When you think of Jesus' teaching, themes like grace, love, and forgiveness probably pop into your mind. You might think of heart-warming parables like The Prodigal Son or Jesus' promise to give rest to all who come to Him (Mt 11:28). But then you run across passages where Jesus says you cannot follow Him unless you carry a cross and hate your children (Lk 14:26-27).
Uh . . . what?
Read the red letters of your Bible and you will find stories of unprecedented grace. But you will also find harsh and shocking declarations of law. So, how do we make sense of this? Is Jesus double-minded?
What Law Did Jesus Preach?
Jesus preached the pure and unadulterated moral law that God gave to Moses, which includes the Ten Commandments. When religious people came to trap Him with theological puzzles, Jesus responded: “What did Moses command you?” (Mk 10:3). If someone asked, “What is the greatest commandment,” Jesus provided an answer from Moses' law (Mt 22:36-40).
But it's important to note that Jesus actually ramped up Moses' law to include not only outward actions of the body, but inward intentions of the heart (Mt 5:27-48). According to Jesus, you must obey what the law says and do it with the right motivation.
Since law-teachers often made Jesus angry, many conclude that Jesus was opposed to the law. But He absolutely was not! Jesus loved God's moral commands.
What About Grace?
Like every good grace preacher, Jesus loved the law because He understood the purpose for which it was given. Contrary to what many Christians today believe, the Law was not given as a guide for righteousness; it was given to silence every mouth and hold the whole world accountable. The purpose of the law is to make us conscious of how sinful we truly are and reveal our need for a Savior (Gal 3:19-22).
Paul writes: "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin" (Rm 3:19-20).
Elsewhere, Paul explains that the law actually causes sin to increase, stating that "the power of sin is the law" (1 Cor 15:56). He even goes so far as to call the Ten Commandments "the ministry of death" (2 Cor 3:7).
The law simply and ruthlessly kills any notions we have about attaining righteousness by good works. For even the "good" works we've performed were done with "look at me" motivations.
So, by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, Jews had fourteen centuries to learn what the law should have taught them – that they were dreadfully sinful and in desperate need of a Savior. However, the religious teachers had muddled the law of God with all their extra rules and traditions. By teaching their traditions more than God's law, they diluted the law and robbed it of its power. They made the law seem doable. Difficult, but doable.
As a result, the people did not see their true condition. The menace of sin was not fully recognized and the mouths of the self-righteous remained open.
By the time Jesus was born, every Jew should have been saying to themselves what Paul said to himself in Romans 7:23-24:
“Nothing good lives in me. Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Anyone living under the ministry of the law will inevitably ask that question.
But sadly, no Jew was asking it because the Pharisees and other religious teachers had muddied the waters too much. Therefore, Jesus had to do their job before He could do His. He had to return God's standard of morality to its proper level of glorious perfection (Mt 5:48). Before He could preach grace, He had to preach the law in order to make sin truly sinful. Before He could give us Himself as the answer, He had to make sure we were asking the right question: Who will deliver us?!
The Big Mistake
Many churchgoers today are not asking the right question either. They're asking questions like How can I be a better Christian? or What can I do to make God happier with me?
But why are they asking questions like this?
To escape the harshness of Jesus' law sermons, many preachers allegorize or soften them. "Well, Jesus doesn't really want you to take up a literal cross (Lk 14:27), He just wants you to deny yourself more." Or "Jesus doesn't really want you to give up everything to follow Him (Lk 14:33), He just wants you to love your stuff less."
Do you see what's happening? These preachers are making the exact same mistake as the Pharisees – they're watering down God's law to make it doable for us.
The biggest problem in the church today is not cheap grace, but cheap law: believing that God accepts anything less than perfect obedience (Mt 5:48).
And self-righteousness reigns.
Jesus' Two Words: Law and Gospel
When preachers fail to distinguish between Jesus' death-dealing words of law and His life-giving words of grace, they can cause great confusion and great damage to people. Consider these red letters:
"If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Mt 6:14-15).
This is one of the most-quoted passages in the Bible. And that's because people don't see what it's really saying. This teaching from Jesus should send cold chills down your spine. It's pure law. Jesus is saying that God's forgiveness toward you hinges completely on your ability to forgive others.
That's really bad news.
People sin against us all the time. Have we honestly forgiven them all? What if we miss one? And what do we say to those who have been raped or horribly abused? What do you say to a young child who has been molested?
“Sweetie, Jesus says you have to forgive that evil man otherwise He won’t forgive you.”
If you don't understand the law/gospel distinction, that is exactly what you'll have to say to that child. After all, Jesus was clear: you must forgive everyone, even the unforgiveable. If you can't, you're in big trouble. The law condemns you as an unforgiver.
Thankfully, Jesus did not come only to preach the law, but to fulfill it (Mt 5:17). We cannot forgive the unforgivable, but Jesus can and did in our place. And His blood has removed all our sins, including our sins of unforgiveness.
That's really good news. That's the gospel.
The proper way to understand the relationship between law and gospel goes in four steps:
1. Perfect law-keeping is required to have a relationship with God
2. None of us can do it
3. But there was One who did it for us
4. We are counted as perfect law-keepers through faith in Him
The law is like the "red-flag" surf warning at the beach. It is sufficient to point out the danger, but powerless to help the drowning victim. It will never dive in and save you from the undertow. It will only stand there and watch you go under. But the gospel of grace comes to us in our despair, drags us back to shore, and breathes new life into our lungs.
In short: You're a sinner [law], and all your sins are forgiven in Christ [gospel].
This law/gospel distinction was a central element of the Reformation that has sadly been largely forgotten by the modern church. "The Churches of the Reformation from the very beginning distinguished between the law and the gospel as the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace" (Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, 4th edn., 612).
Martin Luther said: "Virtually the whole of the scriptures and the understanding of the whole of theology–the entire Christian life, even–depends upon the true understanding of the law and the gospel" (Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, p. 111).
The understanding of law and gospel is the key that unlocks the whole Bible, as both words run from Genesis to Revelation. Of course, the best place to begin this understanding is with Jesus.
How to Spot Jesus' Law and Gospel
Any time Jesus gives a moral command, it's law. Example: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mt 5:34).
Any time you read a conditional statement from Jesus, it's law. Example: “Do not judge and you will not be judged” (Lk 6:37). To avoid something (judgment) you have to do something (don’t judge). This is law – a blessing you have to pay for.
Any time Jesus makes a threat, you should interpret that as law also. Example: “Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Mt 5:22). That’s bad news for anyone with a brother!
But any time Jesus gives an unconditional promise, you should interpret that as gospel – good news. It's a blessing He paid for with His own blood. Example: "He said to the paralyzed man, 'Son, your sins are forgiven'" (Mk 2:5).
To the self-righteous, Jesus gives the law in order to bring them down (the rich young ruler). To the broken, Jesus gives the gospel in order to bring them up (the woman caught in adultery). Sometimes, He gives both words to the same person to address their self-righteousness and their brokenness (the woman at the well).
And that's the whole point.
Christ is not using the law to get us to strive harder; He's using the law to get us to stop striving altogether.
To unbelievers, the law proves that no amount of moral effort can get a person into God's kingdom. To believers, the law proves that no amount of moral effort can keep a person in God's kingdom. Christians are completely and eternally forgiven people, counted as sinless and holy, only by the blood of the Lamb (Heb 10:10). Realizing this allows all of us to cease the restless activity of trying to "get right" with God. Jesus wants us to set our work boots aside and trust solely in His work.
"And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Rm 4:5).
Without a doubt, Jesus is overflowing with grace. But self-righteous law-keeping prevents us from receiving and walking in it. So, in loving-kindness, Jesus gives us the real law, with all its crushing power, so that He can then give us the word of grace that will raise us to a new life of joy and rest in Him.
For Further Reading