Distinguishing Law and Gospel (Matthew 5:13-20)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany + February 5, 2017

Text: Matthew 5:13-20

C.F.W. Walther once wrote, “The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book.”[1]  The Gospel reading today is a wonderful illustration of that.

 

13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

 

It’s commonly thought that these words are instructions on how to be a good disciple.  What a strong presence the people of God are in the world!  Gee, the world ought to be grateful to have us.

  • Actually, these are some of the harshest words of Law because they show us how far we miss the mark, individually and as the Church.
  • The Law always accuses us because it exposes our sin. “By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”[2]
  • Because of our sinful flesh, the Law gives no power to do what it commands. It can only bring looming judgment and destruction.  Even if the Law commands us to love God and our neighbor as ourselves, it has no power to change our heart.  In fact, it can only arouse our sinful rebellion: “The Law…said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.”[3]

 

What Jesus says next is the nail in the coffin for all those who aspire to be salt and light on their own:

 

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

 

The seriousness of God’s Law has not changed one wit from Old Testament to New.  Anyone who tells you that God has become more friendly just because you don’t see fire and brimstone falling from the sky is being a false prophet.

 

That also means that heaven is no more within our reach than it was before.  Jesus did not come to show us a better way to live, or to unlock for us the power to meet the Law’s demands so we could escape its peril.

 

Jesus came to fulfill the Law in the only way that could help sinners—by being condemned by it as a sinner.  Jesus became all of your sin, as it is written, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[4]

 

That’s the Gospel: not that God has lessened the force of the Law, but that He has answered it for us in His Son.  Think back to the beginning of the service with Confession and Absolution.  The exhortation was, “If we say we have no sins, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[5]  That’s from First John chapter 1.  A few sentences later, John writes, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One.”[6]  The only way to enter the Kingdom of heaven is through faith in Him.  

 

It’s on account of all this that our Lord and Savior says, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.”  Your saltiness is not that you are more righteous than the rest of the earth, but that you have been called by God to repent and believe in His Beloved Son.

 

You are the light of the world not in and of yourself, but you have been joined to the true Light of the World.[7]  He has exposed all the darkness of your heart and works, and knowing them all, He shed His blood for you.  Through Him working in you with forgiveness (a clean conscience before God and grace for those who sin against you), mercy (acts of love for your neighbor), and hope (fearless in the face of earthly turmoil and even death), those around you will give glory to the Father in heaven.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Jesus is saying here is that those who follow Him, Christians, are the thing which preserves the earth.  If they lose their Christ quality, they’re no different from any of the rest of the world.  As the light of the world, God’s children are held up as an example to the people of the world as emissaries of their heavenly Father.

 

Now, the traditional application of that to us is that we should always be distinct from the world, and that we should live in a glass house, lest God’s reputation be tarnished by our bad example.  So, go out there and be good Christians!  Amen.

 

What that gave you was nothing but Law.  Do this and God will be pleased; don’t do it and you won’t measure up.  Now, there are two ways to respond to the Law: pride or despair—either you hear the Command and say, “What a good boy am I!” or “I’m so terrible, why even bother!”  If you’re proud of your Christian “walk,” this next part is for you:

 

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

 

When Jesus came, the Law didn’t get any easier; it actually got harder, even impossible for us to keep.  So, strange as it sounds, when you hear God’s Law, He intends for you to despair—not of ever being received by Him, but of gaining His favor by anything in you (your good intentions or your noble works).  This is why St. Paul speaks so harshly to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”[8]  Strong words!  As strong as “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will most certainly not enter the Kingdom of heaven.”

 

The only way to have a clean conscience before God is to trust in someone else.  Think back to the beginning of the service with Confession and Absolution.  The exhortation was, “If we say we have no sins, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[9]  That’s from 1 John chapter 1.  A few sentences later, John writes, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One.”[10]

 

The Righteous One is a title that only Jesus can bear.  He is the Man born without the inherited sin, and He is the only Israelite who ever kept the Law of God in both letter and spirit.  These next couple weeks, the Gospel readings will be from this section of Matthew, called the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is the only one who has a right to point fingers at us and preach the Law because He is never implicated by it.  But again, this is still the Law to you.

 

The Gospel is that this Righteous One was counted guilty on your behalf.  He who is the epitome of righteousness and a true Son of God, was counted the most wicked sinner who has ever lived.  He was condemned as an idolater, a blasphemer, an insurrectionist, a murderer, an adulterer, crucified with thieves, stirring up people with his lies, and covetous of the position of others.[11]  He was condemned for you, and for all the evil of your heart, lips, and hands.

 

It is through the gift of faith in Him that God looks at you and passes over the just sentence.  Though your unrighteousness reaches to the heavens, you are counted as righteous as holy Jesus, your Savior.  “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.”[12]  Put your name in there, because it’s true: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered, Blessed is the man against who the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”[13] (Nothing to hide from God about)

 

 

It’s through this working of the Word through Law and Gospel that God makes us salt and light.  You are the salt of the earth not because you never make a misstep, but because you, a sinner, repent and believe in Jesus Christ.  You are the light of the world because God has made you part of His new creation of little Christs.  It’s His light shining through you (forgiveness, hope, prayer)

 

But as soon as we run into the idea that we are the light and salt, Jesus sends in the Law.  Oh, you think you’re all that and a bag of righteous potato chips?  I am more.  You think you’ve kept the Commandments?  While you drifted off during the sermon about how great a hamburger would be, My heart never wavered from My Father—even for a moment.

 

 

Look to the Righteous One (expand on Confession and Absolution verse, 1 John 1-8-10).  He’s not only the guilt offering for our sin, but also the substitute righteous one, the perfect Law-keeper.

 

 

[1] Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, Thesis IV http://lutherantheology.com/uploads/works/walther/LG/theses.html

[2] Romans 3:20

[3] Romans 7:7b-9

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[5] 1 John 1:8-9, quoted in LSB 151

[6] 1 John 2:1 (see also v. 2)

[7] John 8:12

[8] Galatians 5:1, 3-4

[9] 1 John 1:8-9, quoted in LSB 151

[10] 1 John 2:1 (see also v. 2)

[11] John 8:48, 58-59; Luke 23:5; Mark 15:7-11; Matt. 27:38; Luke 11:53-54; Matt. 27:18

[12] Genesis 15:6

[13] Psalm 32:1-2

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