During my three years at Concordia Theological Seminary, I spent – according to an Excel spreadsheet that I carefully kept and maintained – exactly $4,391.03 for required and recommended textbooks. One of the most important purchases that I made – one that was required for not just one but for multiple classes – is this blue volume that I hold in my hand. It is entitled The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, and it includes transcripts of 39 lectures that the first President of the Missouri Synod, Rev. C.F.W. Walther, delivered to Seminary students on Friday evenings between September 12, 1884 and November 6, 1885. You can purchase a copy from Concordia Publishing House or Amazon for $33.99. And from where I stand, it is literally worth its weight in gold.
The reason why it is so incredibly valuable is that in those 39 lectures Walther carefully, patiently and comprehensively explains why the teaching of Law and Gospel are the very foundations of Lutheran preaching.
I can guarantee that outside of Lutheran circles, virtually no one ever reads this book, and it’s not just because it was written by over a hundred years ago by some eccentric-looking old Lutheran preacher. It’s not because it was translated into English from Walther’s original German language and the wording and style are often old-fashioned and very different from today’s writing styles. It is because – in my opinion – what passes for modern-day Christianity often whitewashes or even ignores the Law while turning the Gospel into some type of feel-good hopped-up-on-steroids self-help motivational pep talk.
In Walther’s 39 lectures he offered 25 theses on the subject of Law and Gospel. Thesis IX – the thesis that covered six of those 39 lectures – reads as follows: “The Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners terrified by the Law are directed to their own piety.” I want to repeat that again: “The Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners terrified by the Law are directed to their own piety.” Try to keep those words in mind as we delve into today’s Gospel lesson.
When you hear the word Law spoken in its theological sense, what do you think of? The Ten Commandments? Of course, you do. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.” All the way through the 10th: “Thou shalt not covet the neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, not his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.” You know the Commandments. You learned the Commandments a long time ago. You may still even be able to recite them word for word.
Here’s how the Law is defined in the Lutheran Confessions: “The law is a divine doctrine which reveals the righteousness and immutable will of God, shows how man ought to be disposed in his nature, thoughts, words, and deeds in order to be pleasing and acceptable to God, and threatens the transgressors of the law with God's wrath and temporal and eternal punishment. For, as Luther says against the [antinomians], ‘Everything that rebukes sin is and belongs to the law, the proper function of which is to condemn sin and to lead to a knowledge of sin’”
Let’s go to the first two verses of today’s Gospel lesson, where Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
You know and I know that Jesus is referring here to the 5th Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” How do all of you stand on this one? Any accused or convicted murders here with us this morning? I didn’t think so. Any one of you can honestly say something like this: “Pastor, I have never physically murdered anyone,” and I would have no reason to doubt your word.
There’s an old saying that “the devil is in the details,” and that has never been more true than in the study of God’s Law. That’s what Jesus is saying in his words that we study today. Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But He doesn’t stop there. He widens the definition of murder to include anger and insults and, essentially, all manners of ill will towards another person.
I like all of you folks a lot, and I really do believe that none of you has ever committed a physical murder. But if you say that you are not a murderer – that you have never, ever broken the 5th Commandment – then you are lying to yourself, you are lying to me and you are lying to God. You are using what we call in our own theological terms a lame excuse. Remember that God knows better. God knows what is in your heart. And one other thing: God does not accept excuses for breaking His Law. No excuses – period.
Let’s look at another example – one not mentioned specifically by Jesus in our text. Let’s take the example of the 8th Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” This is a juicy one. Pastors hear more lame excuses about this one that you can possibly imagine. When pastors get together and start discussing problems in their congregations, this one is usually at or near the top of the list. One of the churches in our dual circuit has been ripped apart by this very issue for well over a decade. And most people don’t recognize how much linkage there is between the 5th and 8th Commandments.
Luther’s Small Catechism answers the traditional “what does this mean?” question about the 8th Commandment with this explanation: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” The typical lame excuse for this one goes something like this: “But Pastor, I have never ever told a lie about the people who live next door to me.” OK – I’ll buy that.
But in Scriptural terms neighbors are defined as “all people” – not just those who physically live close to where you live. Have you ever – either inadvertently or on purpose – said something about someone that was not 100% true? Have you ever said something about someone that was not really a lie – but details were conveniently left out so that what you said was not really the whole truth? Have you ever gossiped about someone – a friend, a family member, someone at your church? When you are talking about someone else – a friend, a family member, someone at your church – do you always defend that person? Do you always explain everything in the kindest way – or do you sometimes say things purposefully out of malice? Unless you have kept the 8th Commandment in every iota and dot, to use Jesus’ words from last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, then any excuse you may make is nothing but a lame excuse. And once again, remember that God does not accept excuses for breaking His Law. No excuses – period.
In today’s Gospel lesson you heard Jesus reject the lame excuses that people give for breaking the 5th Commandment and the 6th Commandment and, lastly, the 2nd Commandment. Jesus didn’t go into detail about Commandments 1, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10 – but He really doesn’t have to. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that repeatedly break all 10 of the Commandments. And we know that our lame excuses for breaking them are just a lot of wasted hot air.
It’s a pretty grim picture, isn’t it? We sin. We sin over and over again. We smash our way through the Commandments like the proverbial bull in a china shop. And as St. Paul so cogently reminds us, the wages of sin is death. So in our desperation to make things right with God we grasp at straws. We look for a way – any way – out. We are either so desperate or so foolhardy that we are willing to try or say anything. We think that any excuse – even a lame excuse – is better than none at all.
The final thesis that Dr. Walther taught in those 39 Friday evening lectures is this: “The Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel does not predominate in teaching.” Here’s how the Lutheran Confessions define the word Gospel: “The Gospel, strictly speaking, is the kind of doctrine that teaches what a man who has not kept the law and is condemned by it should believe, namely, that Christ has satisfied and paid for all guilt and without man's merit has obtained and won for him forgiveness of sins, the ‘righteousness that avails before God’ [Romans 1:17; 2 Co 5:21], and eternal life.”
So where is the Gospel for us this morning? Where is the Gospel in these verses from Matthew chapter 5? Where is the Gospel in this sermon that you have been listening to? We hear all these words of Law and all we can do is bow our heads and can cry: “Lord, have mercy!”
The thing is, the Lord has had mercy upon us and upon you. It’s not because you deserved it and it is certainly not because He grudgingly accepted all of your lame excuses.
The Gospel message here and throughout Scripture is that Jesus kept the law in every iota and dot – kept it perfectly – because you could not keep it perfectly. He did it for your sake – for the sake of your salvation. That was the message of last week’s sermon. That is the message you will hear – in one way or another – every time you walk into this Church.
We all know and can recite the words of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” But it is unfortunate that hardly anyone knows the words that follow that verse – the words of John 3:17 – where Jesus continues by saying: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
I’d like to suggest that when you get home this morning you take out the bulletin insert and re-read today’s Gospel lesson. It is 17 verses of Law … Law that condemns your lame excuses … Law that gives you no excuse at all. You might very well wonder why after all of the nice words we heard last week and the week before from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus seems to switch course so suddenly. Just a few verses ago He told us how blessed we are – and now He seemingly gives us no hope. Why, we might ask. Why does He do this?
He does it because He loves us. He wants to make sure that we will abandon all of our lame excuses and turn to Him for mercy. The mercy that sent Him to the cross, bearing all of your sins on His tortured body. The mercy that sent Him to death and to a borrowed grave. The mercy of His victory over death – His resurrection – and His ascension into heaven. The mercy of His return on judgment day, when you will be clothed with a glorified, imperishable resurrected body that will live with your Savior for all eternity. The mercy of these simple words: “Your sins are forgiven.”
He did it because He wants you to turn away from your excuses and confess: “You are right Lord – and I am wrong. Forgive me – not because of what I have done, but because of what You have already done for me.” And His answer is the sweetest Gospel that you can ever hear: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
C.F.W. Walther wrote and taught far more during his lifetime than just this one book. One of his writings that has come down to us is known as Walther’s Prayer for Faith in the Word, and I invite you to join me in prayer as I read this prayer for you.
Let us pray. “O Lord, our God, how blessed are we! Not only have You given us Your Word, which offers and imparts to us all the fruits of the redemption of Your dear Son Jesus Christ, but You have also opened our eyes, so that we may know Your grace and in firm confidence receive it. Though the world, the Law, our heart, and our conscience condemn us, what do we care? Your Word declares us free of all guilt. O keep us in such faith unto our end and grant that all members of our congregation may appreciate the great treasure which they possess. Help them and us to triumph over all attacks of the devil, the world, and our flesh and finally to depart this life in peace and to be received into Your eternal kingdom. Hear us for the sake of our risen and victorious Champion, Jesus Christ. Amen.”