The Law, the Gospel, and Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints)

I probably heard the gospel many times during my childhood, but it didn’t register until […]

Charlotte Donlon / 4.19.17

I probably heard the gospel many times during my childhood, but it didn’t register until I was a junior in college. When it finally grabbed my attention one fall night outside Gorin’s ice cream shop in the Five Points South neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama, I saw my need to be rescued from my sin. I was with a friend who was a Christian when all of the puzzle pieces fit together. She prayed for me and with me after I acknowledged the fact that my efforts to perform and get my act together would never meet God’s expectations of holiness. After we prayed I felt a weight lift from my body. Seriously. I did. It must’ve been twenty years of self-inflicted and societal pressure to be something I could never be floating away into the dark night.

A few months later I ended up at a church that preached the gospel every Sunday. My eyes and ears were open, and I heard the Good News every time I walked through the doors of that building. I also heard it at Bible studies and small group gatherings. I heard it while hanging out with my new friends from the singles group. I drank from the firehose of this gospel-centered theology, taking huge gulps of what felt like freedom. I needed God’s grace. I needed the truth that is described so concisely in Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints): “The Gospel announces that we are justified by grace through faith: not by what we do, or even who we are, but by what Christ has done and who he is. Our guilt has been atoned for, the Law fulfilled.”

Every morning I woke up in my closet of a dorm room and asked myself and God, “Is this really true? Are all of my sins covered? Am I a new creation in Christ? Does God offer me grace because of the person and work of Jesus?” The answer to all of these questions was yes. The answer to these questions twenty-two years later is yes—the answer to these questions will always be yes.

So why do I still operate as if I’m trying to earn my way into everyone’s good graces? Why do I feel guilt when I think about how I’ve missed every single daily Lenten preaching and luncheon at my church over the past several weeks? Why did I send a groveling email to David Zahl last night apologizing for not submitting this post yesterday as I planned to do? Why do I feel like I have failed as a wife, mom, friend, neighbor, and writer? The answer to these questions is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no. I’m a sinner. I’m also looking at how I’m failing to fulfill the measly little “l” laws that I’ve put in place to substitute for God’s ultimate Law: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” But I can’t even fulfill my own half-ass substitution laws.

I see my need for forgiveness, but I’m not looking at Jesus. In Law and Gospel, William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl write, “Perhaps it is enough to say that the Law reveals that we need to be forgiven; the Gospel announces we have been forgiven. Full stop.” I need that full stop. This is why God provides a church that preaches and shows me the Gospel, why God places people in my life who remind me of the Gospel, and why God gives me His Word and books like Law and Gospel. God puts me in the way of the truths of the Gospel because I’m forgetful, and I’m still a sinner in need of a Rescuer. My sinfulness won’t disappear or float away this side of eternity. But neither will God’s free gift of grace.

If I take a few minutes to contemplate the last few days, I can see fruit of the Gospel in my life braided with my sin and with my efforts to live up to little “l” laws. McDavid, Richardson, and Zahl write in Law and Gospel, “Language about ‘fruits’ is dangerous, though, because as sinners we are tempted to examine our own lives for signs of these fruits. Of course, once we’re evaluating ourselves, we’re squarely back to the territory of Law.” Still, it is good to know I’m not the exact same person I was twenty-two years ago in front of that ice cream shop. There are glimpses of gratitude, love, spontaneity, humor (with help from my husband, our children and my friend Kelly), and freedom. There is also a soul that is weighed down by sin, then released by God’s free gift of grace, then weighed down again. It’s like I have a moon with its own phases of weight and release. But after I glance at my sin or the fruit of the Gospel, God helps me rest my gaze on Himself—the giver of all good things and the redeemer of all bad things.

Law and Gospel sums it all up here:

The measure of God’s mercy is Christ. The signs of transformation as a result of the Gospel are mostly illegible, and the true saint would have little desire to read them if they were. The measure of the believer’s state of virtue or holiness, therefore, is also Christ. We so often approach our faith as if it were a call to traverse the distance between man and God, ensconced even in our language of growing ‘closer’ to God. “To open up again the abyss closed in Jesus Christ,” Karl Barth wrote, “cannot be our task.” There is not distance, only the God who is, in Meister Eckhart’s words, “nearer to me than I am to myself.”

There are times that I desperately want to close what I perceive as a gap between God and me.

But it’s not there. Jesus is.