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"Law and Gospel" - Exodus 20:1-17 - the Third Sunday in Lent


[Exodus 20:1-17 – The Ten Commandments]

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…”

 

Law and Gospel

When the judge slams the gavel and says, “Guilty!”, to the defendant, next comes the sentencing and then the jail cell. The judge’s words are final. Guilty means guilty. Bad deeds have their consequences.

But when a father says “guilty” to his son, maybe for the same bad deeds, what happens after those words is much different. The son stays home. Is fed. Is loved. Is indeed corrected and disciplined. But is forgiven. The father’s word, “guilty”, is not his final word. It is followed by the father’s love.

And, if your father and the judge happen to be the same person, who knows? This might be to your advantage.

We speak in different ways depending on our role and relationship to another. A judge speaks like a judge. But a parent has a different set of words to use.

God is both Judge and Father. God speaks both Law and Gospel in His Word, in the Bible. God’s will is that His Gospel, not His Law, would be His final word.  

Lutheran Christians highly regard what we call “the distinction of Law and Gospel” as the true and helpful way to read and understand God’s Word, the Bible.

            In the Bible, God is sometimes speaking to you His Law and sometimes He is speaking His forgiving Gospel to you. We understand the Bible correctly by recognizing this distinction and the distinct purposes of His words of Law and words of Gospel.

God’s Law is found throughout the whole Bible – Old and New Testament. Today we read the Ten Commandments [Exodus 20:1-17] in our Old Testament reading. Not all the laws in the Old Testament are the same sort of thing, and not all still apply.

God’s Law in the Old Testament, which we often call the Law of Moses, can really be seen in three categories: Civil, Ceremonial, and Moral.

The Civil Law was unique to ancient Israel in its time and place. It contained regulations and laws for their nation. It was more merciful, in many ways, than the laws of the nations around them. It provided protections for slaves and women, the poor, and foreigners. Yet, where it was strict and harsh, it was indeed strict and harsh. God is Judge.

            The Ceremonial Law was unique to the worship life of Israel. These were the laws pertaining to sacrifices, offerings, feast days, fasts, the Passover, the Days of Atonement, etc. These ceremonial laws pointed to Christ who was to come — and preserved Israel, Christ’s family tree, as a unique people until Christ came.

            The third kind of law, the Moral Law, applied not only to ancient Israel but applies to all people of all times, even today. The Moral Law is written on the human heart, though we often twist and dull it. It is written throughout Holy Scripture – in fact, most fully in the New Testament. The Moral Law is simply God’s eternal will.

The Moral Law is summarized in the Two Great Commandments – to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. The specifics of how to do this are expressed in the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere throughout Scripture.

The Civil and Ceremonial Law no longer apply; the Moral Law applies forever. (The civil laws ended because Jesus brought in the true Kingdom, the heavenly Israel. The ceremonial laws ended because they foreshadowed the coming Messiah, Jesus, who is now here.)

            But the Moral Law is God’s will forever. It shows us what kind of people we ought to be. And it serves three purposes for us today. God’s Moral Law is our Curb, Mirror, and Guide.

God’s Moral Law curbs our outward behavior. The preaching of the Law keeps us in the lane, like the curb on a road, so we don’t go as far off course as we would.

God’s Moral Law serves as a mirror which shows us our sins. A mirror is honest. It shows all the ugly spots. God’s commandments show us all our sins and ugly spots where we have fallen short. God gives us an honest look at ourselves.

            “Through the Law comes knowledge of sin” – “That every mouth may be stopped” [Romans 3:19-20]. “No one is righteous; no, not one” [Romans 3:10]. The Law shows us our sin to show us our need for a Savior. It shows us our guilty verdict.

            And God’s Moral Law serves that third purpose – our Guide – which we’ll get to after the Gospel. God speaks Law. But, more than that, God speaks the Gospel.

The Gospel is the good news that God has forgiven your sins and saved you from death and hell because of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel is not a new set of commandments. The Gospel is the work of Jesus for you. Jesus fulfilled the Moral Law on mankind’s behalf by His life of perfect obedience.

Jesus fulfilled the Moral Law also by suffering all that the Law required as just payment and punishment for our sins. Jesus suffered this, in full, on man’s behalf.

On the cross, Jesus offered up His one-and-only perfect life as a God-pleasing sacrifice on your behalf. On the cross, Jesus’ death was the once-for-all satisfactory payment for all your sins against God’s Law.

Because of what Jesus did, you are forgiven and set free from doing it yourself. And this forgiveness of sins produces in us a new heart. A new heart of flesh instead of our old heart of stone.

            Because sin is forgiven, God’s commandments are no longer judge and accuser. They no longer condemn you. Instead, they are now instruction and guidance from a Father who loves you.

            This is that third purpose of God’s Law. Because sin is remembered no more, the Moral Law is now a Guide which you can love and cling to through the waves of life. It doesn’t condemn God’s sons and daughters. It leads them through the wilderness.

            In fact, the Ten Commandments were first written – foremost – as this kind of guide. It was written for God’s redeemed children – whom He had just saved out of slavery in Egypt – who were now traveling through a wilderness to the promised land.

The Ten Commandments begin with God saying these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

In short, “I, the Lord, am your Redeemer, your Savior.” Therefore, “You will have no other lords, no other gods; you will not worship creatures and images; you’ll use my name rightly, not in vain; you’ll receive rest each week and keep my day of worship. You’ll love each other, honor father and mother, be faithful to husband and wife; you’ll do no harm to each other; you’ll not steal; you’ll not gossip about each other; you’ll trust Me and be content with what I give you.” Because He has redeemed us, we have His commandments as the guide for our new life together.

God loves you. He has redeemed you. He gives you new life. God speaks to you in His Word, the Bible. Thanks be to God that He speaks to us as Judge and as loving Father – Law and Gospel.

And thanks be to God that He guides us by His commandments as we walk as strangers and pilgrims in this world, until we reach the world to come. Amen.

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