Law and Gospel

May 6, 2018 (The Sixth Sunday of Easter)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Acts 10:44-48

Psalm 98

John 15:9-17

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine


15: 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:9-17, NRSV)


Let us pray: Ever faithful God, make our hearts bold with love for one another. Pour out your Spirit upon all people, that we may live your justice and sing in praise the new song of your marvelous kingdom. Through Christ we pray. Amen.


As a Doctoral student at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN I often felt like I was in a foreign land.  Most of the students were Lutheran, they spoke Lutheran, they ate Lutheran and they lived Lutheran.  They even drank Lutheran, lots of beer, but those are stories I can’t tell.  One of the first learnings for me was the major topic of discussion in Lutheran Theology: Law and Gospel.  This refers to how God reveals God’s self to humanity.  Is it Law or is it Gospel?  As a Presbyterian I was taught John Calvin’s three uses of the Law.  This relationship between Law and Gospel—God’s Law and the Gospel of Jesus Christ—is a theological lens in which God reveals God’s self to humanity.   Is God a god of love and grace or a god of law and obligation?   I believe it is both with the Gospel winning out.  But I digress…


Presbyterian Pastor Henry G. Brinton has written how this Law and Gospel debate affects human beings.  He writes, that each of us has “two kinds of Christians” often contradictory, impulses — one is obligation-keeping (Law), the other is liberation-seeking (Gospel).  For example, he asks, how many times have you made decisions; moral, ethical, political, decisions based on the criteria of obligation-keeping (Law) and or liberation-seeking (Gospel)?[1]


Are you Pro-life or pro-choice?  Are you a peace activist (a dove) or a defender of the military (a hawk)?  Are you for capital punishment or are you against it?  Which impulse rules in which decision?  Law or Gospel?


Our Scripture lessons illuminate this dichotomy.  In John, we hear a lot about obligation-keeping (Law), “I command” and “Obey his commandments” and “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”


On the other hand, the story in Acts is all about liberation.  Peter speaks of his desire for liberation (Gospel) when he turns to his friends and asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47).


One is no more important than the other.  The key is finding a balance between obligation keeping (Law) and liberation seeking (Gospel).


It seems that pure obligation-keeping (Law) religion leads to an oppressive, stifling, regimented legalism that creates communities of faith with blinders on, that are unable and unwilling to respond either to the world or to God’s new movements of the spirit.


On the other hand, pure liberation-seeking (Gospel) leads to “tossing to and fro and blown about on every wind of doctrine,” (Ephesians 4:14) seeking the next new thing (whatever it may be) that will turn us loose from whatever restriction we currently feel oppressed by.[2]


As mainline protestants we are traditionally middle way with a much less law and more gospel.  Our friends to the law side think we are heathens that let anything go and our brothers and sisters to the gospel side think we are heathens for being so restrictive with too many rules.  I believe, like the baby bear, we got it just right…


On a more personal level, as each of us face decisions in life we are most healthy when we can find the balance between two equally valuable things: freedom (Gospel) and security (Law). The freer you are, the less security you have and vice versa.


Often, we try to increase our feelings of security with God by trying to restrict both our freedom and God’s.  We try to draw clear and unbreakable lines between what’s OK and what’s not OK, between who’s in and who’s out, even between what God can and cannot do.


And it is very scary to embrace the freedom that comes with realizing that those lines are fuzzier than we thought, and that God, being God, is free to do as God pleases and to love whom God loves whether we like it or not.


Our scripture passage takes us to the upper room where Jesus is taking one last opportunity to do what he can to prepare them for his departure.  His disciples are anxious and deeply worried.  Their friend, their companion, their encourager, and their guide is leaving.   How will they continue without him?   Jesus tries to calm them.  He begins with these words of comfort.  Even though he is leaving, they are not going to be abandoned, orphaned, or left behind.  God will send another to be with them, to be what Jesus has been for them up until now.  And so, Jesus says to them “If you love me, keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father to give you another comforter.”  A pure mixture of law and gospel.


The love Jesus is talking about here is not a sentimental passion, or a romantic infatuation or obsession, or even an attraction or lust.  The love Jesus is talking about is behavior, which is revealed through our lives and in our actions.  “Don’t talk about love, show me.”  Faith, like love, is less about feelings than it is behavior; it is defined by what we do, our behaviors and our obedience to Jesus’.   In his preface of his commentary on the Old Testament, Martin Luther wrote: “Therefore faith and love are always to be the mistresses of the law and to have all laws in their power.  For since all laws aim at faith and love, none of them can be valid, or be a law, if it conflicts with faith or love.”[3]  They are interconnected.


I have heard it said that Jesus had to command us to love one another because, love is not easy.  If love were easy, no commands, no orders, would be necessary.  As it is, there are times when we need the command to love so that we will continue to behave in loving ways, even when we don’t feel like it.


G.K. Chesterton, the English writer and lay theologian, who is famous for the Father Brown stories said, “In one place in the Bible Jesus told us to love our neighbors.  In another place, he told us to love our enemies.  This is because they are the same people.”  Again, the command is very, very clear because the task is so very, very hard.[4]  Law and Gospel…

“If you love me, keep my commandments.”

“Don’t talk of love; show me!”

Think about what that means, how in the world do we “show” Jesus we love him?


  • When we love our neighbor
  • When we show compassion
  • When we do justice, love kindness and show mercy


Now let me be clear: The Spirit is not a reward for our good behavior; the Holy Spirit Is the gift of God’s grace to enable us to live as God wants us to live and love.  Law and Gospel, love and grace, rules and regulations, they each tell us about God, a God who commands us to love one another and then shows us how to do it by giving his son Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the Gospel.


Let us pray:

[1] Reverend Dr. Delmer Chilton, Lectionary blog: Liberation and obligation April 30, 2018

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid