This petition in Luther’s Small Catechism marks a shift from turning toward God to examining ourselves. We’ve asked God to provide enough bread for the day. We have prayed that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done. And in all of Luther’s explanations he has talked in terms of aligning ourselves to what God is doing. God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done and daily bread comes with or without our prayer, because that is the nature of God. God is God of grace who acts first in our relationship and acts first in the universe.
But when we ask for our sins to be forgiven, we enter into the law part of law and gospel, the part that nobody likes and everybody needs to hear. A basic component to a Lutheran understanding of Christianity is law and gospel in balance. Without the gospel, the good news of love and life in Christ, the law is a burden and source of guilt and shame. Without the law, the gospel is a cotton candy vision, pretty to look at, but basically empty, nice but not necessary.
Let me unpack that a little bit. When Martin Luther looked at scripture, he saw it broken into two essential ideas: law and gospel. This is not as simple as a division as Old Testament and New Testament. Law and gospel are found throughout the whole collection of texts that make up the Bible. The law is found primarily in commandments: Do this; don’t do that. Anyplace where you are instructed as to how you should be going about in the world, relating to others both inside the community and outside the community, you are talking about law. We can find a good bit of law in the Hebrew scriptures, like the 10 Commandments, but we can also find a good bit a law and in some ways more challenging ideas about law coming from Jesus and Paul in the New Testament. Jesus says, “Love your enemies and do good to those who curse you.” That’s a law. “If anyone strikes on the right cheek, offer the other also.” That’s a law, establishing a way that Christians should carry themselves in the world.
Legalism, a focus on law, what you do and what you don’t do, has always been an attractive way to establish a tradition. Most religious traditions have legalistic strains or legalistic periods, where faithfulness is measured by what people do or don’t do. Many people are turned off from religion by legalism because it almost always becomes harsh, judgmental, and hypocritical, pointing out the specks in the eyes of others while ignoring the logs in our own eyes. Many people are attracted to legalistic traditions because they don’t have to think much about it. “Do this and you make God happy” or the more prosperous “Do this and God will reward you,” makes sense in a cause and effect kind of way.
We do need law. What happens when people gather together? They make structures; they make rules; they makes laws so things are organized. And one use of the law is as a guide for our lives, a way of measuring how we are walking along the way. Even if we want to boil down the law as Jesus does into love God and love your neighbor, we need to consider what does that mean for day to day life. If I love God, what does that mean about how I treat the body God has given me or the planet which God made or the stranger I meet?
But Christianity is not fundamentally a legalistic tradition. Christianity over the years has lost itself when it has become overly legalistic and rule-based, only giving people rules but forgetting the reason that we might inspired to follow them. More importantly from a Lutheran perspective, if our relationship with God is based on following rules, we will always fall short. As Paul writes to the Romans, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Luther discovered that if he deeply examined himself and his attitudes, no matter how often he went to confession, there was always more to confess. Within Lutheran Christianity, the primary purpose of the law is not as a guide, but as a force that pushes us toward the gospel. The law says, “Do this and you make God happy.” I examine myself and realize that I don’t always do this, so I don’t always make God happy. Jesus comes in and says, “Good news! God is already happy with you. You are already acceptable to God because of God’s actions. Look at my life. Look at the cross. Look at the empty tomb. You are already acceptable.”
Today, Logan is going to be baptized. The font is another place where we say God is active, reconciling us to God’s self. God steps in and says, “You are mine. You are my child. And even though you will make mistakes in life; even though you will break the rules, you are and will always be my child.” And we can look to this moment of baptism and remind ourselves that we are acceptable to God.
But as I said before, if you have no sense of law; if you have no sense of your own brokenness; if you have no sense of your own sinfulness. If you cannot admit that sometimes you get it wrong, then the gospel will be nice news but it will never be necessary news. Over the past few weeks as we have heard the story of the early church in the book of Acts, heard stories of community and growth and sacrifice, it is important to note that these things did not happen because the church had something nice, the best music or the best chocolate chip cookies always served warm or the friendliest faces greeting you at the door. The church had necessary and good news to share. You can be imperfect and you can be broken and you can be exactly who you are and still be loved by God.
And this good news transforms our relationship to the law. The law becomes what it is intended to be. In Hebrew, the word Torah is often translated as law. Yet my Hebrew instructor would often say that this is wrong translation. It is not law but instruction. It not a collection of rules, but a book of advice; a way that works. Some of those instructions we may look on and say that they worked in a very different context, rules about the place of women, rules about what is clean and unclean. Some of them are timeless, especially those that challenge the way we look at the world, instructions about love, instructions about caring for those in need.
They are instructions about how to live a life shaped by love and hope and peace and joy. They are not meant to be a weapon with which to beat the unrighteous or a measure for us to determine the good and the bad where we always end up being on the side of good. Instruction that sometimes we will get and sometimes we will wrestle with and sometimes we will fail. If you have experienced the good news of Jesus, it is all right to fail. We are saint and sinner at the same time.
Some will say, if it is just advice, why bother? If the law is just instruction, why follow it? If you have experienced the love of God through the gospel, why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you seek to follow the one who shows you the way? If God is love, why wouldn’t you seek to be more loving? It is not longer about what we have to do but what we get to do for the glory of God. Again, for Lutherans we run into the logic that if the faith is there, the works will follow. If the works don’t follow, it’s time to look at the faith.
So as we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass us,” we are in fact praying for two things. We are praying to experience the mercy of God and we are praying that the love of God would transform us to be merciful and forgiving people.
We pray for the grace of God and also pray that this grace would change who we are. This is not a one time moment, but part of a larger journey. We are always disciples; always have something to learn; are always on that journey. So let us start Logan Aiden on that journey of the baptized life.