Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (ESV)
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Friday of Pentecost 15
11 September 2015
An "ought" does not make an "is." In other words, just because the Bible commands us to do certain things, it does not guarantee that we are automatically able to do it. The faulty idea that if God commands something, it must be within our capacity to do it was popularized by a British monk, Pelagius, although there is plenty of this thinking in pagan ethical philosophy before him. Even if it had been taught by the pagan philosophers, Augustine contended that Pelagius's teaching was a novum, that is, a teaching that had never been taught in the church previously. Pelagius argued that if God has commanded us to do certain things in His law, we must be endowed with the freedom of will to carry out the things that have been commanded.
If we have had children, we will easily recognize that a rule does not carry with it the power to do what is required by the rule. Telling our children what to do won't necessarily result in their doing it. Indeed, the commandment causes wrath or rebellion, proving the Apostle Paul right time and again: "For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression" (Rm 4:15
). Rules have the exact opposite effect than the one expected or anticipated by human reason; they simply multiply transgression. This is a great woe to humans in a fallen world (Rm 7:16-25
). An "ought" does not make an "is."
Only a "done" can make an "is." Only what Christ has done for us poor sinners changes the situation we are in over against God. Christ does not wait for us to change the "ought" into an "is," because He knows better than anyone that He would have to wait forever. The law will never make us righteous in the sight of God, and thus God's own precious Son must enter the lists for us and as our champion he must ride down and utterly smash our sin, defeat death, and slaughter Satan for us. His doing is what changes our situation in God's sight. His righteousness by faith becomes our own. We are precious sons of God because He has adopted us into His brotherhood. If there is doing to be done, He must do it and has.
There is nothing contrary to the gospel to enjoin a life of love and good works. There would be a confusion and it would be contrary to the gospel if the preacher preaches "ought" as the source of righteousness about God. We will always fail to reach the standard of love toward neighbor required by the law and we will need to return to the gracious message of the promise in Christ. Love will never be perfect and never satisfy the righteousness of God. Only the righteous Son of God can live up to the standard of divine righteousness. The Son makes the "done" an "is."
"When Paul says 'But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.' (Gal 5:16
) it is as though he were saying: 'I have not forgotten my earlier discussion of faith. Nor am I retracting it when I am exhorting you to mutual love and say that the whole law is fulfilled in love. I am maintaining the very same thing that I did earlier. That you might properly understand me, I add: "Walk by the Spirit!"'
"Although Paul spoke precisely and clearly here, it profited nothing. For the sophists took the statement of Paul, 'Love is the fulfilling of the law.' (Rm 13:10
), and by misinterpreting it they concluded: 'If love is the fulfilling of the law, then love is righteousness. Therefore if we are loving, we are righteous.' These gallant fellows argue from word to deed, from doctrine or from the commandments to life, in this way: 'The law commands love. Therefore the work immediately follows.' It is most inept to argue from commandments and to draw conclusions about works.
"We ought to fulfill the law and by keeping it be justified; but sin stands in the way. The law prescribes and commands that we ourselves love God with all our heart, etc., and our neighbor as ourselves (Mt 22:37-39); but from this it does not follow: 'This is written, and therefore it is done. The law commands love, therefore we love.' You cannot give the example of anyone on earth who so loves God and his neighbor as the law requires. In the life to come, when we shall be completely cleansed from all faults and sins and shall be as pure as the sun, we shall love perfectly and shall be righteous through our perfect love. But in this life our flesh hinders this purity, because sin clings to us as long as we live. And thus our corrupt love of ourselves is so powerful that it overcomes love of God and neighbor. Meanwhile, however, that we might be righteous also in this life, we have a Propitiator and a mercy seat, Christ (Rm 3:25) in whom we believe, so that sin is not imputed to us. Therefore faith is our righteousness in this life. In the life to come, when we shall be thoroughly cleansed and shall be completely free of all sin and fleshly desires, we shall have no further need of faith and hope, but shall love perfectly."
Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 5.16
O Christ, You are the Lord our Righteousness. Help us to love our neighbor. When we fail, have mercy on us. Amen.
For all who travel, that the holy angels would watch over them
For John Meyer, who suffered a fall, that he might be strengthened in his body
For the Lutheran Center on Religious Liberty, that it would be focused on Christ as it garners support to share our worldview in the halls of power
Art: Dürer, Albrecht The Adoration of the Trinity (1515)
© Scott R. Murray, 2015