Rev. Craig Donofrio
Yeah, that's what I said: The devil loves your good works, even as he loved the good works of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were those guys whom Jesus was constantly calling out. Do you realize that they were wildly popular and seen as the most righteous people in the country? They really knew the Law and they were extremely good at keeping it, at least outwardly. They gave to the poor, showed care for their neighbors and were truly admirable men. They even knew when they should wash their hands and feet in the right way so as to be pleasing to God. Yet, what does Jesus have to say to the Pharisees?
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness"(Matthew 23:27 ESV).
But these were the righteous guys. As a matter of fact, they were so righteous that they saw no need to be forgiven of their sins and they believed that they didn't need a Savior for any reason except to get rid of those filthy Gentile Romans who were occupying their lands.
Does this picture point us to a people who were antinomian (lawless) or to a people who were legalistic (excessively and improperly using the law)?
St. Paul has some instruction for us on the other side of the coin. He says, "Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 5:20-21 ESV).
The sinner in us wants to stop there and rejoice saying, "YES! Jesus answered for all of my sins, those that I have done, those that I am doing and those that I will do, so, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!" This indeed is true… but only partly true.
The law without the Gospel directs us toward legalism like the Pharisees. This understanding of things leads us to either despair completely of any hope of eternal life, or it teaches us to dilute the severity of the law and its demands. Legalism attempts to cut the law up into little bite-sized pieces that we can easily manage. This way of thinking makes God's grace worthless because ?it says that we don't really need a Savior.
On the other hand, those who rejoice in the statement, "Where sin abounds, grace even more abounds" —and they take this as a license to look at porn, sleep around, abuse alcohol or drugs, lie, gossip about others, cheat, and in general to not give God or neighbor a second thought—they likewise make grace worthless, for they have a Gospel with no Law. A Gospel with no Law is no Gospel at all, for there is no good news of salvation without the bad news that we are sinners who need a Savior.
Antinomianism and legalism are indeed two sides of the same coin, two errors from the same root: me-ism. Yes, it is all about me either way, isn't it?
The First Commandment tells us that we are to have no other gods before the one true God. Both antinomianism and legalism put us in the seat of God. Both also cheapen grace.
That term "cheap grace" has been thrown around a lot for the last 70 years and you may be thinking to yourself, "I thought that grace was free, so how can it be cheap?" I'm not talking about a price tag; I'm talking about how we make Jesus into nothing. This is cheap in the sense that Christ is made worthless and unimportant.
So, if we are called to avoid legalism (sometimes called pietism) and also to avoid antinomianism, what are we actually called to?
The answer to this question is found in Confession and Absolution. When Lutherans gather for worship, we often say these words, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8-9 ESV).
Confession and Absolution help us remember who we are and even more important, who Christ is. Our sins are infinite. We are unable to keep tabs on our sins because we are indeed sinful to the core. This is who and what we are: a smelly, useless blob of goo. Yeah, I know, you don't like to hear it, but just marinate in that stench for a minute.
Christ came into this world to redeem those who are dead and in a state of decay—that would be you and me. This is who God is—the Almighty Creator who spoke everything into existence, but even more, the One who condescended to step into our blobby gooeyness and lay down His innocent life, taking on our sin and the penalty that we were condemned to suffer and giving to us His righteousness instead.
So stop worrying about how you're doing with your "Christian walk" and put your eyes on His righteousness for you. Daily empty yourself of notions of your goodness. You don't have any. Instead, look to Jesus who is your righteousness. The more the Spirit puts our eyes on Jesus and off of ourselves, the more useful tools we become in the hands of the Master, for the good of our neighbor.
And so, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2 ESV).
Rev. Craig Donofrio is a 1998 graduate of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. After 15 years of parish ministry, he was called to serve as the Program Director at the Synod's international radio station, Worldwide KFUO. He is co-host of The God Whisperers and the host of th?e daily radio program, Reformation Rush Hour. You can hear him Monday through Friday at 5pm Central at kfuo.org.