If you’re a parent, and your child says to you, “Is it ok if I steal some Legos?”—what would you say?
You’ll probably tell me it depends on the situation.
Situation 1: You and the child are in the living room building Legos together. You have your pile. He has his. He points to yours and says, “It is ok if I steal some Legos?” You might say, “Sure, go ahead.” Or, if you’re a stickler for phraseology, you’ll kindly correct him: “You may not steal, but you may use some … if you say please.”
Situation 2: You’re walking through Walmart and the child asks you for a new Lego set and you say, “No, I only have cash on me and don’t get paid till next week and need to buy milk and eggs and don’t have enough money for Legos.” And he says, “It is ok if I steal some Legos?”
In this situation, you say, “Absolutely not.” And, if you’re in the mood to give a lecture, you go on about how “it’s never ok to steal, young man, (all in one breath now) no-matter-how-short-on-money-you-are-or-how-small-the-thing-is-you-want-or-how-badly-you-want-it-or-how-much-money-you-think-Walmart-has … that’s not what we do in our family. We don’t steal.” And if you’re really getting into it, you might add, “And if you do steal, I’ll call the cops and have them arrest you and take you to jail for the night. Mister.”
Situation 3: Your kid got caught shoplifting. Because there’s been a lot of shoplifting at this store, you had to go down to the police station to fill out some paperwork, where you assured to officer that you would—as the parent—handle this. You drove him back to Walmart to personally apologize to the store manager, department manager, cashier, and a guy who stocks shelves. Then you had him purchase the Lego set out of his piggy bank, drove him to the thrift store, and had him donate it. And if you’re anything like my dad, you went ahead and had him donate all his Legos.
Later, when you kiss your nine-year-old goodnight, you notice tears in his eyes.
He pleads with you, “Is it ok if I steal some Legos?” Based on what went down that day, and the mournful look on his face, you can’t image he’s asking permission to steal more Legos. But you want to make sure.
“Why do you want to know?”
“Do you still love me, even though I stole those Legos?”
“Of course I still love you. Nothing could make me stop loving you.”
If you understand the difference between those scenarios, you can understand one of the most crucial distinctions in the Christian faith: the difference between Law and Gospel. It’s one thing to understand it. It’s another thing to have the Holy Spirit teach us in the school of experience how to apply it.
Words of Law put love’s burden on us. Words of Gospel put love’s burden on Jesus.
Romans chapter 3 is a key passage for making this distinction.
“No one will be declared right before God because of the works of the law; rather, through the law, we come to know our sin” (verse 20).
“For there is no distinction: all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, yet as a gift, by God’s grace, they are declared to be in the right, through the redemption in King Jesus” (verse 23).
Two Kinds of People
You’ve probably heard it said, “There are two kinds of people in the world.” Then we fill in the blanks in various ways:
- the have’s and the have-not’s
- the winners and the losers
- those who can and those who won’t
The Bible reveals God’s perspective on this. There are only two kinds of people.
There are secure sinners and there are broken sinners.
My family and I were in the park after a storm. A large tree had fallen. I was curious because it was a big tree, with full leaves and branches. Why did it fall? The tree had been uprooted and the trunk at the base was exposed. It had a large trunk, maybe three feet around. From the outside it looked solid. But now that I could see underneath, the truth was revealed: it was rotting from the inside out.
Sometimes our city’s Forestry Division will remove a diseased tree preemptively, if it’s in danger of falling and causing damage or injury. If they had decided to proactively cut that tree down—the one I saw after it fell—I wouldn’t have believed it was necessary.
“Why are you cutting down a perfectly good tree?” I would say, “It looks healthy on the outside.”
Create in me a clean heart, O God
The Bible reveals that we are rotting from the inside out. As sinners, we habitually fail to love God and neighbor freely from the heart (read Mark 7:1-23). Even though we were created to love like this, even though God has a get-well plan that will empower us to love like this, in our current state this side of Judgement Day, we don’t have the internal integrity needed to bear love’s burden. Our hearts are unclean, diseased, and rotten. Part of the Holy Spirit’s job is to convince us of this—to “convict the world of sin” (John 16:8).
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert; whether you’re Type A or Type B, whether you’re the kind of person who puts people in categories or the kind of person who doesn’t put people in categories—the Holy Spirit’s job is to convince us secure sinners that we are, in truth, broken.
When you’re a secure sinner, he will send his messengers speaking words of Law to cut you down. When you’re a broken sinner, he will send his messengers speaking words of Gospel to graft you into Jesus.
The broken/secure division transcends the church-going/non-church-going divide.
The Law’s burden of love is everywhere. Like Xylem tubes in the vascular system of a healthy tree, the Holy Spirit implanted the call to love God-and-neighbor in the trunk of creation. But, we’ve gotten good at defending ourselves against the Law’s accusation.
You’ve met church goers who are secure sinners. Maybe you are one. You’ve met non-church goers who are broken. Maybe you are one. The only difference is that church-goers—assuming they’re going to Jesus’ church—get to hear the Gospel, a message that comes from outside of creation, directly from God, the Holy Spirit speaking through the followers of Jesus.
God’s Law and God’s Gospel are two different kinds of words, linked together. Both come from God’s love. Like a loving parent, who, in one moment threatens to call the cops on their secure sinner of a child, and in another, says to their broken sinner of a child, “Nothing you do or fail to do will ever make me stop loving you.”
Both sets of words come from the deep and constant love of the Father. The purpose of God’s Law is to turn secure sinners into broken sinners. The Law will always put love’s burden on us and will keep putting the burden on us until it crushes us and breaks us.
The purpose of God’s Gospel is to turn broken sinners into forgiven children. The Gospel announces that Jesus bears the burden.
In the Gospel, “a right-standing with God is revealed—apart from the works of the Law, though the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—a right-standing with God put into effect through the faithfulness of Jesus the King, for everyone who trusts” (Romans 3:21-22).
Remember Goonies? At the end, when the kids are trying to escape the evil Fratelli family and the pirate cave is crashing down, cutting off their escape, and Sloth (the Fratelli’s abused and deformed kid brother) picks up the rock and bears it on his shoulders and all the kids flee to safety passing in between his legs, and just before his legs give out, Chunk says, “No, Sloth!” Sloth says, “Go!” grabbing Chunk by the shirt, “Sloth love Chunk!” Chunk shouts, “I love you too, you’re gonna get crushed!”
In the Gospel, Jesus takes the Law—the burden of love—on himself.
God the Holy Spirit is using the Law to put the burden on us and crush us. He wants to take secure sinners and turn us into broken sinners (read Romans 1:17 – 3:20). Only when we are broken will we be able to hear the Gospel of Jesus taking the burden on himself to set us free to be children of God (Read Romans 3:21 – 4:25). As God’s children, we spend the rest of our lives learning, struggling, dying and rising to “uphold the Law” (Rom. 3:31), to bear love’s burden, grafted into our brother Jesus (Read Romans 5 through 8).
I learned this way of describing Law and Gospel from Bob Kolb (see Kolb, The Christian Faith)
I learned the tree analogy from Tom Wright (see Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1).
Note: these are my translations of Romans.