Rev. William M. Cwirla
As we have learned it from the questions and answers attached to the Small Catechism, the Law serves three functions: to curb the sinner, to mirror our sinful condition, and to guide us in the way of holiness. While curb, mirror, and guide is a fine way of looking at the Law, I'd like to try a little different perspective. So put on your 3D glasses and let's consider the Law in 3D: Damage Control, Diagnosis, and Discipline.
Damage Control. Curbs are great but not always effective. Vehicles routinely run over them into people and buildings. A little four-inch curb at the side of the road won't stop much of anything. God's Law is much more than a curb to scuff your spiritual tires. It's divine damage control. Without it, there would be nothing but anarchy in the world as everyone tried to have it his own way. That's why God established the temporal authority structures of home, society, and church. The Law acts as a fence, boundary, and limit to our sinful behavior. It does damage control.
I was hurrying to get to the installation of a pastor friend of mine and was traveling on a two-lane highway where the speed limit was 55 mph. My speedometer said 70. Then I saw the flashing Mars lamps in my rear view mirror, and before long, I was going zero at the side of the highway. Busted. The Law snagged me and reigned me in, doing some damage control on my reckless driving, not to mention on my wallet and ego.
Imagine if everyone drove at whatever speed he thought was best. The highway would become a demolition derby. The Law protected others, and myself, from my distracted driving. There were farm workers on that road. I should have thanked the highway patrol officer who wrote the ticket, but I didn't. My old Adam hates the Law.
Diagnosis. We hate being diagnosed. We put off going to the doctor and we lie about our symptoms. We minimize our condition. Blood tests, MRIs, CAT scans, biopsies. No one wants them. We're afraid of the results. We don't want to know the truth.
The truth is that sin is much more than superficial thoughts, words, and deeds. Those are the symptoms, but the condition lies much deeper, in the deep recesses of the heart where only the Spirit of God can see. We tend to think of sin as sins—the stuff we do and don't do. But the Spirit lifts the veil and peers into the depths of our hearts. The Law becomes a spiritual CAT scan revealing the ugly truth: We have an inherited disease—sin. It has its origins in Adam and has been passed down to us.
Like many diseases, sin can lie dormant and the sinner can seem almost "symptom-free." A newborn baby is conceived and born in sin. He has the disease, but because he can't talk or move around much, he just appears "symptom–free." But not for long. Soon the symptoms begin to show, yet the disease has been there all along. The Law does the deep diagnostics on our condition. We are full of sin in our Adamic flesh and cannot save ourselves. Thanks be to Christ who came into our flesh to rescue our flesh by becoming sin for us! He caught the disease so that He might become the cure.
This diagnostic function of the Law is the true internal spiritual function. It goes to the unbelieving heart. The other functions are external and bodily. They deal with us outwardly. But the Law as a diagnostic tool deals with us inwardly, as only God can do. The news isn't good; the prognosis is poor: "The wages of sin is death." But there is a cure! "The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
Thanks be to God in Christ!
But wait, there's more!
Discipline. Ugh! Discipline. Our Old Adam hates that word. He thinks in terms of time outs, groundings, curfews, and worse. Yet a loving Father disciplines His children or they aren't true children (Hebrews 12:7). This third function of the Law, as discipline, is very similar to the first function with one important difference: The Christian uses it on himself to discipline the old Adam who still clings to us.
As baptized believers, we are "simul"—simultaneously sinful and righteous, in Adam and in Christ—sinner and saint. Though declared dead to sin in Baptism, the old Adam is still very much alive and kicking. His kicking needs to be disciplined. That's why Christians still need to hear the Law. Old Adam has to be forced to go with the new Christ program, and he doesn't like it one bit.
The new man in Christ is glad when they said, "Let's go to the house of the Lord." But the old Adam is not glad at all. In fact, he would rather sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast, watch some football, and kick back. Anything but worship. And so he needs the discipline of the Third Commandment's threats and promises along with an alarm clock, a worship schedule, and a liturgy. This is what the apostle Paul means when he says, "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5). Don't wait for the traffic cop to pull you over. You tell the old Adam to honor the authorities and obey the laws.
Remember, as a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), born "from above" by water and Spirit (John 3:3ff), you delight in the Law and have the mind and Spirit of Christ . Self-discipline is a fruit of Christ's Spirit (Galatians 5:23). The new man needs no Law, for Christ is the end of the Law for the believer. But old man needs Law in all its three-dimensionality: damage control, diagnosis, discipline.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California, and is a president emeritus of Higher Things. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.