June 6, 2020

Classic iMonk: The Law/Gospel Rant

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From July 2009

NOTE: Despite the fact that this post is law, you should still read it :-)

I want to talk about a specific problem in preaching and teaching: the problem of preferring law over Gospel.

I consider the primary problem with preaching and teaching in my Southern Baptist tradition these days to be an obsession with (or addiction to?) preaching the “law.” To put it mildly, it’s brutal out there. In many churches and ministries, you’re getting clubbed into putty with the law and hearing slightly less Gospel than what you’d get in fifteen minutes of country music, all courtesy of a preacher who has no excuse not to know better.

I’m using the simple Lutheran “law/Gospel” division here: all of scripture is either what God commands/demands under penalty or what he promises/provides freely by grace. This is law and Gospel. “Do” or “Done.” Moses or Jesus. God the accountant older brother or God the Father of the Prodigal. Advice or announcement. Sinai or the cross. Threat or comfort. Blessing or curse. You do it or else. God did and praise.

If you get this, Luther said, you are a theologian even without the degree. So if you don’t know this, learn it, and if ou learn it, use it. Go to New Reformation Press and get you some Rod Rosenbladt or, if you’re up for it, the book by Walther. (Lutherans can make suggestions for the rest of us on this.)

There’s a lot to discuss with this topic, because I believe genuine discipleship, which has aspects of law to it, grows out of and lives in the Gospel, not the law. (Think of Gospel as soil and law as fence. How does your garden grow?) The Gospel is the Gospel of the Kingdom, and the King has a moral law. So I’m not simplistic. I sometimes hear people that I really respect do things with the Law-Gospel distinction that makes my skin crawl and that sounds like weird dispensationalism.

But let’s get this clear: I’m going to err on the side of the Gospel, not on the side of the law, so just expect that and understand it’s why I love Capon and Zahl. And don’t think it’s an easy thing for me to be consistently Gospel centered in my own life. God has really humbled me on this one through events in my own family. I have so much law stuffed in me from growing up Baptist that sometimes I’m useless. I could preach a great “beat-you-around-the-ears” law sermon in my sleep. When I hear preachers pummeling their people with the law and acting like the Gospel isn’t in existence anywhere in scripture, I understand how you can know better, but still get to that point.

For one thing, most of us have heard so much law preaching that we’re drowning in it. Most Baptists love it, too, or say they do. “You really told them today, preacher. You let ‘em have it” or my fave as a young preacher-boy “You really stepped on our toes today.” I must not have done it right then, because the law KILLS you, not annoys you, so you can be resurrected, not corrected.

I could name preachers all day who made their reputations on being law preachers, and they are popular because we love to hear someone preach our congregation or youth group right into the ground. When our people sleep and our youth group doesn’t care, we love to hear someone come in with the big stick and humble those uncaring sheep. Right?

Law preaching is powerful. It feels powerful. Even when it’s done poorly and just amounts to nagging, it makes the preacher feel like he/she is doing something. That’s one reason it’s so popular- you’re telling them what to do. You’re like Moses hitting the rock. Look what I did, you bunch of stubborn yokels. And joined with invitationalism and revivalism, it works. It fills the altar with crying students. I brings people down to get baptized for the 5th time and really mean it this time.

The Gospel, on the other hand, takes the power out of your hands. It’s the announcement of what God has done. You aren’t powerful at all. You’re one loser telling a bunch of other losers that they are going to be treated like winners. Bread for the thieves. Pardon for the unquestionably guilty. Love for rebels. You’re announcing that everyone gets paid the same. You’re issuing banquet seats to people who have no right to a ticket because they are dirty and sinful. You’re telling sinners that the lamb of God has paid the bill and it’s not going to appear on their charge anywhere.

You are telling people it is too good to be true, but it is too good and completely true, and it changes everything.

Apparently this must not be very exciting to a lot of preachers, because they just don’t enjoy preaching it (and often enjoy saying why they despise free grace.) I’m not saying they never say “Jesus died for you,” but it’s not a finished salvation given as a gift to sinners with nothing put empty hands. It is, as I usually hear it, something Jesus did that made salvation “possible.” Possible. If salvation is just “possible,” I’m toast. Burned on both sides.

If I can go to hell, I will. It’s that simple. (Sorry Catholic friends, but that’s what happens when you keep reading a thread like this. You should have turned back the first time I said “Luther.”) If Jesus closed hell by taking it upon himself for me and anyone else who believes, if hell has been conquered and sin/death defeated by the resurrected/reigning Jesus, then I can be saved. Because God does it and God promises it. (I’m enjoying the fact that I’m irritating some readers right now. See, the Gospel can be fun.)

What I hear in the pulpit is a lot of phrases like “get your priorities and values straight” or “do what pleases God.” This kind of talk can make some sense once we’ve been to the cross and understand the Gospel, but it is deadly if you put your hope in such efforts.

Remember this: Discipleship will put you in despair without the Gospel. Discipleship that’s rooted in law will just drive you into despair or Pharisaism. Discipleship needs to grow out of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit magnifying Jesus and the love of God.

You can recognize law preaching because it’s always full of references to the Bible being a “handbook for life,” full of principles for a successful life. If your Bible is just a handbook for life, throw it away.

The Bible is the story that delivers us the Gospel. It’s point is to get you to Jesus, the one mediator between God and man. It’s a big book to get you to a short message. You buy the whole field, but the treasure is the Gospel, not the book of Judges or financial principles from Proverbs. Once you have the Gospel right and you know what preaching is all about, then you can read and preach Leviticus or Malachi or whatever you want, as long as Jesus is in his proper place and the message is the Gospel, not the law, or the old covenant, or this week’s good advice.

I really think we have an army of preachers who think that people ought to come hear them “preach” about various life questions and issues. How to have a great family. How to get along at work. How to use money. How to discipline kids.

Why would I want a preacher to tell me anything about these things? Why are preachers talking about sex, politics and what Jesus wants you to eat? Can anyone admit that the preacher’s ego is often inflated to dangerous level when we let his/her advice about politics or parenting become legitimate material for preaching.
Preach the Gospel, brother. Then sit down, be quiet and let’s do something else. We can pray, sing or go eat. All good.

The Bible is about the Gospel. You are about the Gospel. Give me enough of the law to make the Gospel good news, though I’ll admit I’m not one of those people convinced that we need to try and recreate Bunyan’s conversion. I’m with Spurgeon on that one. Our job is to keep the Good News out there.

Law preaching demotes the preacher, often abuses the congregation, denies them the Gospel and offers a false hope in things like “getting serious about pleasing God.”

Law youth ministry is a waste of your time. If all you’re doing is trying to make kids behave, make good choices and buy into the church as a place to hang out, then by all means, get another job. Or be honest and just say you’re a moralistic therapeutic babysitter carrying out the wishes of the church to not have any kids make bad decisions.

What is ministry? Get them to the Gospel and Jesus, sister. Let Jesus decide if they need to be in jail or not.

In other words, it’s an unmitigated disaster unless the Gospel is heard louder, longer and much clearer than anything else.

I’d really like to apologize to anyone- and there are a lot of these people- who ever showed up at church and heard the “good news” that if they would take their talent and use it for the Lord, they’d be blessed. Or if they surrender their all to Jesus, they’ll be happy no matter what happens. Or if they will stop making excuses and get serious about following Jesus, they can please God.

Really, I apologize. We’ve got better news than that.

We’ve got the news that if everything sucks, asteroids hit the earth, you die, the economy tanks, no one at work likes you, Christians are jailed, your computer breaks and your kid turns out to be a lawyer, you still can’t stop the Good News of what God has done for you.

We’ve got the news that God has declared religion out of business. We’ve got the news that the church has nothing to offer or say except the Gospel, so that should simplify your search for a church. We’ve got the news that at the end of the world, there’s going to be a party for you and me, where we’re going to be embraced, loved and taken to the new heaven and the new earth completely on the free grace of God in Jesus.

We’ve got the news that the law has been satisfied and love is what remains. Faith, Hope and Love, and the greatest of these is Love, because we know who he is. Death has become resurrection. A world of hurt has become a new heaven and a new earth….in the GOSPEL.

Can we preach this please? My soul needs it and I am not alone.


  1. The PURPOSE of the Law is to kill. …..Whoa…..

  2. I am giddy with joy! THIS is truth. Thank you, Jesus. I wish I had met Michael Spencer, better yet, sat under his leadership.

  3. I needed to hear this anew today.

  4. Take note that we have greatly reduced the prices of all Dr. Rosenbaldt’s stuff,including the talk linked above. (only $2.00) Prices on all our downloadable materials have been slashed in order to promote wider exposure.


  5. Yes…………. Yes…………….. Yes……………… Yes…………………… Yes………………

    I’m reading through Luther on Galatians (free Kindle edition). I hope when I get o the end I may have some small comprehension of what grace really is; not just in my head, but also in the very marrow of my soul.

  6. St. Paul did call the law (“given on tablets of stone”) “the ministry of death”.

    Yep. We need the law in the here and now so that we can get along, sort of, kind of, as best as possible.

    But theologically, it’s meant to paint us in the corner…to drive us to despair of ourselves for righteousness…and drive us to Christ.

    Luther’s commentary on Galatians is outstanding. Maybe his best work.

  7. I think you guys and gals will get a kick out of this class (on Galatians):


    You can also learn (in it) why Luther changed his name.

  8. I know that Lutheranism is all the rage here on iMonk, but I still don’t know that I buy the law/Gospel dichotomy as it’s sometimes put forth here. I largely agree with the heart of this post, though. I do believe the Law was given to point to Jesus, and that it was powerless in and of itself to change people, but I have questions about saying that it was given specifically to cause people to despair. Why is longest Psalm praising the Law? Would someone write an ode to something that cause them such angst?

    It also seems to me that Jesus had no problem exhorting people to obey the Law. In fact, he goes as far as telling them they should actually listen to the Pharisees in Matthew 23.

    “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

    I guess I just have a hard time believing that Jews in Jesus’ day would sign onto such a negative view. It seems to me that they would admit that they had never followed it perfectly, but the problem was their sinfulness, not the law itself. What they needed was someone to deliver them from the hardheartedness, not necessarily the requirements of the Law.

    • The law is good. For the reasons I stated above.

      But for righteousness sake it is bad. Very bad. Death (as Paul says).

      We NEED the law in the here and now. But we divorce it from any good that it may do for us from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

      • Brent Donoho says

        That doesn’t address what Phil is saying at all. What do you make of his statement on psalm 119? It isn’t just to keep people from killing eachother, it is an object of intense delight for the psalter.

        • “Why is longest Psalm praising the Law? Would someone write an ode to something that cause them such angst?”

          Because the Law is good, it’s God’s will, it shows love. Christians, who have faith and hope in Christ, have no angst from the Law. For the Psalmist, in the OT, they had the hope of the coming Savior and God’s Gospel promises of faithfulness to Israel.

        • humanslug says

          Remember in Romans when Paul pointed out how so many of the OT heros were considered as righteous by God because of their faith — not because they were extraordinary law keepers. Whether prophetically or intuitively, those OT figures were living in a daily faith relationship with God. They knew themselves as sinners — the law made that clear enough — but they chose to put their trust and hope in what they had learned of His lovingkindness and forgiveness, even when they knew that they were condemned by the letter of the law. And though God had not yet fully revealed Himself and His purposes in the person of Jesus, I think these people were somehow able to discern the center of God’s nature, and they believed deep down that, in the end, God’s mercy would prevail over His righteous judgement. They were people who recognized their own flesh and fallen nature as fundamentally opposed to God and His righteousness — yet in their hearts and their hopes, they chose to be allies and friends of God in spite of themselves. They chose God over themselves and took His side over their own. They recognized His rightness and their own wrongness. And, rather than pridefully attempting to justify themselves by the law — as so many did (and still do) — they honestly acknowledged the truth of who they were and appealed to God’s mercy and love.
          And it’s because they valued truth over appearances that they found delight in God’s laws — because only His law told the complete and undiluted truth about who they were and where they stood in relation to His righteousness. They didn’t look to the law for salvation — rather the law served for them as a constant reminder that the only avenue of hope and salvation lay in His love and grace and forbearance.

    • The Law was not given to cause despair, the Law is good. It’s just a description of what God desires, how God wants us to live in love with each other.

      Think of it practically. Our laws against murder are good, but bad news for murderers. Once we commit murder, the law is bad for us and provides no hope because of our situation. The only thing that can be good news for us is pardon. The Law convicts, the Gospel pardons.

      So anything that reminds us of our own nature and actions, which never meet the duty to perfectly love, is Law. And anything that tells us about Christ, who is our pardon, is Gospel.

      • The law is to cause “death”, says St. Paul. Does that bring you to despair in what you ‘do’ for righteousness sake?

        It ought to.

        When preachers who are ignorant about distinguishing the law from the gospel, and use the law to try and make us better, they will receive only one of two outcomes in those who hear that law. Either pride…or despair.

        • I don’t see that I disagree at all. But the Law is a good thing, you agree with that, right?

          What’s bad is teaching or attempting to earn salvation through the Law, not because the Law is bad–it’s not–but because our sinful nature makes that impossible. So one who insists on doing so either eventually despairs at the impossibility of the goal or deceives himself as to his success. The primary effect of the Law after the fall is to show us we need a savior outside of ourselves. That is a good thing, insofar as the Gospel is then presented.

          Lutherans should be clear that the Law is good, and what is Bad is not the Law, but failing to let the Gospel predominate over the Law.

        • The Law is demands total, perfect obedience. St. Paul (yeah…but who was he?) not only referred to the 10 Commandments as “the ministry of death”, but he told us that “the law was a tutor until Christ came” and ” no one will be justified in the sight of the law”.

          The law is good for what it does. But it is death to all those who believe that it makes them better in God’s eyes. Looking to the law to make you better can only make you worse.

          That’s it for me. We’re starting to chase our tails now.

          Thanks, though. It was fun for a while.

    • Phil, though I am Lutheran I do think there is sometimes a simplistic binary view of Law/Gospel that is communicated. Though the broad categories are helpful on many occasions, they don’t tell the whole story.

      For example, there is a difference between the “Law” as the Mosaic covenant God made with Israel with its covenantal demands and the “Torah” as Scripture that tells the story of the giving of the Law (as well as predicting its ultimate failure).

      Another example, I would not consider “Wisdom” teaching as “Law” even though it contains commands, instructions, and exhortations. It is more nuanced than that.

      Finally, I am still working on trying to understand the difference between “Law” and the NT exhortations to “New Obedience.” The Lutheran teaching I’ve been exposed to is not always clear on that.

      In brief, I find the Law/Gospel distinction pastorally helpful, but I would agree with you that a full understanding requires a lot more discussion.

      • though I am Lutheran I do think there is sometimes a simplistic binary view of Law/Gospel that is communicated. Though the broad categories are helpful on many occasions, they don’t tell the whole story.

        I’m a little late in catching up here, but I’m glad someone finally admitted to this. Good words of wisdom there chap!


      • Mike

        I’ve been listening to some lectures by Brian Rosner (Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia), where he is also trying to put these things together. They can be found at:


        To summarise, Rosner suggests that Paul (a) repudiates “The Law” as a legal code, (b) replacing it with “new obedience in Christ”, and (c) re-appropriating it as Prophecy (as a witness to Christ) and Wisdom (as instruction for our benefit).

    • It is important to recognize that Psalm 119 is written in praise of the law by one who is self-consciously a law-breaker. Don’t forget how the psalm ends:

      “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant,
      for I do not forget your commandments.” (v. 176)

      The law is a tremendous gift to Israel, to be sure, but it has its limitations. It points beyond itself to the gospel.

      • Christiane says

        nothing was lost of what God did in the OT . . . all was preparation, all had meaning

        Christ fulfilled the law. He did not destroy the law.

        • Of course. But that means the law has served its purpose, and we have now died to it. Romans 7.

          To go back to the law now that Christ has come is to move backwards in redemptive history. This is Paul’s argument in Galatians.

    • Phil, I understand and can agree with you. I was attracted to Lutheranism because it gave me a vocabulary with which I could express my beliefs. The problem is that often the spiritual cannot be fully expressed in human vocabulary.

  9. I remember this essay. It was about when I started tuning in to iMonk on a regular basis. There are some things in Michael’s writings that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction (I am gonna burn for this rip-off of 2Peter3) but I got through it and kept coming back for more punishment. I miss the guy.

  10. Wow! It is like Michael Spencer and I went to the same church! It took so long to find the truth about the law and the gospel, and what an eye opener it was for me. May Michael’s prayers be answered and may churched of all denominations be filled with preachers who proclaim the good news of Jesus.

    • Amen to you and this article!!

      To take it down to the very basics, the law WAS good news in the beginning. No one else knew what the “Unknown God” really wanted out of humans. Imagine if you were living in a foreign country and didn’t KNOW about pictures of unicorns being illegal, or that one had to wear red on Tuesdays under penalty of death. It would be a HUGE help if someone gave you the rulebook, in English, so you could stay out of jail and get along with others in this strange new world. THAT is exactly what the Hebrews learned when Moses came down the Mount…what this God wanted of them, to ensure His protection and love.

      To continue the analogy, what if you went on to become SOOOO involved in following the rules of the country that you wanted to become a judge, without EVER finding out the reasons for the laws?? You could send down punishments without a bit of compassion and without discovering that the law about red, for example, was meant to protect people from a dragon that fed only on Tuesdays who was scared of the color red???

      The law really is the fence or the boundary of our land, but grace and love and how we live within it. In my fifty-plus years I have watched my own Catholic Church return to a focus on grace and the Love of God, while others drigt back to beating people up with the LAW (which sadly the RC Church got VERY good at sometimes…)

      GREAT, awesome article!!

  11. Um… Why does the portrait of Jesus look so much like Dennis Hopper?

  12. This is just foolishness. More silliness by those who have never grown up and realized how much mercy was under the Law. The Christian legalism of so many denominations has no comparison to the Law. Christians create thought crimes. Most of the legalistic preaching is against thoughts, thoughts that according to the Law proper (i.e. the Torah) would only be temptations and not sins. The Law says “thou shalt no commit adultery.” Christians say “thou shalt not even think ‘hey, she’s hot’ or you’re guilty of adultery.” It is so much more over the top than the Law!!! Christian law does kill, but the Law doesn’t. Paul was so very wrong. It was not the Law that the ministry of death, but his interpretation of the Law which turned it into a ministry of thought-crime seeking. Christians confess “We offend every day in word or thought or deed, or in omission or commission.” You would never find a Jew praying that! To a Jew, sin is an oddity, something that we do every now and then, but certainly not every freaking day. But to a Christians — since sin is now thought-crime — we do it every day.

    Further, the Law is finite. Christian law is infinite. Christian law is so much longer than the Torah itself precisely because Christians rejected the finite Torah. Once you reject a finite law you of necessity create a new law to replace it, usually a never ending always growing one! So, whereas the Torah gives 316 commandments, most of which are irrelevant for the common man since they’re only for the priests, many of which are impossible to keep today due to the lack of the temple, and most of which are ceremonial and we only care about the moral ones. I’d estimate then we can probably say (I haven’t counted) that only about 50 of them are moral. If we went and counted them up and wrote ’em down, we’d have a finite Law so much shorter than the infinite law of Christian opinion that gets pounded from the pulpit.

    There is an advantage to having a finite written Law: namely that you don’t get beat over the head with an infinite unwritten Law! Thanks for being dumb, Paul, and putting us under the yoke of an infinite unwritten Law by rejecting the finite written Law — that was really smart dude.

  13. rey,

    Are you an Ebionite?

    • I certainly wouldn’t be offended if you want to say so. But even Paul says in 2 Cor 5:10 “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (ESV) The concept that the gospel means if you believe poof you go to heaven scottfree is clearly wrong. There is still some sort of temporal/proportional punishment to be had for your sins even according to the great apostle of faith-onlyism. Paul is inconsistent in his antinomianism. Sometimes the law is bad, sometimes its spiritual. Sometimes Christians are to have no law, sometimes Paul has to law down the law: As in 1 Cor 6:9-11, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” His thinking on the law is muddled. His theoretical position is “Christians have no law; salvation is by faith alone.” But when it gets down to practice, and he sees his converts killing and committing adultery and engaging in homosexuality, then he turns back to the Law, and says “Hey, no more of that! You were cleansed from all of that stuff–so cut it out! You can’t get to heaven doing that stuff–it has to be in your past not your present!” So Paul himself is an Ebionite sometimes! So, yes, I am an Ebionite (minus the ceremonial parts of the Law) as was Paul on the few occasions when he allowed reality to break through his ridiculous and unworkable theory of salvation by faith alone.

      • In that case you need to throw out portions of the Gospels, especially John, and his epistles and the Revelation. Hebrews needs to go, as does 1Peter and most of Acts. In your opinion which NT writings are valid and useful in your opinion?

        • What are you talking about? I just said I’m an Ebionite in the same way that Paul occasional was an Ebionite, i.e. as in 2 Cor 5:10 and 1 Cor 6:9-11. I’m not talking about literally being an Ebionite. What I’m saying is, Paul had two views on the Law:

          (1) Theoretical – Christians have no law, saved by faith alone.
          (2) Practical – Christians must keep the moral law.

          We can say, the first one is his naive position, his battle plan. But as the old military saying goes, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. So, once he entered the fray, and contacted the enemy on the battle field, (i.e. once he saw that his faith-onlyist doctrine lead to immorality) he revised his views. This is why we find a more pro-Law Paul in the Pastorals which were written last. (You should also note, of course, that by Law when used in a good sense I always mean the moral law.)

          As to Revelation, why would I throw that out? It says in 20:13 “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.” Sounds “Ebionite” to me. In Revelation 12:17 the dragon makes war on those “who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” not on those who believe in faith-onlyism, since he already has them.

          As to John, I find it suspect of a bit of Valentiniansim myself in that passage about “no man can come to me unless the Father draw him”, but John says “If you love me keep my commandments” and I think it is to use your terms “valid and useful.” I’m not an inerrantist though.

        • BTW, Its second Peter not first Peter that warns about Paul being hard to understand and how ignorant and unstable twist Paul “as they do the other scriptures.” And who are these ignorant and unstable? Those who teach a judgment based on works as Jesus taught in the gospels and as Revelation 20 teaches? As Peter also teaches! No, but certainly the opposite, those who don’t see that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone has limited scope; those who don’t see that Paul also says in 2 Cor 5:10 that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ and receive temporal punishments for our actions, those who don’t see that Paul also says in 1 Cor 6:9-11 that those who engage in immorality cannot inherit the kingdom and that such actions are part of our past but we are cleansed and must not engage in them anymore. Those who fail to see all that, but think Paul just taught “believe and poof your saved to go to heaven scottfree” — those are the ones Peter calls unstable and unlearned, ignorant and such.

          • My point was that these parts of scripture also teach what you call ‘believe-onlyism’ and therefore the authors of these books must be laboring under the same ‘confusion’ as Paul does, at least according to you. Therefore your beef is not only with Paul, but Peter, John, and Jesus Himself.

  14. Wasn’t Jesus an “infinite” law guy too? Did he not say that if you even look (think) at an ther woman with lust you have committed adultery? I think the point is, and this is always the struggle, we really can’t comprehend how different God is from us. We can’t comprehend the perfect good.Nor can we, here and now, be that way. Not possible. If God’s Spirit shows you a glimpse of this, which is what psalm 119 means to me, then you are blessed.

    • No, its just misinterpretation. First, Jesus doesn’t say “look” but “keep looking.” We have a translation problem. Should be “He that keeps looking at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery in his heart” — Secondly, I don’t think that we are supposed to take it literally as if the man is literally guilty of adultery because he thought about it. The idea Jesus is trying to get across is just that every action starts in the mind, keep the thoughts away, and you keep the action from happening. Its not that literally if you lusted after a woman you are guilty of adultery. If it were then Jesus’ own rule that a man can only divorce his wife if she commits adultery would be wrecked. What man couldn’t say, “Hey, I saw how she looked at Brad Pit when we were watching that movie! She’s guilty of adultery! I’ve got grounds for divorce!” Mental adultery is not real adultery and the guilt is not real. Mental adultery is really only a temptation to commit adultery. Jesus’ point is if you can control your thoughts so as to prevent even the temptation then it will be very easy to prevent the action. By taking his words too literally, Christians have created an overbearing concept of law, one that the Law itself never presented, and on that is infinitely oppressive. Compared to this Christian concept of infinite thoughtcrime law the finite Torah looks like the “perfect law of liberty.”

      • “Secondly, I don’t think that we are supposed to take it literally as if the man is literally guilty of adultery because he thought about it. The idea Jesus is trying to get across is just that every action starts in the mind, keep the thoughts away, and you keep the action from happening.”

        Ahh… the old “Jesus didn’t really mean what He said. He didn’t mean to be taken literally.” Uh, yeah…riiiight.

        It was EXACTLY His point that we are far more sinful than we think, or else why would he call the Pharisees hypocrites and whitewashed tombs? They outwardly kept every aspect of the Law.

        How else do you interpret ‘Be perfect, even as your Heavenly father is perfect.”? In the face of such Law there are only three options- a) ignore it b) water it down or soften it in such a way that seems doable, c) repent. You have chosen option B and frankly my confidence is not high that your interpretation can bear up under the weight of the whole counsel of God. As for me and my house, we choose option C and repent.

        • Seriously, do you think “He that is angry with his brother is a murderer” is literal? If you do, I suppose we part company here, as that saying goes “hell is a place where there is no logic.” The clear meaning is that angry unchecked leads to murder, not that if you are ever angry you are literally guilty of murder. How can anyone be so superstitious as to take something like that literal?

          • “The clear meaning is that angry unchecked leads to murder, not that if you are ever angry you are literally guilty of murder.”

            No, that is not what Jesus said, His words on the matter are clear. You are assuming that is what He ‘must’ mean, because you are unwilling to entertain the idea that Jesus said exactly what He meant.

            Only those unwilling to grapple with the wickedness in their own heart talk like you do.

        • “It was EXACTLY His point that we are far more sinful than we think, or else why would he call the Pharisees hypocrites and whitewashed tombs? They outwardly kept every aspect of the Law.”

          They were ceremonialists. As Jesus says to them “You rob widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers.” And again “You tithe mint anice and cummin, but ignore the weightier matter of the law: faithfulness, justice, mercy.” In other words, they kept only the ceremonial law and ignored the moral law. Anyone who keeps the moral law is automatically, therefore, more righteous than the Pharisees.

        • “As for me and my house, we choose option C and repent.”

          That’s what I’ve been arguing in favor of the whole time: repentance rather than faith-onlyism. Is not repentance “law”? Faith-onylists don’t repent.

          • If we haven’t literally committed murder or ‘real’ adultery then why bother to repent?

          • “If we haven’t literally committed murder or ‘real’ adultery then why bother to repent?”

            So that we don’t get there. The whole point of these sayings is that if you let these thoughts go unchecked you will end up all the way there.

        • It is wise to remember that the only place Jesus refers to being perfect, is where he says love your enemies. That is a whole lot harder than suppressing lust. Only God can give us that kind of love and only God can deal with our lust without warping our instincts. The exact language has to do with lusting after something, -not responding to it or simply appreciating it. That is natural to us and is also the basis for worshiping God. If your are not careful you wind up like the monk who covered his eyes so as not to lust after the beauty of nature.

          This scripture is speaking of the evil desire to “acquire” something or someone which is not yours. That indeed is something to be repented of for fear of “hell fire”. (if your hand offend you cut it off kind of thing)

          • That would be covetousness. So what you are saying then is that Jesus was simply applying “thou shalt not covet” to specific concrete situations.

  15. Meister Eckhart said, “We are all meant to be Mothers of God.” This is not about following any set of constructs, edicts, moral imperitaves, rules, modes of behavior or civil standards; temporal, eternal or otherwise. Christ fulfilled the law. The law brought death. Our death and Christ’s death. He absorbed it within his very being, buried it in all its power and overcame it by rising again. So what are we called to? Nothing less than birthing the Eternal Child in the Bethlehem of our being, tending to His every need and raising Him to full stature within us. That is the gospel of salvation and the Law of Life. Turning over our bodies to be His. Any insinuation that we are to follow any other law is antichrist, serves the ego (flesh) and nullifies the cross; Jesus’ cross and ours.

  16. Pastor Don says

    I must add my 2 cents. I too used to be good at preaching the law until God began making clearer to me the Gospel (I feel I will never totally grasp the wonders of grace, so I relish every new joy that comes with every new kernel of understanding).

    The law tells us what to do to be right and how to be right before God. Grace makes it possible.

    Jesus pointed out in his “sermon on the mount” just how much people misunderstood God’s law–they were far more sinful than they thought. He perplexed them (and many today) by telling them that if their righteousness did not exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees they would never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. How could they ever obey the law more perfectly than the Pharisees? They couldn’t. That’s the point.

    Only one did and has and that’s Jesus. He was and is the lamb without blemish whose blood covers over the sin of all sinners who receive him. (I don’t like the “give your life to Jesus” thinking. It’s not helpful because it’s not biblical. Jesus gave his life for me. By the working of the Holy Spirit and grace extended to me by the Father, I receive him as Lord and God.)

    Jesus has done for us what we can’t do. He not only obeyed the law, he fulfilled it. And God, by grace, accounts Jesus’ righteousness to all who believe in him–not to all who obey him.

    There is a place for obedience and righteousness but they follow after grace. It comes out of grace and the love grace fosters.

    God puts it this way for us in Romans 4:9-11: “Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.” Righteousness is credited not bought, given not earned. By grace!

    Thank you CM for this post and continuing well what Michael Spencer began.

  17. One thing to remember about the ministry of Jesus was His purpose to point us to the need for the Cross. He extended the law to go beyond the rule book of the Pharisees. So, instead of only adultery being a sin, lust, which all men (and women) deal with at one point or another, is brought into the equation.

    In other words, no one could say that they were without sin, something the Pharisees liked to do. The Law was very bad news because we were all failures and Jesus made sure we knew that. The law brings death. No matter how hard I try, i can’t get there on my own efforts.

    Instead I get there through Jesus who has provided a Way for all. And that is very good news, indeed.

    Thank you for this wonderful post to remind us of the Gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ.

  18. What a great post. Not only does the law kill, but its a power trip. It seems to me that people who are caught up in the law only are not very secure in themselves in God, almost as if they have to punish others for the things they feel guilty for.

  19. I find this whole discussion profoundly disturbing at a time of unparalleled lawlessness in our culture. The problem with sin is that it creates victims. Just saying the good news is that your sin no longer has any consequence for you…may be good new for you but its not good news for everybody else. Luther presumed that his discussion of grace was directed at people who are abiding in the vine, something which changes them, not people who simply attend church which clearly does not. The apostle John says that if we say we don’t sin we lie (since all humans sin) then admonishes us to sin not, for the spirit within us cannot sin. What we do speaks volumes as to who we are. Secondly for the Jewish reposte about Jesus’ statement that imagining sin is sin, such argument only makes sense in a narrow dogmatic context not the real world. In that world the things you imagine are the reason for how you act. The new testament states tht if any man be in Christ he is a new creature. That is why it is not just just our conduct but our intentions that define what we are. It does no good for a fish to pretend to have evolved into a bird if it cannot fly. I am with the russian philosopher Soloviev who stated the greatest evil is a false good. Pretending to be something or theorizing about it, doesn’t count for much in our everyday lives and probably will count for even less on the day of judgment.

    • “I find this whole discussion profoundly disturbing at a time of unparalleled lawlessness in our culture. The problem with sin is that it creates victims.”

      So, your answer is more law in our preaching? The problem with that is that the law stirs up sin and leads to death, according to Romans 7.

      • I don’t think it matters much whether you preach law or grace. The fact is that humans today are looking for validation. That is the reason for the big push for gay marriage. The law can be manipulated through hypocrisy and grace can be used to replace the need for repentance and redemption with a kind of instant absolution (a la the book “The Shack”). You cite to Romans as if this one phrase provides an easy solution to the problem of sin and alienation by disposing of the law. But Paul not only died to the law, but to the self as well, which the law was powerless to change. Show me that kind of grace, and I am with you. But I don’t hear that preached much anymore. It is a grace that says that “as many as are crucified in Christ, the same shall reign with him” or which accounts for Jesus saying “take up your cross and follow me. All of Paul’s writings are profound and complex. The problem with the law is not that it was wrong (since it typified God’s holiness) but that it was inadequate.

        If we do away with it…then grace is pointless. Justice without mercy is cruel, but mercy without justice crueler still. A grace that exists apart from holiness…is lawlessness. And one is about to come forth who is the master of that doctrine, only he is a false Christ. But I am sure he will be very popular.

      • One more comment. Growing up in church I came to believe (or was led to believe) that the holiness of Jesus came through obedience to the law -which would make him different from us. In fact his holiness came from faith. He said “I am in the father and the father in me” and “whatsoever the father doeth that I do”. The reason the law cannot work is that it is self affirming whether we fail or comply as proven by the fact that both guilt and pride assume that we are capable of being good when we are not. Faith is God dependent and God affirming. The fact that Jesus was holy under the law was not accomplished by the act of his will but through total obedience to the father (not my will but thine). Not to stir up uneccessary controversy but this reminds me of evolution. No species in its right mind would ever will itself to evolve into something else. If evolution is true in any way, it could only succeed because of God’s outside intervention. And the only way we can become new creatures is to rely entirely on God … entirely.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      I always find it funny when someone talks about “lawlessness in our culture.” I’m not sure exactly what Tom means, but if he is referring to a) American culture and b) the present day, I don’t see the evidence that suggests that the “lawlessness” in our culture is any more severe than what it has been at any point in the history of the world.

      • There is two kinds of lawlessness. One is what is ordinarily understood and invoves rape, murder property crimes etc. Certainly there have been times where more of that is ocurring than now. Then there is a strange and profound lawlessness of altering times and seasons. Through the pill we have altered mating behaviors in ways that run counter to normal patterns that support positive breeding outcomes such as we see with animals. Second deviant behaviors such as homosexuality that is referred to in both the old and new testaments as leading to premature death, is now augmented by medical treatment and for the first time can thrive unhindered by that natural limitation. While I was in college Christians were ridiculed. More recently my daughter’s Bio ethics professor told his 300 students that when he was done with the class there
        wouldn’t be Christians any more and then went on to explain how a child under 5 is of less value than a dog from a biological point of view. Most recenty the gay marriage issue is being used compel Christians to embrace homosexuality or face the charge of denying someone their civil rights, making Christianity itself the issue and once again branding Christians as “haters” just as the romans did before.
        My chief concern with this kind of lawlessness is the prediction of a Russan mystic better known tos scholars today as the leading philosopher of Russia in the 19th century. Among other amazingly accurate predictions including one about a tyrrant with a comedians mustache who would anihilate the jews in Warsaw and Cracow before the middle of the twentieth century, he predicted the rise of a final anti Christ before 2025 whose doctrine would reflect an expansive definition of grace propounded by American evangelicals in the 20th century. He referred to this as the “heresy of grace” and said that it would turn the historic definition on its ear. Grace would no longer be the means by which human have access to the nature as well as the person of God but rather a kind of general abolution for sin. This is the source of his power. Then Soloviev argued those few Christians who insist that the individual must be individually redeemed and that redemption is not general and universal will be tagged as “unchristian” and a last effort made to exterminate them. He pegs the number of real Christians at the end as no more than 50,000. I first become aware of this strange prophecy while reading the book The Spear of Destiny by Hughes Ravenscroft. This prophecy was cited by Hitler to Rohm as a reason to justify retaining the churches as occult institutions which would support the Reich. He simply directed that Himmler find and kill the 50,000 which he attempted to do. If there is even the slightest chance that there is a doctrinal concept that could reduce the number of believers to 50,000 that would be cause for alarm. This from a man who predicted the restoration of Israel, and ongoing conflict over Jerusalem whose status would be disputed by Jews and Moslems as well as a Europe recovering from division and two wars which would “have a common parliament, but not a common government, a common currency but not a common economy” at the time of the rise of this Anti Christ. It gave me pause.

    • I wasn’t with you here

      “The problem with sin is that it creates victims.”

      but here I get it:

      “Just saying the good news is that your sin no longer has any consequence for you…may be good new for you but its not good news for everybody else.”

      It’s like, if you have a nasty temper and you unload on your spouse, you can confess and feel all forgiven and so forth, but you still have to go to your spouse and acknowledge how your wronged them, and apologize, and figure out what you have to do to not do it again. Can’t skip the repentance step, which, depending on what the sin is, might force you to put for real effort to make changes.

      And then if your nasty temper stems from your habit of indulging a kind of free-floating anger, because it makes you feel superior to all of the idiots out there or for whatever reason you have, then the anger is the thing you have to resolve.

  20. Victorious says

    Wow! If I’d heard sermons as great and truthful as this one, I might never have left! Blessings to you, brother!

  21. I truly needed to read this tonight. Thank you so much for posting it again.