On Making Law Out of the Gospel

It’s the supreme art of the devil that he can make the law out of the gospel – Martin Luther

Fred believed the gospel. If you had asked him whether someone could get to heaven by “being a good person,” he would have told you the truth of the gospel of grace directly. No one is saved by works of the law, but salvation is a free gift offered to sinners by God’s grace. Yet for all his conviction about the gospel he still felt incredibly insecure in his own relationship with the Lord. Though he could acknowledge that he was saved by grace, he often believed that he remained saved because of obedience. We must all regularly preach the gospel to ourselves if we are to keep self-condemnation at bay.

Christians still struggle with sin. It would be wonderful if, after we are converted, we no longer sin, but that simply isn’t the case (James 3:2; 1 John 1:8). Sin and temptation still press against the believer, and we are often tempted to submit ourselves to become slaves of sin again (Rom. 6:12-13). Sin should lead, naturally, to condemnation, but because of Jesus Christ there is “no condemnation” for the believer (Rom. 8:1). “If we confess our sins [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Yet, there are many, like Fred, whose sin leads them to despair.

Satan uses the believers sin strategically to isolate him and tempt him to doubt God. So, he uses our sin to convince us that we are unlike others. “Everybody else has their act together,” we say. “I am the only one who struggles like this.” “If other people knew they’d never accept me.” “How can I even be a Christian?” There are countless sayings we repeat in our minds. We make ourselves the exception. Our sin makes us an island within the Christian community. Of course 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us differently, but we believe the lie.

Satan also uses our sin to convince us that God does not love us. After all, how could He when I continue to sin in this manner. Satan throws our sin in our faces and points to every failure as evidence that we are condemned before God. Satan elevates God’s holiness and justice and hides His grace and mercy from us. He magnifies our sin and minimizes the cross. Our sin preaches to us, “You have failed.” And since there is real guilt, and since the tender conscience should feel that sense of guilt, we are tempted even more to believe the lies of the enemy. But there is an entire paradigm shift that lies beneath our adoption of these lies: we have turned the gospel into the law.

Christianity is not about what you do, but rather about what Christ has done. We believe this at the moment of our conversion but we somehow forget it throughout our Christian walk. Over time many Christians come to believe that they remain a Christian because they work hard, because they don’t sin – or they perceive that they don’t sin. They believe that they are saved by grace at the start, but they remain saved because they obey God. Satan seizes such maladaptive theology, and uses it to condemn us. Our only hope is to continually preach the true gospel to ourselves.

The true gospel tells us that we are saved by grace from start to finish. Paul makes this point in a bold fashion, in his letter to the Ephesians. He speaks of grace apart from works, and just to drive the point home he repeats the idea within just a few verses. So, we read:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,  not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph. 2:4-9)

Salvation comes all from God, there is nothing we contribute to it. And this grace which starts the process, runs throughout. We are not saved by grace and kept by works. The Bible speaks to that too, for Jude tells us that it is God who is able to “keep you from falling and present you faultless” (Jude 1:24). Paul tells us that we can trust God to keep and preserve and guard our faith (2 Tim. 1:12). He also points out that God will sustain us until the end (1 Cor. 1:4-9), and Peter adds that we are being “guarded” by God’s power (1 Peter 1:3-5). All of this is passive, it is one-sided. It is the reminder that God saves and keeps all who belong to Him (John 6:39). Grace saves us from first to last.

When we turn the gospel into law we make our salvation all about our keeping ourselves in God’s good graces. But grace is never earned. It is always a free gift of God. He who loved us while we were yet sinners, will continue to love us now that we are His (Rom. 5:10). Don’t turn the gospel into law, you will always despair when that happens. When we sin we should acknowledge it, repent of it, and turn afresh to Christ. Luther gives wise counsel for sinners like Fred. He writes:

Once I debate about what I have done and left undone, I am finished. But if I replay on the basis of the gospel, ‘The forgiveness of sins covers it all,’ I have won…On the other hand, if the devil gets me involved in what I have done and left undone, he has won, unless God helps and says, ‘Indeed! Even if you had not done anything, you would still be saved by forgiveness. (Quoted in Kellemen, Counseling Under the Cross, 155)

Preach the gospel to yourself. Every time you sin believe again the gospel of grace by which you were saved, and by which you remain saved. His grace has brought you safe thus far, and His grace will lead you home!

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