The word “doctrine” is kind of a harsh sounding word.  Actually “doctrine” is just another name for “teaching”.  There are lots of doctrines or teachings in the Bible.  For example, there’s the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of Creation, the doctrine of the two natures of Christ just to name a few.  Their names already tell us what each doctrine is about.  Also, the purpose of studying Bible doctrines isn’t to see who’s right or wrong.  God gave us doctrines in order to unite us.  St. Paul put it this way: I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. – I Corinthians 1:10.   The reason God wants us to have unity in our beliefs is each doctrine in the Bible is about His love for us, and all He did to save us.  And so, doctrines are really about our relationship with God.  On the other hand, if doctrines are misunderstood or changed, that can hinder a person’s relationship with God.

But this raises a question.  As we read our Bible, how do we know if we’re understanding it correctly?  We just confessed our faith with the words of the Apostle’s Creed.  On some Sundays, we use the Nicene Creed. If our understanding of the Bible is in line with these ancient creeds, we can’t be too far off.  Still, how can we be sure the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed got it right?  

There’s an old saying. “To understand a book, you got to know the author.”  The one doctrine in the Bible that more than any other helps us know the Author is “Law and Gospel”.  This morning I will briefly explain “Law and Gospel”.  Then I’ll talk about how God brought Luther to this understanding, and what this means for us today.    

Law and Gospel – what is it, and what does it teach us about salvation?  The Law shows us what we are to do and to give to God.  This never changes.  Now, because we were born sinful, the Law also terrifies us with God’s wrath.  It shows us where our thoughts, emotions, words and actions are sinful, and there is a price to be paid for even one sin.  Paul writes: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness. – Romans 1:18.   We can’t hear this passage without thinking about everything that’s going on in the news.  Also, even though we are God’s children, how many consequences of sin are coming our way?  This is serious stuff, and we can’t blow it off.  In fact, the more we try to blow it off, the more consequences of sin may end up coming our way.  

But what is God’s purpose in this?  He isn’t playing games.  God’s holiness and His hatred of sin are as real as any misery, we’re seeing today, or experiencing ourselves.  Still, God has a loving purpose.  Whether we’re struggling with Murphy’s Law, which says that if anything can go wrong, it will, or whether we’re seeing the consequences of sin building up from one sinful generation to the next, God still wants to save!  God still wants people to finally get it that sin is living in them, and that they can’t make themselves right with Him, because even the good they do is stained with sin.  But again, why is God teaching us to NOT believe in ourselves?  Why does God let Satan make us miserable with guilt and with fears about what our future might hold?  God is working through all of this to drive us to Jesus!

This brings us to the gospel side of “Law and Gospel”.  Just as the Law shows us what we are to do and give to God, the Gospel shows us what God did and gives to us.  He gave us His Son.  His Son lived a perfect life for us, in order cover over our sinful life.  Now think what this means for us!  By the Law, we feel in our conscience all the times we weren’t that a great spouse, parent, child, worker, neighbor.  Yet when God looks at us, He doesn’t see that.  He sees Christ alone.  

Or, let me put this another way.  Wickedness are sins, for which there are no excuse, we’re just being evil.  Rebellion are sins, when we knew better, but we committed them anyway.  Sins are sins, when we had good intentions, but we didn’t follow through.  Christ covers them all with His life!  Christ can do this for us, and still be holy and still hate sin, because He also suffered the punishment for them all for us.  

So, does this mean that as long as we’re believers in Christ, we can keep sinning our favorite sins, God will give us a pass?  If you think that way, all I can say is go ahead try that.  See how long before Satan starts pressuring you, “You gave into this sin, now you need to give into that one too.”  Or, see how long before the consequences of your sin start threatening you on every side?  And then when you start getting it again, the Law’s truth that “The wages of sin” IS death, know that there is still a higher truth for you. “The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  

Now, when you believe this, and you should believe it, because it’s true, how does this make you feel?  It makes us feel at peace, it makes us certain God is working in all things for our good, it makes us confident of heaven and fills us with joy.  The result is love – love for God, love for His Law, and love for people.  This is not to say our love still doesn’t need to be covered over with Christ’s perfection.  It does, and it is.  But that inspires us even more to love and good works.  

And now, what happens when Law and Gospel are not taught like this?  We turn to the life of Luther to find out.  When Luther was a little boy, the commandments were literally pounded into him.  His parents loved him, but his father spanked him so hard and so often, that for a while Luther wanted nothing to do with his father.  Luther’s mother was even tougher.  Once he took a nut without asking, and she beat him with a stick until he started to bleed.

Would you believe this was normal parenting in those days?  But what were parents afraid of?  They were afraid of their children going to hell.  You see, people weren’t taught then that Jesus was their loving Savior and gentle shepherd.  They were taught that He was a stern judge, who would make sure that every sinner paid for his every sin.  This was supposedly done by confessing one’s sins to a priest, and then the priest would forgive only the sins he confessed, as long as he was truly, truly sorry.  On the other hand, if a person failed to confess a sin, that sin was not forgiven, and that sin could keep him out of heaven.  Likewise, if a person wasn’t truly, truly sorry for a sin, and just going through the motions of confessing it, that sin could keep him out of heaven too.  For this reason, a confessing sinner would be given a penance to do.  A penance might be giving X amount of money to the church or praying X number of prayers.  This, they said, would prove that the person was truly sorry, and at the same time help him to stay truly sorry.  

There are problems with this.  One is it’s not in the Bible.  Another is we can’t earn our forgiveness by being sorry enough, because even our being sorry is stained with sin, as is everything else we do.  And yet because this is how Luther was brought up, this is what he firmly believed the first half of his life.    

Now, as a young man Luther planned to become a lawyer, because that’s what his father wanted.  But as much as Luther wanted to make him happy, he was even more scared of Jesus.  One day Luther was caught outside in thunderstorm and nearly struck by lightning.  Luther prayed, but not to Jesus.  He prayed to St. Anne, who was said to be the mother Mary.  He prayed that if Anne would keep him safe, he would quit his studies to be a lawyer and enter a monastery.  There he would spend all his time confessing his sins and doing penance.  In fact, sometimes the penance Luther took on himself, was he beat himself unconscious.  Yet even then Luther knew deep down that he had not paid for a single sin.  And by the way, what was Luther’s great sin?  Luther hated God!  He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “How can I love a God who condemn me for not doing what I’m not able to do?”  

I know people, who feel that way about God.  Once a person gets to that point, he only has two options.  He can despair of himself, and take the attitude, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow I’ll die and go to hell.”  Or, he can become like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading.  He was in denial.  He had convinced himself that he was keeping God’s Law perfectly, or at least as HE defined God’s law.  Jesus said he was only fooling himself.  

But there is a third option.  Like the tax collector in that reading, let’s admit that God is speaking the truth, when His Law shows us what are and what we have done.  And then especially, let’s believe God, when He tells us that we are justified and fit for heaven for Jesus’ sake.  

By the way, Luther finally came to believe this when he was in his 30’s.  Before that, Luther lived each day thinking he was going to hell. But he said, when he connected the dots in Scripture that he was saved through faith alone in what Christ did for him, he said it was like the gates of heaven had opened up for him!  And his joy and his certainty of forgiveness and going to heaven were boundless.  

I pray that all of us too may experience that joy and that certainty.  But these blessings don’t come to us by being loving people, as we define what love is.  That kind of thinking is trying to be saved by the Law again, which doesn’t work.  Rather we experience real joy and real certainty only through Christ’s love for us, which is the Gospel.  

Finally, if Law and Gospel is the hub of the Bible because it brings us to Christ, Law and Gospel is the key, then, to understanding everything else in the Bible.  And then every word of it and every teaching deepens our relationship with God and unites us. God grant that may this ever be so for us.  God grant that we never even start down the road of trusting in man, but that we trust in Christ alone.  Amen.

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