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The Terror of Law Without Gospel Understanding: Tom's Testimony

(Tom Cottrell recently posted this as a response to a discussion on legalism in our church forum. With his permission, we’re re-posting it here.)

I was raised in a Lutheran church, where each Sunday in the Order of Matins we confessed:

“Oh Almighty God, Merciful Father, I confess unto thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended thee and justly deserve thy temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray thee of thou boundless mercy, and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of thy beloved son Jesus, be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.”

It’s an absolutely beautifully-worded confession, and I have in my years since coming to Christ felt the words pouring out from my soul. But as a young adult confronted each week with the need to confess my sins, I grew increasingly aware of my inability to fulfill the law. I thus lived under the conviction of my confession, that I was a sinner, but I was somehow without the freedom from condemnation purchased at the cross. In the Catechism, Luther teaches the 10 Commandments for the express purpose of providing the means for the Spirit to convict of sin, and it was used to powerful effect in my life. Luther interprets Galatians 3:24 (“The law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ”) as fulfilled in this way – teach children the law and leave it to the Spirit of God to bring the sinner to grace and freedom in Christ. But I was always struggling to fulfill the 10 commandments. In the presence of teaching about righteousness, I was not able to find peace with Christ. This despite the promising way that the liturgy concludes with announcing forgiveness of sins.

It would not be until my first year at University that I came to rely on Christ. And it began with responding to an invitation to surrender my life to obey Christ fully. It is difficult to articulate exactly what changed in my theology, but it is easy to remember the sense of freedom and peace that resulted once I devoted my life to Christ. There is another phrase from the Lutheran Catechism that I carry with me: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe on the Lord Jesus Christ or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel…” This act of regeneration occurred entirely outside of my ability but what joyful privilege to accept it. And that seemed to be the difference, that as I responded to an invitation to follow Christ wholly, my own efforts to fulfill the laws demands fell away and the sufficiency of Christ became instead my life. I use a term like sufficiency now because I am being taught a better understanding of what Christ has done and is already doing. I would not have been able to articulate in that moment, but my heart would have known it. Following Christ in the waters of baptism and pursuing a deeper understanding of the scripture followed easily and joyfully.

Lutheran theology, and many Protestant theologies, struggle with the place of the law in the life of the believer. I have certainly been in churches that have either a formal or informal legalism, a measuring up to some ‘yardstick’ or canon. In the sociological world of church life, it seems inevitable, to both good and poor effect. And with decades of perspective, many of these false canons now appear entirely comical, cheap replicas when compared to the true. Yet over those same years, the true law, the living Christ, grows more and more precious and compelling. I could never understand David’s cry in Psalm 119’s “Oh how I love thy law” until I understood that Christ is the embodiment of the law. Or, as in the John Owen quote I read recently: “We admit no faith to be justifying, which is not itself and in its own nature a spiritually vital principle of obedience and good works.” So that the work of Christ not only reconciles me to the Father, but also works powerfully within me “to will and to do His good pleasure.” May His work in me a sinner bear fruit to the praise of His glory.

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