Not Mere Religion
Monday of Pentecost 23
24 October 2016
People who want to become right through their own obedience to the law often ask, "If the law does not make right in the presence of God, what is it for?" They attempt by this question to demonstrate that the law has no purpose if it does not make right in the presence of God. However, in response to this question the Apostle Paul tells us that the law was added for the sake of curbing transgression (Gal 3:19), not for the sake of making right. The first purpose of the law is to restrain the human propensity to a headlong career into death and destruction. This use of the law keeps the civil harmony and peace from being disturbed by destructive persons who seek only their own advantage at whatever the cost may be for society. Even pagans such as Cicero (d. 44 B.C.), the Roman lawyer and senator, understood this use of the law although he did not know the law of the Bible. At its most basic level, the law stands to crush human rebellion against order and godly peace and discipline in the world.
The second use of the law, about which Cicero of course knew nothing, stands to crush the rebellion of the heart. That rebellion raises its ugly head when we humans presume that we could stand justified in God's presence through our own works.
The original question must be turned around on the self-righteous: "If the law could make right in God's sight, for what purpose did Christ die on the cross?" Christ died to rescue us from the penalties of the law. And so we Christians can confess the devastating truth of the law's accusations against us. No defense is necessary. In fact, we can ever and again confess ourselves to be sinners in God's presence, because we have a God who justifies sinners. This is our Christian faith and it stands up to the law and its power and threats. Christ has borne the full weight. We are free. Anything else is mere religion.

Rev. Dr. Scott R. Murray
Memorial Lutheran Church

Martin Luther
"The first understanding and use of the Law is to restrain the wicked. For the devil reigns in the whole world and drives men to all sorts of shameful deeds. This is why God has ordained magistrates, parents, teachers, laws, shackles, and all civic ordinances, so that, if they cannot do any more, they will at least bind the hands of the devil and keep him from raging at will. Therefore, just as ropes and chains are bound upon men who are possessed and in whom the devil is ruling powerfully, to keep them from harming someone, so the whole world, which is possessed by the devil and is being led headlong into every crime, has the magistrate with his ropes and chains, that is, his laws, restraining its hands and feet lest it rush headlong into all sorts of evil. If it does not permit itself to be restrained this way, it will pay with the price of its head. This civic restraint is extremely necessary and was instituted by God, both for the sake of public peace and for the sake of preserving everything, but especially to prevent the course of the gospel from being hindered by the tumults and seditions of wild men. Paul is not discussing that civic use here (Gal 3:19); it is indeed very necessary, but it does not justify. For as a possessed person is not free and mentally balanced just because his hands and feet are bound, so when the world is most restrained from external acts of disgrace by the law, it is not righteous on that account but remains unrighteous. In fact, this very restraint indicates that the world is wicked and insane and that it is driven by its prince, the devil; otherwise there would be no need for it to be kept from sinning by laws.
"The other use of the law is the theological or spiritual one, which serves to increase transgressions. This is the primary purpose of the law of Moses, that through it sin might grow and be multiplied, especially in the conscience. Paul discusses this magnificently in Romans 7. Therefore, the true function and the chief and proper use of the law is to reveal to man his sin, blindness, misery, wickedness, ignorance, hate and contempt of God, death, hell, judgment, and the well-deserved wrath of God. Yet this use of the law is completely unknown to the hypocrites, the [legalists] in the universities, and to all men who go along in the presumption of the righteousness of the law or of their own righteousness. To curb and crush this monster and raging beast, that is, the presumption of religion, God is obliged, on Mt. Sinai, to give a new law with such pomp and with such an awesome spectacle that the whole people is crushed with fear. For since reason becomes haughty with this human presumption of righteousness and imagines that on account of this it is pleasing to God, therefore God has to send some Hercules, namely, the law, to attack, subdue, and destroy this monster with full force. Therefore, the law is intent only on this beast, not on any other."

Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 3.19
Romans 7:7-25

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
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. For 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. 
Lord Christ, send Your law to crush my self-righteousness that I might trust only in Your righteousness. Amen.
For Marcheta Beasley, who is recovering from surgery, that she would be fully restored
For seasonable weather, that we might enjoy the fruits of the earth
For Robert and Dana Parker, who were joined in holy marriage, that they would reflect Christ's love for His bride, the church, in their own marriage
For all those who struggle to see God in their daily work, that they might be comforted by the knowledge that daily work is gift of God

Art: Durer, Albrecht  The Adoration of the Trinity (1515) 
Memorial Lutheran Church
© Scott Murray 2016
Memorial Lutheran Church, 5800 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX 77057
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