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Lenten Series: Advancing in the Path of Righteousness

Meditation on Luther’s Heidelberg Thesis One:
The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but rather hinders them.
Text: Romans 7:7b-8, 10.

Theme: The Doctrine of Life brings Death
By Steven Hein


Last week we began our Lenten Series by providing an orientation to Luther’s statement, The cross is our theology. We considered that the Path of Righteousness involves a journey we must take with Christ in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. The nature of that journey was explained to be rich with paradoxes. We struggled last week to understand the overarching paradox that shall characterize the whole of our instruction for this Lenten Series on the Path of Righteousness: The Cross of Christ is not simply our destination in the Path of Righteousness, it is also the character of our Journey. You arrive by already having been there. This is so because the cross is not only our theology, it also describes the character of the journey itself. We begin bearing a cross (received in our Baptism), we walk experiencing the cross, and we arrive at our destination on Good Friday at the foot of the Cross.

With this perspective in mind, let us embark our journey this evening along the path to righteousness — from, in and to the Cross. Consider with me, for a few brief moments this evening, the first truth that must be understood if we are to make a successful journey along the path of righteousness. If we are to find favor with God and an inheritance of a happy forever. We identify this first truth-axiom by way of Luther’s initial Heidelberg Thesis which begins to sketch and defend the cross theology of the New Testament. The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but rather hinders them. What Luther meant by this thesis can, perhaps best be expressed by a second paradox: If you pursue the Law of Life - which of course, you simply must — you end up dying to live. If you do not pursue the Law of life — you end up living to die. Lets explore what this means. We begin with the first part of the paradox:

I. If you pursue the Law of Life, you end up dying to live

The Law of Moses has often been described, as Luther did in Thesis I, as the Law of Life. This designation, however, has created a great misunderstanding among religious people about what the Law can do for us. This misunderstanding is first seen way back in Biblical history when the enthused Israelites were listening to the demands of the Law sitting along the banks of the Jordan, poised to enter the Promised Land. After reiterating all the demands of the Law received by Moses on Sinai, God exhorted his people through Moses to obey the Law and thereby to live and prosper (Duet. 30:16, 19-20). All of this sounded great to the Israelites. When asked if they would commit to the Law of life, for the benefit of abundant living — they all raised their hands and said, count us in! They reasoned in the still popular way: If the Law is what God expects us to do...and he will bless us in our doing, then this is something we can do and will do. God would not demand the impossible, and then promise blessings for those who achieved it. In other words, obligation implies ability. This reasoning is both fallacious and of the Devil. It is wrong and it is damnable. Obligation does not imply ability — it implies only responsibility. The purpose of the Law is to understand something about the self before God that can only be understood by those who commit to His Law, but fail - again and again.

Since the time of Moses, the people of God have struggled and become confused about the role that the Law of God plays in His plan of salvation. What has not been controversial, is that the Law reveals that we are imperfect people who cannot perfectly bring our lives into conformity with its demands. Where the debates have taken place is over the question: Can we do anything that the Law requires and if we can — are we not duty bound to do it as our little bit toward our own salvation. In Luther’s day, it was insisted that all must do for their salvation whatever is in them to do. God’s grace will then supplant what is missing and will empower us gradually to bridge the gap between what we are and do, and what we ought to be and do according to God’s holiness and law.

Luther recognized with St. Paul, that these views are of the Devil. The Law doesn’t prescribe that we do our best — it demands that we be perfect. It doesn’t demand that we attain a little bit of righteousness, as if there is really such a thing as semi-righteous — it demands that we be perfect even as our Heavenly Father is perfect. There are only two classifications of persons before God - those who are perfect and righteous and those who are unrighteous and spiritually dead. The Law intends to reveal and to bring us to the crushing and repentant recognition that we must count ourselves among the latter group. We are the unrighteous and dead ones. And as we know about dead people, they are out of the running they cannot do anything! Dead people cannot do some little bit. And it is positively silly, is it not, to encourage a corpse to do its best!

The more God places his Law of Life in front of us and especially the First Commandment — the more he demands us to love him with all our heart mind and soul — to fear, love and trust in him above all yesterday, today, tomorrow and forever — the more we realize that stand before God as beggars...dying to live. And the more we try and commit to the Law, the more it slays us. We are not slackers who need exhortation and encouragement to get with it, we are dead — corpses who need life.

It is the repentant heart that is dying to live that must count all works as simply the signs of the death that has us in its grasp. What better motive could you want to flee to the cross and receive the mercy of God, than the desire to live. When those who are dying to live go to the cross of Christ, they claim their union with Christ in their baptism. They come bringing all their significant possessions — which, of course, are their sins and spiritual deadness.

Jesus comes to the cross and your baptism with all that he has — with all his perfect works, his total fulfillment of the Law, all his forgiveness and God’s favor. Now for those of us, dying to live, he makes a wonderful exchange. He takes from us our sin and death and gives to us in exchange his works, righteousness and favor with God. With such things, those who are dying...LIVE! ...with God, with righteousness, with freedom from all the demands of the Law, with salvation — yesterday, today and forever.

But what about the other half of the paradox? Here is a real sober truth that we must always take to heart to defend ourselves from the guile and cunning of the Devil who is constantly making war on us and all in the Church of Christ.

II. If you do not pursue the Law of life, you end up living to die

The devil’s snare is to entice people to believe one of two lies. First, that we do not have to keep the Law of Life perfectly - God will respect and honor those who simply their best. After all no one is perfect and we are really making an effort. He will surely accept what we offer as our best and overlook the rest. After all, God is a God of love and therefore it doesn’t matter about the Law, just be sincere in whatever you do. This is lie number one.

Lie number two is to simply say, to hell with it all! Lets live it up today — tomorrow we will die but...well, that’s tomorrow.

The truth is those who seek to live with or without God with some plan that makes their own sinful wretchedness OK are really those who are simply living to die. Indeed they are dead already but fool themselves about it. Do we not see this perspective rampant in our culture today? Can we even not find such voices in the context of the Church. Sentimentality reigns to embrace lies about a life that only ends in a finality of death. People see no need for the cross of Christ and therefore they do not die to sin in Christ...they just die.

Let us be clear of the choices as we approach the Law of Life: You can die to live or live to die. You can walk the road of the cross which brings life out of death - or you can walk the road of the devil grabbing to obtain your own life, and die in the process.

The wisdom of this evening’s meditation for those who would be instructed in the Path of Righteousness is that we are called to walk the road which brings us first to the demands of the Law of Life. This Law of Life is really a cross in disguise. Its demands crucify all of our best works and both reveal and work a death that then leads to life. It renders sinners repentant, dying to live. This is good. It is the beginning in a right instruction and journey in the Path of righteousness that leads to the cross of Christ and salvation. Let us take this step...and stay the the Cross of Christ. Amen.

Steven A. Hein is currently Headmaster of Shepherd of the Springs Lutheran High School and the Director of Shepherd of the Springs Christian Institute in Colorado Springs, CO. He was formerly Professor of Theology (24 years) at Concordia University-River Forest, IL.

Bible References

Deuteronomy 30: 16, 19-20
16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 19 This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Romans 7: 7b-8, 10
7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet." 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.

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