Law & Gospel. The Deadly Mix

Rev. Timothy J. Pauls

The man wheezes in his hospital bed. "Pastor," he says, "I'm going to die tonight, and I'm not sure I'm going to heaven. My sins haunt me. How can I be sure?"

Thoughtfully, the pastor leans forward and says, "As long as you believe that Jesus died for you, you're going to heaven."

"But Pastor, that's the problem." Fevered eyes roam the ceiling. "How do I know I believe?"

The pastor tries again. "Thomas, I know you haven't been in church for a while. I still remember, though, that you made your decision, that you accepted Jesus as your Savior."

"And I've hardly lived like it since! Maybe I didn't mean it when I made that decision."

"Let's pray now," says the pastor. "You can make that decision again. I know you want to."

"Of course I want to! But how would I know if I really meant it? How could I ever know if I believe enough?" The screen above his head flashes red, noting an accelerated heartbeat.

The conversation goes in the same circle. Eventually, the man's eyes close. The pastor prays, says a quiet goodbye and slips out of the room. Outside, another minister waits. The family is split between churches, and each side has called its pastor in a panic. It happens.

"Poor soul," some will say. "If only the dying man could be comforted. If only he could be more sure of his faith."

Not you, though. You're thinking, "I've just witnessed a terrible confusion of Law and Gospel."

You think this, of course, because you know this stuff. God's Law consists of His holy commands, telling you what "Thou shalt" be doing and what "Thou shalt not" be doing, or else. It's good stuff: The one who keeps it perfectly is holy. The problem is that you can't keep it perfectly, which means that you're not holy. You're sinful, and the wages of sin is death.

The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, died on the cross for your sins. He rose again on the third day. He declares that you're forgiven for all of your sins, because He died for all of them. His sacrifice is completely sufficient for your salvation, which is why you're saved by grace, not by your works.

"Gospel" literally means "good news," and we should make an obvious point: You don't do news. You hear news, you know it and believe it. But you don't do it. For instance, let's say I tell you that the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl. That's news. Nobody ever asks, "How do you do that news?" What would that even mean? News is simply what has happened. It may have implications on your life (immense heartbreak), and may lead you to do things (weep), but you don't do the news itself. It's done.

The Gospel is good news. Jesus has died and Jesus is risen, and so you are saved. There's nothing there for you to do. It has implications (you have eternal life) and it will lead you to do things (strive to please God and keep His law), but there's nothing for you to do in the Gospel.

?Law and Gospel are completely different, yet get confused all the time. Add the Gospel to the Law, and you get...bad, squishy Law, like "Jesus died for your sins, so you don't have to worry about keeping the Law so much." That's both uncertain and just plain wrong. Add the Law to the Gospel, and you get...more Law: "Jesus has done His part to save you: if you do your part, ?you'll be saved." Confuse these, and you'll always be ?in doubt about whether or not you're forgiven.

In our illustration, Thomas has added Gospel to the Law for years. Now on his deathbed, he's added the Law to the Gospel. He's tormented. He's going to die before the night is out. It's evident that heaven and hell are very real, and the devil is whispering, "Clearly, you haven't done enough to be saved: Look at all your sins."

Is there comfort for Thomas? Hope?

The second pastor rises and enters the room. Thomas stirs and the conversation begins again: "Pastor, I've only got hours left before I die. How can I be sure I'm going to be with Jesus?"

This pastor says, "Thomas, has Jesus died for all of your sins?"

"Well, yes."

"Then eternal life with Jesus is yours."

"But what if I don't believe it enough?"

"Thomas, has Jesus died for all of your sins?"

"Yes!"

"It sounds like you believe it to me."

That's the Gospel, pure and simple. See the difference? The first pastor has put salvation on the man's decision-his work of accepting, and so the man is tormented by uncertainty. The second pastor has put it all on Jesus, and there's no doubt that Jesus got the work of redemption done.

Before sunrise, Thomas dies. But he dies in peace, knowing that Jesus has redeemed him.

That's your peace, too, in life and in death. At the most critical times, the devil will haunt you: "Look at your sins! There's no way you've earned salvation!" He'd be right, except for Jesus. So you say, "But I don't trust in me! I trust in Jesus, who died for me." You can be sure that in all things, Christ and His work are your confidence. That's pure good news and that's how you'll always know.

Rev. Timothy J. Pauls is the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Boise, Idaho. He can be reached at timothypauls@gmail.com