Good news: Incarnation conquered law
David R. Bickel
April 2, 2005; modified April 29, 2007; retitled December 30, 2007; modified February 29, 2016
Corruption laid bare
The privileged few maintain the status quo even at the expense of their integrity, telling the others how they can better themselves. The people long for relief from an administration that levies excessive taxes for wasteful spending programs while enforcing a legal system that favors the wealthy. Many find hope in a man who proclaims freedom through a new regime, a man not afraid to expose the greed and arrogance of the current leaders. He tells them their respectability in the eyes of society is a facade, noting that they take advantage of the most helpless for monetary gain.
But this man does not speak of the highly educated as the only slaves of materialism. Although he does not have his own home, he cryptically warns the hungry that they must stop seeking food as if their life depended on it. He also supports the full payment of taxes to the current government. Equally disappointing, he refuses to resist the authorities he has infuriated, enabling them to arrest him, privately try him, and publicly execute him. So much for the freedom he had promised the oppressed. His closest followers go into hiding, and their most vocal advocate of the poor commits suicide.
When things begin to settle back to the way they were before he had first announced the coming of a new kingdom, the surviving eleven of his inner circle bear witness that they have seen him alive after the execution and that he will return from heaven to preside in judgment. Ridicule, slander, threats, and violence fail to silence them. | More from the original sources
What if they are right? What if he will judge modern idolization of the economy, success, pleasure, and the family just as inflexibly as he has condemned his own generation? Who will escape sentence?
Jesus came announcing the saving reign of his Father, calling for repentance and faith: "...the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). The gospel is the good news Jesus proclaimed to those who repent of breaking God's law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments.
Jesus said he did not come to call the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance. Since those who are well do not need a physician, Jesus only came to heal those who have in some way broken God's law.
This condemns all worship of any god or higher power other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It also forbids ultimate devotion to and trust in anything or anyone else, including family, knowledge, prestige, and material security. All are lawbreakers who have ever failed to love the Lord, and no other, with their entire being.
Any irreverent reference to God, especially in oaths and vows, breaks this command. For example, it forbids all insincerity in saying the words of a prayer. This commandment also condemns attributing human ideas or decisions to God, thereby making him in the image of man. Who has always treated the name of God with proper respect?
This requires taking time from work in order to hear the word of God. His law is broken whenever work or anything else in this world takes the place of hearing from him. This commandment condemns all who have ever substituted their own activities and priorities for hearing the proclamation of the Scriptures.
This mandates devotion appropriate to each family and societal relationship: for example, children must obey their parents, parents must provide for their children, husbands must gently love their wives, wives must lovingly submit to their husbands, and citizens must support their government. Everyone who has ever had to apologize to a family member or friend has broken the law of God.
This forbids not only participation in unjust war and in taking the lives of unborn children, but, according to Jesus, it also condemns hatred and anger. Who can plead not guilty?
The Sixth Commandment: You will not commit adultery
Divorce provides no loophole through which to evade this commandment, as Jesus condemned dividing what God has joined. Since God created sex to express the beauty of the marital union between a man and a woman, all sexual acts outside that union violate his law. Further, Jesus said that even those guilty of lust have already committed adultery in the heart. Who can claim perfect purity?
This requires protecting the property of others. It condemns all theft, even in the form of tax evasion, wasting time purchased by an employer, taking credit for the work of others, and providing defective goods or services. Everyone whose laziness or greed has ever deprived others has broken God's law.
This condemns not only perjury and outright lying, but also all deceitful words and actions. Who has never tried to mislead someone?
God's law here forbids desiring a residence, spouse, or business that belongs to someone else. Anyone who has ever wanted to trade places with someone else is guilty of breaking the law of God.
God, as the perfectly just judge, sentences to eternal death those who broke his law. Since he judges with holy justice, he does not overlook transgressions or waive this deserved death penalty.
God speaks nothing but law and condemnation to those who try to earn their own salvation, who see their sins merely as understandable human mistakes, or who think they have eternal life because of a prayer, a "spiritual" experience, or a decision to convert. There is no forgiveness or message of comfort for them, for Jesus offers none to the unrepentant. But for those who repent, that is, those who plead guilty to breaking God's law, who realize that they deserve to pay the death penalty, there is good news: his divine Son was conceived in a virgin so that he could, as a man, perfectly keep God's law and pay that penalty in the place of the world's lawbreakers, thereby reconciling God to them. God offers them forgiveness, not because he overlooks their violations of his law, but because Jesus Christ suffered and died for those violations as if they were his own, in order to free those on death row. God declared the Lawkeeper guilty so that he could declare the lawbreakers not guilty.
Martin Luther explained this in terms of the Second Article of the Apostles' Creed:
"And [I believe] in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried: he descended into hell, the third day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and is seated on the right hand of God, the Father almighty, whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead." What does this mean? Answer: I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, delivered me and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood and with his innocent sufferings and death, in order that I may be his, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.
[Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (The Small Catechism: II, 2-4). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.]
Through his death and resurrection, Christ defeated death, sin, and Satan, thereby becoming their Lord:
Let this be the summary of this article, that the little word "Lord" simply means the same as Redeemer, that is, he who has brought us back from the devil to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and now keeps us safe there. The remaining parts of this article simply serve to clarify and express how and by what means this redemption was accomplished — that is, how much it cost Christ and what he paid and risked in order to win us and bring us under his dominion. That is to say, he became man, conceived and born without sin, of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin, that he might become Lord over sin; moreover, he suffered, died, and was buried that he might make satisfaction for me and pay what I owed, not with silver and gold but with his own precious blood. All this in order to become my Lord. For he did none of these things for himself, nor had he any need of them. Afterward he rose again from the dead, swallowed up and devoured death, and finally ascended into heaven and assumed dominion at the right hand of the Father. The devil and all powers, therefore, must be subject to him and lie beneath his feet until finally, at the last day, he will completely divide and separate us from the wicked world, the devil, death, sin, etc.
[Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (The Large Catechism: 2, 31). Philadelphia: Fortress Press. Cf. Acts 2:32-36; 1 Corinthians 15:24-27]
That message is called the gospel because it is truly good news: "I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:10b-11a). Like countless others before and after him, Luther sang for joy in response to hearing the good news of their King's triumph:
... For the term Gospel is a Greek term; its German meaning is: a goodly message, glad tidings, good news, a good report, of which men speak and sing in cheerful strains. As, for instance, when David had conquered the great Goliath, a good report, or the good news, circulated among the Jewish people that their worst enemy was slain and that they had been delivered and restored to happiness and peace. So the Gospel of God in the New Testament are glad tidings and report, which were spread throughout the world by the apostles, concerning one who was a true David, fighting against sin, death, and the devil and conquering them and by his victory redeeming, justifying, quickening, saving, and restoring to peace with God all those who were in bondage under sin, tormented by death, and overcome by the devil, and causing them to sing, thank, and praise God and rejoice forever, provided they firmly believe it and remain steadfast in this faith.
St. L. Ed. XIV, pp. 85-90
In other words, there is nothing repentant lawbreakers can do to attain eternal life; rather, God invites them to just believe what Christ has done for them in his death and resurrection (Acts 16:31; Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4). By believing his promise, they take his offer of eternal life. This seems too simple, too easy, even too dangerous, and yet lawbreakers typically refuse the offer. For, to believe the good news, they would have to admit that toward their salvation they cannot contribute anything, not even a work of penance, a decision, a prayer, or a perception of the Holy Spirit within them. That is why they cannot believe unless the Spirit of God supernaturally gives them faith. He does so where this good news is clearly announced, especially by those appointed to speak in the name of Jesus.
If you need forgiveness for having broken God's law, Jesus invites you to believe the good news that your sins have been paid for: "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink!" (John 7:37)
To accept the salvation purchased by Jesus on the cross, wash away your sins by being baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:38; 22:16). For such baptism "works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare" (Luther's Small Catechism, Section 4). Baptism not only brings believers into the kingdom of God, but also helps them live as those who belong to the age to come. Having been baptized into the death of Christ, they daily drown the old, sinful nature by repenting of their sins in order to daily rise from the dead and live a new life (Small Catechism on Romans 6). You may receive baptism and instruction in preparation for it, or, if you are already baptized, instruction on the significance of your baptism, from a pastor of a confessional Lutheran congregation:
- USA: Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod or Evangelical Lutheran Synod
- Canada: Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod
- Elsewhere: Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference
Luther quote (St. Louis edition of Luther's Works, Concordia) cited on p. 288 (Lecture 27) of C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, 1986, Concordia Publishing House, capitalization of divine pronouns changed.