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Law and Grace

Christmas 1

Isa. 61:10-62:3 • Ps. 147 or 147:13-21 • Gal. 3:23-25, 4:4-7 • John 1:1-18

Believing the Good News does not require believing that everything which precedes it is bad news. “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:23-24). Your laws, the psalmist says, are sweeter far than honey, for they give life, and hope, and order (Ps. 119). Without instruction and guidance we fallen creatures quickly go to our ruin. “I am a stranger here on earth; do not hide your commandments from me” (119:19). This observation about Islam is instructive for an appreciation of “law” as a disciplinarian: “Given our native disability, what we men require is to be told in detail and with authority how we ought to live. We require to have guidance for the proper conduct of our lives and in order to distinguish between right and wrong. What the Muslim wants and what he expects above all else from his religion is guidance in respect to the myriad situations in life” (Charles J. Adams, “Islamic Faith,” in Introduction to Islamic Civilization). Guidance and instruction will remain a necessary help as long as the old Adam lives. Your law, O Lord, is good. Still, the law is not faith.

“But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian” (Gal. 3:25). Faith is a gift which comes; it is not a native ability or a kindly disposition toward things divine. It is not ours, but a gift; it is Christian righteousness in the passive voice. Defining more precisely the faith which arrives, St. Paul says pointedly, “God sent his son — this is the birth of faith — born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive the adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4-5). And because we are children, we cry into the heart of the Father, being hidden with God in Christ. Law, order, civility, and kindness still matter, though they purchase not our salvation. “Because you have laid hold upon Christ by your faith, through whom you are made righteous, begin now to work well. Love God and your neighbor, call upon God, give thanks to him, praise him, confess him. Do good to your neighbor and serve him. Fulfill your office” (Luther, Commentary on Galatians). Faith is precisely what fulfills our office, the power of the risen Lord to transform us as his living witnesses.

Again, it must be repeated that this is a gift. It is the impossibility of the possibility of God. It is the frightful and beautiful announcement from on high that the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us. And we who receive him cleave to him by something other than our own power. “To all who received him, who called upon his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.” The only saving is this: God has saved you by the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. This is about you, but it is not from you. “Ask if you deserve it, seek the cause, seek the justification, and see whether you will find anything nisi gratiam (except grace)” (Augustine, Sermo 185).

Look It Up
Read Isaiah 61 about the beautiful bride of Christ.

Think About It
You emerge from the waters of baptism, you step from the table of life as brilliant as the stars of heaven.


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