I don’t like being wrong. I don’t like being told that I’m wrong. I don’t like being told that I’ve done something wrong. I suspect we are all alike in this way. This feeling is so strong that I’ve even started this article with three sentences beginning with “I.” As far as I know, there are no languages other than English where the middle letter of both “sin” and “pride” is the letter “i.” Sin and pride are problems to which God’s law speaks. Because we don’t like being reminded that we’ve done wrong, that we’ve sinned, we tend to also not like God’s law. We would rather hear mostly about love and mercy and grace. However, as we read in Romans 7:12, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (ESV). To help us understand the goodness of God’s Law, we have said it has three uses or purposes. We find these listed in the Explanation to Luther’s Small Catechism by Harald Sverdrup. The benefits of the law are to “point out to us our sins and the wrath of God toward sin,” to “make us anxious to seek Christ,” and to “point out to the believer what fruits his faith must bear.” *
The first benefit of God’s law is the unpleasant one and the one we might most resist. It is however a necessary first step if we are to understand the mercy of God. The unfortunate reality of life is that it begins in slavery to sin. We call this condition “original sin.” We are reminded in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and in Romans 5:19 that “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” Sin separates us from God. Its consequence is eternal separation from God. We all know what sin is because as we read in Romans 3:20 “by the works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” It is God’s law that tells us we have not loved God with our whole mind, being, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5). It is the law that reminds us that we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). And, if we are still having trouble figuring out how our failure to love can be true, we can take a quick look through the Ten Commandments and realize how impossible they are to keep.
We have a problem. Our sin has separated us from God--we fall short of His glory. Or, as we read in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death…” After the law confronts us with our sin, we can next experience the second benefit of the law. When we admit our desperate problem, God shows us the solution. The law causes us to be “anxious to seek Christ.” The promise is in the second part of Romans 6:23, “…but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The exact benefit of the law in leading us to Christ is in Galatians 3:24, “So then the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” We are not declared “not guilty” of our sins—justified—by the law, but it is the law that leads us as a guardian or tutor to Christ. When we know our sin and the desperate condition that is ours because of our sin, it is God’s desire that we look to Jesus the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). By faith we then receive justification “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
Romans 6 is a beautiful explanation of what happens to us when God gives us the gift of salvation. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life…We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin…Do not present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness” (4, 6, 13). The third benefit of the law is to help us as we present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness. The law “points out to the believer what fruits his faith must bear.” As Psalm 119:105 confesses, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” We must be clear that it is not our obedience that produces faith. Rather it is our faith and the transformation God has worked in our hearts that produces obedience. The law helps us know what to do and not to do because the new self wants to do what is right.
When we are truly in God’s Word, we will hear the law. When we hear God’s law, we might ask ourselves, “What benefit does God want me to have from His law?” Is God calling me to repentance because I have sinned? Is God pointing me to Jesus where He lavishes on me mercy and grace? Is God encouraging me to live out my love for Him and for my neighbor? We cannot obey the law enough to be saved, but that does not mean God’s law is not of great benefit as it shows us our sin, drives us to Jesus, and helps us live a God pleasing life.
* Luther's Small Catechism and Explanation. The Board of Parish Education, The Association of Free Lutheran Congregations, Minneapolis, 1993. p. 35-36.