saints, the walking dead and yet the crucified living. In short, we live as the baptized.
As Christians we stand before God both under His wrath according to the Law and absolved through the Gospel. This is our ongoing condition. We constantly need the Gospel because the Law never runs a shortage of things for which we deserve condemnation. This is our experience as Christians this side of heaven. Law and Gospel must stand in tension with their opposing verdicts without resolution in the here and now. We are at the same time what each of them declares us to be: a saint and sinner, guilty and not-guilty. And so we live by the Gospel, even as we rightly confess our unworthiness and sinfulness. Christ steps in and He must be heard and in Him alone is there hope and peace.
Law and Gospel must be constants in the Christian life, but there is little doubt about which gets the last word—the eternal word. The Law always serves to prepare us for the Gospel, to drive us to be desperation to be saved, which is what Christ came to do. The Law is not meant to be the last word. God’s proper work is the Gospel. There we see God fully for who He really is.
What God is really like is God on a cross, for you and for me. God is mercy, love on full display, arms stretched wide to take hold of us and all sinners in grace. Give thanks, therefore, for God’s two words. Stand condemned, and rightly so, by the Law. But be free through the Gospel—eternally free! Trying to get righteousness from the Law is like trying to get orange juice from apples. It isn’t happening. There is a righteousness in reach, however. Even more, it’s in our beggarly hands, entirely gift received through faith, which is gift as well. Christ didn’t die for no purpose. He died for you. He is your righteousness. You need look nowhere else. You need nothing else in Him.