Law and Gospel in the Home

Rev. John C. Drosendahl

"Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth." 2 Timothy 2:15

With these words, St. Paul instructs a young pastor named Timothy how best to go about his tasks in the ministry of God's Word. Any Lutheran pastor worth his salt will tell you that this means that he should correctly recognize in God's word the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. But distinguishing the Law from the Gospel for application isn't just for preachers and teachers. It's also for Mom and Dad, for parent and child, and for brother and sister in the home.

Of course, Lutheran families will hear this proper distinction between Law and Gospel each week from the pulpit. The adults will be taught this in Bible classes, and the children likewise in Sunday School: The Law is God's commands for His people that they do what He wants, and the Gospel is the love that God alone offers when He forgives people their sins when they fail. It sounds simple enough, right? Until you try to put it into practice, that is...

I remember as a young child thinking that I should try to go an entire day without sinning. So I picked a Sunday, thinking that opportunities for sin would be more limited during Sunday school and worship. Everyone was tired first thing in the morning, so not much sinning there. I seemed to get through both Sunday school and church without too many temptations. But then, on the ride home in the back seat of the car, my sister dared to cross the imaginary middle line of "my space," and I slugged her. My parents made me say "I'm sorry" and my sister was made to say "I forgive you," both of us rather grudgingly.

But this was an example of how Law and Gospel begin to work in families. People wrong one another, feelings get hurt, kids get lazy, and parents become exasperated. The first step when any of these things happen is to determine the culprit, and use the full force of the Law, as necessary, to bring the sinner to contrition. When the sin is made known (and usually when it's felt by the conscience), then the offended person is reminded to forgive. But sometimes this is not so easily accomplished.

The Lord's Prayer is helpful in such a challenging endeavor, as it reminds us of that twofold forgiveness God likes so much. First we ask God to forgive us our trespasses, which He readily does because Jesus has given His life for us on the cross of Calvary. Then we are given by God to likewise forgive others in the very same manner that we have been so generously forgiven by the grace of Jesus. Whenever I was reluctant to forgive my sister, I was often reminded by my Dad that Jesus didn't hesitate to do whatever it took to forgive me.

This plays itself out also between spouses. If the husband leaves his dirty socks on the floor, inches from the hamper (his game of sock-basketball needing much improvement) for the umpteenth time, his bride may well be at her frustration tolerance point. Quite frankly, she may well be completely out of her own forgiveness. But she can remember that she is forgiven, and that she no longer lives, but Christ now lives in her. She can then draw from that well of Christ's forgiveness for her husband after her own forgiveness stash is exhausted.

I remember my sister telling me, "Hey, Johnnie, it's really fun to shove rocks up your nose!" So I tried it, and for a bit it was fun…up to the point that I began to panic, realizing that they went in a whole lot easier than they would come out! A couple of hours of my Mom painstakingly tweezing my nostrils finally removed the tiny pebbles. But I stated stubbornly, "I am never talking to my sister again!" It did not look like any forgiveness would ever be forthcoming...

This is when my Mom played the "Baptism card." She first reminded me of the times I had wronged my sister in the past; and then she reminded me that Jesus had washed all of those sins from me at the font. Mom then asked me if I believed that my sister's sins were cleansed at baptism, too. I reluctantly had to acknowledge that they were. Mom told me that, since Jesus wasn't holding any sins against my sister, there was no need for me to hold anything against her. After some time to think, I eventually forgave my sister for the nose rocks.

Now, parents may do pretty well with getting their children to say "I'm sorry," yet they may fall down a bit when it comes to the "I forgive you" part. Tired parents will accept poor substitutes for forgiveness, like, "It's okay" or "Don't worry about it" or even "I guess I don't really want to kill you." This is not really the forgiveness of the Gospel, but is more akin to tolerance. If the Law works "sorry-ness" in the Christian sinner, then the Gospel should produce no less real "forgiveness" from Christ's own gracious love.

This is where that third Lutheran "sacrament" comes in: Holy Absolution. As much as private confession and forgiveness is often neglected in the Church, it is almost completely absent in Christian homes; yet it shouldn't be, for it is the special power Christ has given the Church on earth to forgive the sins of those who repent. But the church doesn't cease to exist after noon on Sunday, or in the absence of the pastor. The forgiveness of Holy Absolution is a ready gift for the Christian home as well.

In their vocation as Christian parents, this absolute forgiveness of Jesus should be a ready weapon in the arsenal of home discipline. Once I tormented my sister by convincing her that her nose was getting bigger. I teased her to the point of her own paranoia, which led her to think she would never get a date. Once I had driven her to tears, I felt absolutely terrible. So my Dad brought the two of us together, made me apologize, and made her forgive me. Seeing I was still so very guilt-ridden, my Dad leaned over and whispered in my ear, "and Jesus forgives you, too." That was exactly what I needed to hear!

Christian families should not be afraid of a simple Law and Gospel proclamation in the home, even if it sounds out of place. You probably won't chant it like the pastor does in the liturgy, and you most likely won't kneel to confess your sin like you do in worship. But the same words of Law and Gospel which you hear regularly in the Divine Service have worn pathways in your cerebrums for a reason. Now you will have these words which you have learned by heart as a ready blessing at other times, and not just on Sunday morning.

So when my sister made me mud-pies in the sandbox saying, "Try some, Johnnie, they are chocolate!" -and after the second or third pie, I was getting angry because I had begun to think that she just might be lying to me-I don't recall holding a grudge at all. I don't remember exactly how we got reconciled on that particular occasion, actually. I'm just glad that we did, since that formerly "dumb" sister eventually introduced me to her friend who turned out to be my wife and the mother of our 10 children. I only hope that am modeling God's forgiveness in my home, echoing God's Word and Sacraments, as well as my parents did for us growing up.

Rev. John C. Drosendahl is privileged to serve Peace Lutheran Church in Goldsboro, NC, and Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Wilson, NC. He has served as breakaway instructor, catechist, and chaplain for Higher Things conferences. He can be reached at john.drosendahl@gmail.com.