Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

Deuteronomy 30:15-20;
Matthew 5:21-37

Law and Grace

The Scripture readings designated for this Lord’s Day bring the law before us. Or should we rather say bring us before the law? In either case, we mean here the Law of Moses. To be more precise, the Ten Commandments. By no means are the commandments and statutes and ordinances mentioned in our Old Testament lesson exhausted in the Ten Commandments. But in the Ten Commandments is summed up the law, God’s law. Each day, Israel is faced with a choice: either to love her God by faithfully obeying the commandments, which brings prosperity and blessing or to turn away from God, which brings death and curse.

How do we feel when we hear this law in the form of the Ten Commandments? You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, to name only three… How do we feel? Ambivalent at best, if we are honest. On the one hand, there is something in us that balks at the idea that we should be subjected to a moral standard, to externally imposed norms. Each person should decide for herself what seems just and right and acceptable. How dare you hold me up to a standard! Who are you to judge me! It may be right for you, but that does not necessarily mean it is right for me or the next person. The demand for moral autonomy has been very strenuous in Western culture in recent decades, as we are all well aware.

On the other hand, we also value order. We hear the commandments and say: if each person in society honored father and mother, respected the property of others, did not cheat on his or her spouse, then we’d have a more stable society. We’d be more at peace. If people obeyed the commandments, then the world would be a better place. That explains the motivation of groups of people, especially among conservatives, who campaign to have the Ten Commandments displayed in conspicuous places in public buildings, such as schools and county courthouses.

Thus we are ambivalent. But I wonder if our ambivalence towards the Law tells us something about the human condition itself. For we are torn, we are divided within, which the Law, if nothing else, reveals to us. The late Eugene Peterson, beloved Presbyterian pastor and author, had this to say about people as he came to know them in his work as a pastor: “People’s interior lives are a muddle of shopping lists and good intentions, guilty adulteries (whether fantasized or actual) and noble aspirations, desires for holiness and passions aimed at self-gratification.” Not exactly a flattering portrait, but, I believe, one in which we can all recognized ourselves if we are honest at all about our humanity. The Apostle Paul expresses this dividedness within candidly in Romans 7:19: “I want do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.”

Jesus is teaching his disciples about the Law of Moses. To be more specific, he is teaching them the Ten Commandments. For this reason, some Bible students have found it appropriate to call Jesus the “new Moses” or the “new lawgiver.” This is right in a certain sense. But it can also be misleading. It suggests that he is giving new laws. Nothing can be farther from the truth. He is not exchanging the old commandments for new ones, rather he is radicalizing them.

What in the world does “radicalizing” mean? When I first heard this term “radicalizing” used in a seminary class, I wondered what my professor could possibly have meant.  Radicals throw Molotov cocktails at police and stage sit-ins and carry signs in the town square. There is nothing less radical than obeying the law. But the professor went on to explain that the word from which we get our word radical, literally means “root.” In this context, it means that Jesus is getting to the root of the commandment.

You see, he has no interest in outward conformity to the Law. One can always keep the letter of the law without keeping it in spirit. Rather, Jesus is interested in what’s in the heart. There is a Hebrew proverb that says: “Guard your heart, for from it flow the wellsprings of life (4:23). But in this fallen world our wells become poisoned. When, for example, we let anger simmer in there so long that it boils over as full-barreled fury, of the sort that impels us to lash out against someone, we are poisoning our wells. According to Jesus, in our hearts we are violating the commandment, “you shall not kill.” It starts in the heart, and from there it eventually comes out in one way or another. 

In this case, it comes out in name-calling. “You fool.” Just for the sake of clarity, the word here is “Raca.” The people in first-century Palestine reserved this word for infidels. According to Bible teacher, Silvano Fausti, using that word was a way of “Satanizing” someone else. In other words, calling him this name was the same as telling him to go to hell. But note that Jesus confronts the one who uses this word with hell itself.

Similarly, when we allow sexual desire to camp out in our hearts until it becomes lust, it poisons our well. Out of that well will issue leering, indecent gestures, obscene words, and finally acting out. According to Jesus, in our hearts we are violating the commandment, “you shall not commit adultery,” even when we take a lustful look. It originates in the heart. It happens there before it gets expressed in our behavior.
Or we can become so indignant that someone dare question the truth of the claim we are making that it poisons our well. Out of that well will come an oath. We say: I swear to God that this is true. But then we violate the third commandment, which is: “do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” 

So what? So what is Jesus doing here? Is he prescribing a rule for life, a code of conduct, a counsel of perfection? Or is he rather a diagnosing an illness, in this case, the sickness of the human heart? We can say that he is doing both. But let us note that in order to do the first he has to do the second first. Here we have to be careful that we distinguish properly the uses of the law.

For this purpose, we can enlist the thought of the great sixteenth-century Reformer John Calvin. Calvin developed the meaning of the law for Christian faith and life. He did this by specifying three uses. The first he called the “convicting” use. Here the law holds before us a standard we can never measure up to perfectly. What the Apostle Paul says is relevant here. “Through the law comes a knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20).” Elsewhere Paul writes: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known what sin was (Rom. 7:7).


In awakening us to a knowledge of our sin, the Law points an accusing finger at us. It shows us at which points we have failed to meet God’s just requirements for our lives, and so “warns, informs, and convicts” us of sin. That’s the convicting use of the law.

But God does not leave us there. In his mercy he takes what brings condemnation and death and transforms it into a means by which to lead us to new life. The law makes us aware of sin; awareness of our sin moves us to ask for God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Only when we are emptied of confidence in our own ability to measure up to the standard that the law sets can we accept God’s free offer of grace in Christ. Listen to Calvin carefully here: “the function of the law is to uncover the disease; it gives no hope of its cure.” But for this very reason it points up the need for grace, which “brings healing to those who are without hope.”

Not in the law, but in grace is our hope to be found. God doesn’t accept us on the basis of law, but of grace. The law drives us to God’s grace.

Calvin did not expect the law to have this same effect on everyone. Nevertheless, the law still serves in the wider society to restrain evil and thereby to make social life possible. To the second use of the law, Calvin appropriately enough assigns the phrase(“political use”) or usus civilis (“civil use”). We spoke earlier of the desirability of the Ten Commandments as a basis for the social order. People will not keep the law perfectly, much less feel the desire to do so. But without a law with which the authorities must enforce compliance, the social order would disintegrate. 

But Calvin had the most to say about the third use of the law. If the law leads us to see our need for grace, then grace leads us to see in the law the way of pleasing God. The third and the principal use of the law is denoted by the phrase “use for the regenerate” or “teaching use.” It applies only to those who are God’s children, those who have received the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit produces in God’s children the desire to please God. The Spirit changes the hearts of God’s children so that they find delight in God’s commands. Jeremiah and Ezekiel, two major prophets of the Old Testament, foresaw this day. No longer would God write his law on tablets of stone, but on human hearts. This is what Jeremiah means when he says: For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. 

The law then has a positive place in the life of the child of God. Calvin and the Reformers taught us that the Ten Commandments serve as a guide to the life of the disciple. It serves to instruct us more thoroughly in God’s will, which they already desire to obey thanks to the Holy Spirit who is active in them. The law goes with them throughout their lives, correcting and encouraging them to press on when they falter in their pursuit of God’s will as it is expressed in the Ten Commandments

But we have already admitted that we are ambivalent about the law. If we do not necessarily find delight in God’s commandments, we should not get frustrated or discouraged. That change does not happen right away. It is a lifelong process. But we can be confident that the God’s Spirit is working in us, to change us, to make us into the kind of people who hear and accept the invitation to discipleship that Jesus extends to us.

Let us then be this kind of people. Let us hear these words of Jesus in our gospel lesson today and let them work on us, accepting their challenge. And as we do, let us remember that God’s grace is always there for us when we fall down. God’s kindness is what enables us to get back up again.


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