Jesus the Law-Breaker

By Matthew Becker

My friend, Dr. Edward Schroeder, often asks the question, “How does one commend good works without losing the gospel promise?”  I think that is a good question.  Nonetheless, as many others point out, we Lutheran Christians have not done a very good job of rightly and effectively joining the two aspects of Ed’s question, namely, commending good works for Christians to do and not losing the promise that is faith alone in Christ alone.

Of course related questions are: Which good works ought we to commend? For whose good end? Why?

Is not one of our beefs with some forms of theology the apparent fact that the works that get commended are really no longer good and commendable, if they were ever good and commendable?  Isn’t it the case that such commending of such works is not a true commending of God’s law, but a commending of matters that properly fall into the category of human traditions, customs, and practices?  Or that such commending of matters (perhaps even matters mandated in the Bible) are commended as if these matters were necessary for salvation? Or that such commending of these practices/works implies or states explicitly that the non-observance of these matters is a sin? What gets commended and the way in which such matters are commended seem to lose the promise of the gospel.

Some years ago a Baptist student in my course on the Lutheran Confessions raised concerns about the 28th Article of the Augsburg Confession. He was troubled that the Confessors were, as he put it, “so cavalier with the biblical, apostolic mandates.”  The student continued (and I’m paraphrasing), “How can confessional Lutherans so freely decide which apostolic commands they are going to obey? How can they decide to give up following what the apostles commanded, namely, that one should abstain from blood and from what is strangled, that women ought to have a head covering, and so on, in the name of the gospel? What is to keep you Lutherans from saying, ‘Since salvation is a matter of faith alone, nothing that doesn’t get in the way of justifying faith is to be considered a sin, as long as it doesn’t give offense to others…’?”  He stated to the class that he could not be a confessional Lutheran since the 28th Article of the AC “plays fast and loose with the apostolic commands that are given in the Bible.” It was a poignant moment, since a number of our self-styled “confessional Lutheran” students, who typically join this student in defending the inerrancy of the Bible, had not considered carefully Melanchthon’s evangelical argument, particularly in sec. 53-68 of that article.

How do you commend good works without losing the gospel promise?

I would contend that appeals to a supposed “third use” of the law lose both the divine law and the divine promise. Such appeals seem to me to end up confusing human matters (e.g., apostolic customs/applications) with the truly threatening and damning divine law, from which we are rescued in Christ.

Jesus is the one who has told us that the Jewish national law, the Law given on Sinai, is no longer binding on his followers. That has always been true for Gentile Christians. We do not obey the law’s teaching regarding food, the Sabbath, and other commands because Jesus teaches that we need not obey these laws of the Mosaic covenant. The Mosaic law is no longer binding in all its parts. We know this only from Jesus, who has authority over the law. The OT law is binding only as a summary of natural law, which in essence consists in only two commandments: worship God and love the neighbor. “Moses is dead…. He is of no further service” (LW 35:165). This is surely one of the implications of Jesus’ repeated formula in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it written…. But I say to you…”

Jesus has authority over the law, to interpret it anew, to set aside its requirements, to break it or go against it for the sake of the person in need, to block its punishments, to bring it to an end in his body on the cross, the same body that includes all the baptized. As ones who are baptized into Christ and set free from the Mosaic law, Christian believers listen to our Lord and follow his teaching, especially when he interprets the law anew, sets aside its requirements (see Luke 9:59-60, where Jesus puts obedience to him above obedience to the Fourth Commandment), acts against it for the sake of the person in need, blocks its punishment, and succinctly summarizes it for the Christian as love of God and love of neighbor.

Nevertheless, and this is important, as ones who remain caught in the powers of sin, death, and the devil, the proclamation of the law is still necessary for the believing Christian, both to expose the realities of sin, death, the corrupting power of the devil, and the terrible divine judgment that justly is against us because of our sins, and to lead us to Christ. Those who follow Christ are under both law and gospel until Christ takes them from this veil of tears.

In the meantime, Christ calls us repeatedly to hear both law (natural law working in the conscience and the proclamation of the divine commands to love God and neighbor) and gospel as divine words that speak truly of us: to believe the law when it declares us to be sinners under God’s judgment and to believe the gospel when it declares us to be forgiven under God’s mercy for Christ’s sake.

Instead of speaking of the law’s positive function in the life of the Christian (“third use of the law”), it would be better to speak of “Jesus’ use of the law” or the “Spirit’s use of the law,” or of “dominical exhortation” or “apostolic exhortation” (parenesis), and to distinguish this kind of exhortation and urging from “the OT law” per se.

Christians do not “return” to the Mosaic law in order to live the Christian life of obedience to Christ. The old has passed. The new has come. Christians are called to live a life worthy of the gospel. That life in Christ will take one beyond the old Mosaic law. That life in Christ will take one forward into God’s future that is coming even now.

In response to an earlier report about this issue of the divine law in the life of the Christian, a friend wrote me the following email:

Dear Matt,

I think it was the sainted Arthur Carl Piepkorn in his course on the Confessions who pointed us to Art. IV of the Formula, which talked about the “necessity” of good works.  I have always found his summary useful.  One side in the 16th century argued that good works are necessary for salvation, since they are the proof of faith.  This of course prompted others to declare that this could lead ones attention away from Christ.  The Article mentions that some, namely Amsdorf, sought to solve the problem by saying that insofar as good works detract from Christ, they are detrimental to salvation.  The FC finally said simply, good works are necessary.  A neat piece of semantics, but Piepkorn felt it solved the problem.

I wrote my friend back:

Yes, but which good works are to be commended as “necessary,” i.e., referring to “the eternal, unchanging order, according to which all human beings are obliged and bound to obey God” and to “coercion, with which the law forces people to do good works”?

In my reading, FC IV is just another way of stating, “We seek to commend good works without losing the promise of the gospel.”

The problem creeps in when one ponders FC IV’s definition of “good works,” namely, “true good works are not those which people invent for themselves or that take their form according to human tradition but rather are those that God himself has prescribed and commanded in his Word…” Or later: “But we reject and condemn as false the view that good works are a matter of freedom for the faithful, in the sense that they have free choice whether they want or wish to do them or refrain from doing them or even to act against God’s law while nevertheless still retaining faith, God’s favor, and grace” (20).

Here’s the problem: Has not God prescribed and commanded through the written law and the prophets and the writings of the apostles which divinely good works the faithful are to do in faith? If so, then why does AC XXVIII set aside the written apostolic commands to avoid eating blood and food that comes from strangled animals and the apostolic command to make sure that women have an “exousia” on their heads?  For that matter, why did Jesus in the non-canonical pericope of John 7:53ff not enforce/keep the written law of God when he forgave the woman who was caught in adultery? The divine, written law clearly states such women are to be killed (Dt. 22).  Why doesn’t Jesus follow the written Word of God at this point?  Or why does Jesus in Mark 7 (according to Mark’s own editorial comment) declare all foods clean that the written law clearly states are unclean?  Or why does Jesus break the written law (=making himself unclean) by talking with a Samaritan woman (cf. Lev. 15:19ff)? Or by eating with sinners? Or touching lepers? Or loving Gentile enemies? Or healing people on the Sabbath? On these occasions, Jesus hardly “kept” or “fulfilled” what the Jews understood to be the divinely-given, clearly-stated written Word of God (as given in, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy).

Was Paul being obedient to the written law of God when he set aside for Gentiles Commandment 3 (=Commandment 4 in some lists), not to mention the divine law of circumcision? On what basis can Paul argue as he does in Gal. 3:25-26? Romans 4:14-15?  On what basis was the writer of Ephesians able to assert what is stated in Eph. 2:15-16? (“Katargeo,” according to Daystar Danker, =”to invalidate, to make powerless, to cause something to come to an end or to be no longer in existence, abolish, wipe out, set aside”)?

One can imagine how the Christian “Judaizers” could have asserted a “third use” of the law for Gentile Christians! They certainly would have appealed to Matt. 5:17-20! And they would have argued that the divinely-given written law of Moses corresponds to God’s eternal will for human beings, i.e. “necessary” to be pleasing to God.

But Jesus in Mark and John and Luke breaks the law of Moses! He doesn’t keep the law or fulfill the law in such a way that it remains valid for the obedient believer in Christ; he acts against it for the sake of caring for troubled human beings. And against those who think they are in fact “keeping” the divine law, Jesus intensifies it to the point that people begin to say, “if that is the case, then who can be saved?” Paul says the crucified, cursed Christ abolishes the law. Matt. 5:17-20 is not at all clear in its contemporary application, at least if you compare the statement there with how Jesus is portrayed in Mark, John, and Luke, or with how Paul proclaims that the crucified, cursed Christ has wiped out the law. Or with how AC XXVIII sets aside even certain apostolic prohibitions and commandments (“Hardly any of the ancient canons are observed according to the letter…” AC XXVIII 67).

The problem in our day is that Judaizing Lutherans have set up their own legal construct of what constitutes “the eternal, unchanging order, according to which all human beings are obliged and bound to obey God,” and just like the Judaizers in Paul’s and Luther’s days, these Judaizing Lutherans have much scriptural support for their construct. The construct is, however, a legal, coercive construct and not a properly grounded, promisory, evangelical construct.

(Revised 12/10/13)

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One thought on “Jesus the Law-Breaker

  1. This is brilliant, thank you. I am going to write a piece on why it is sometimes necessary to break ‘rules’ today, rules that support the system, not the human beings in it. Will pass it on after i have finished.

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