Wednesday, May 7, 2008

God's Law Never Killed Anyone

Yet again, this morning, I have read the assertion that the Law of God kills. Where does this notion come from? It isn’t Christian. It isn’t biblical. The biblical doctrine is that sin kills.

What the Law does is to make sin more clearly known to us. People already knew they were sinning, but they sometimes knew it only vaguely. The Law makes it clear.

Another effect of the Law is to render certain behaviors “forbidden fruit.” Then, because of our perversity, we lust after them even more than before they were forbidden. But the fault is in us, not in God’s perfect, holy, and good Law.

I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet." But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. (Romans 7:7-13)

(St. John Chrysostom’s very helpful commentary upon this passage is here.)

So please, can we have done with talk about the Law of God killing us? It's a slander of God's good, holy, Law, and it's especially disturbing coming from seminaries.

That is not the kind of God we Christians worship.

What kills us -- with or without the Law (Romans 5:13-14) -- is sin.



William Weedon said...

The language of the Law killing comes from 2 Corinthians 3:6ff.

Note that St. John Chrysostom says that by "letter" Paul means here the Law:

"And by letter here he means the Law which punishes them that transgress; but by spirit the grace which through Baptism gives life to them who by sins were made dead."

And a little further:

"And what does this mean? In the Law, he that has sin is punished; here, he that has sins comes and is baptized and is made righteous, and being made righteous, he lives, being delivered from the death of sin. The Law, if it lay hold on a murderer, puts him to death; the Gospel, if it lay hold on a murderer, enlightens, and gives him life. And why do I instance a murderer? The Law laid hold on one that gathered sticks on a sabbath day, and stoned him. (Numbers 15:32, 36.) This is the meaning of, the letter kills. The Gospel takes hold on thousands of homicides and robbers, and baptizing delivers them from their former vices. This is the meaning of, the Spirit gives life. The former makes its captive dead from being alive, the latter renders the man it has convicted alive from being dead."

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Um...but you don't mean, do you, that the post to which I've linked is urging Lutheran pastors to preach the letter of the Law?

Because clinging to the letter is denying the Spirit, and yes, that's death.

But the Law itself never kills. Sin does. St. Paul makes that abundanly clear. Shouldn't we?

William Weedon said...

The Law kills - and most especially when "the veil" is removed from Moses' face (2 Corinthians again), that is, when the full demands of the Law are heard. This is what our Lord does in the Sermon on the Mount. He uses the Law to kill. WHAT he is killing is our pride, our belief that we can pass muster before God, that we're "not THAT bad" and so on. He removes the veil and suddenly we see in the Law the demand for the very perfection we can never come close to with our human efforts, even our efforts that are prompted by the Spirit, for there's always a good deal of dross mixed in with the gold, if you will. The end result is that God uses the Law to kill all our self-justifying ways and to teach us to cry out for mercy, and learn that we live, literally live, only from the mercy that He has reached us in His Son. The Law kills. But it is designed not to kill PEOPLE, but the thing that is destroying them: their pride.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

You should probably explain that to Pr. Stiegemeyer, then, because he's talking about piercing and crushing and killing (and resurrecting) people:

Be specific and direct in preaching the law to convict. Never use the law as a means to puff up the self-righteous. It kills. Kill them with it.

The gospel raises us to life again. Pierce and crush them with the hammer. Resurrect them, specifically and directly, with the gospel.

William Weedon said...

I think if you directed Pr. Stiegemeyer to this discussion, you'd find that he meant exactly what I said. I could be wrong, but I think he'd readily say that that's what he was saying.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Maybe he will; that would be nice. I did leave him a comment this morning, together with a link to this post.

What I've been thinking about all day is how strange it sounds to Orthodox ears, the description you gave of what Christ was doing in the Sermon on the Mount.

I mean, that's another papal doctrine, isn't it, that you have to earn your salvation? It's another way for a pope to exercise control over the faithful, which Lutherans rightly so strongly opposed. And being products of a papal culture, perhaps Lutherans feel that to fall for that error of self-justification is some sort of natural tendency in fallen man.

But earning salvation isn't an Orthodox doctrine. The Orthodox Church doesn't teach it. The idea of relying upon ourselves instead of Christ is foreign to us and appears rather bizarre, not to mention incredibly foolish.

Therefore, it doesn't occur to us that the Sermon on the Mount was intended to counter that error! We think of it simply as leading us to the royal path, the true spirituality as opposed to the artificial spirituality of the letter of the Law. Not meant to drive us to despair of ourselves (although I can certainly see how it would, if one were suffering from self-reliance) so much as to elevate our hearts and minds.

It's just odd how the same sermon can affect different people different ways. In a way, it's an illustration of what the Orthodox mean by our eschatology. No comparison intended, but a sort of analogy... That is, in the end, the same thing is going to happen to every one of us, namely we are going to encounter God, Who is pure righteousness, face to face. But, as with the Sermon on the Mount, people's reactions to that will be very different. For some, that will be their longed-for heaven, the consummation of every hope. But for others, the encounter with the all-holy God will be the consummation of dread, will be what stings and burns them and makes them wish they could die...Same event, two radically different interpretations or experiences of it.

William Weedon said...

Sadly though, dear, it is an error that clings to human flesh and blood - the desire to put God into an "I owe you" situation. It's the foundation of all idolatry: do ut des. I give that you may give to me! You are correct that it is the exact inverse of the true faith. For God gives above, beyond, and not reciprocally to our deeds in the salvation reached us in His Son. Has it never arisen in your heart? It constantly tries to creep up in mine, and I have the honor of then smashing the horrid thought against the cross. As Lewis said so well, behind the salvation God has reached us there is an unfathomable act of divine self-giving. It's not subject to our manipulation or control. We can but receive it and give all glory to Him!

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Sure, idolatry is a constant temptation for everyone. ISTM that's not the same thing as trying to earn salvation, though.

And yes, all glory to Him, Who saves!