St. Paul writes to the church in Rome:

“8 But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

Reading this, we all need to ask ourselves, “Is the word near to me or not?” If so, how would we determine that it is or whether it is not near? How do we know that the words which we receive contain or communicate the word of God, both the law of God and gospel of Jesus Christ, the latter alone which creates the faith by which we are justified?

Since the earliest days of the church, the word of God has been adulterated by sinful human beings. Even with the best of intentions, in the hope of evangelism and mission, the word becomes obscured. Not infrequently when quoting scripture, amazingly enough, the word, the gospel of Jesus Christ, often gets lost, a favourite trick of the devil. Scripture itself warns us of this, “3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (II Timothy 4:3-4). The ever present danger in the church is that the church seeks to attract people by appealing to “itchy ears” and by finding teachers to suit our own passions.

So, what do we sinners like to hear? Plainly enough, we like to hear that we are basically just fine, just as we are, or “Just as I am,” as the old hymn puts it. Whereas it is true that God comes to us “just as we are,” he does not want to leave us there. “Just as we are” does not mean that we are justified, i.e. made holy by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone through the word alone. If we were “just fine” just as we are, then we would have no need of a saviour, and Jesus could have spared himself his death on the cross.

Arguably, the most insidious aspect of humanity’s sinful nature is our individual and collective self-righteousness. Everywhere we turn we encounter such self-righteousness. It is that which unites us and divides all of us as sinners. None of us likes to hear that we are fallible, feeble, frail, full of folly, or false. Of course, we know it deep on our hearts, but to hear it from others is often unbearable because thereby our self-delusions are ripped from us. We are exposed, left to stew in our shame. Secular society tries to attenuate or eliminate this by changing laws and morals to accommodate seemingly every sin known to humanity. The hope is that by making sinful deeds legal, one makes them right, and thus the committing of sins is not merely right but even righteous.

Scripture does not allow that, even when people use the its words to justify their thoughts, words, and deeds contrary to the will of God. The Bible contains account after account of people deviating from God’s word. Whether in ancient Israel or secular society, this Bible verse still hold true, “Everyone [does] what [is] right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6), and there is hell to pay if anyone tries to tell us differently.

Because the word of God comes to us as both law and gospel, the church and its mission literally face an almighty conundrum. We self-righteous sinners do not want to hear or acknowledge that we are sinners. Similarly, we self-righteous sinners believing that we are already alright, just, good, and righteous see no real need for God or his righteousness. Since sinful, self-righteous sinners perceive no need for what God has to offer, churches all too frequently seek to give sinners what sinners perceive that they need or want. So, churches descend into all manner of self-righteous activities believing that they are full of good people doing good things for the betterment of society. Sadly, from a superficial point of view, secular atheists are often better at bettering society than Christians.

Luther writes that “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” (LW 26:309). Well, what sinner in his or her self-righteous mind wants to hear that? If the church goes about preaching the law, surely it will drive people straight back out the front door, and who wants that? Church growth committees certainly do not! What is the church to do? How can it overcome this nightmarish public relations fiasco?

Luther continues, “This does not mean that it was the chief purpose of God in giving the Law only to cause death and damnation; … For the Law is a Word that shows life and drives us toward it. Therefore it was not given only for the sake of death. But this is its chief use and end: to reveal death, in order that the nature and enormity of sin might thus become apparent… When God saw that the most widespread pestilence in the whole world, that is, hypocrisy and confidence in one’s own saintliness, could not be restrained and crushed in any other way, He decided to kill it by means of the Law. This was not to be permanent; but it had as its purpose that when this pestilence was killed, man would be raised up again and would hear this voice beyond the Law” (LW 26:335). The law drives us though death beyond our self-righteousness to hear the voice of the gospel, the voice of Jesus Christ, who does not want to leave us where we are, just as we are. For that, God delivers the gospel to remove us from the grips of sin, death, and terminal self-righteousness.

“[T]he Gospel is a light that illumines hearts and makes them alive. It discloses what grace and the mercy of God are; what the forgiveness of sins, blessing, righteousness, life, and eternal salvation are; and how we are to attain to these. When we distinguish the Law from the Gospel this way, we attribute to each its proper use and function. You will not find anything about this distinction between the Law and the Gospel in the books of the monks, the canonists, and the recent and ancient theologians. Augustine taught and expressed it to some extent. Jerome and others like him knew nothing at all about it. In other words, for many centuries there has been a remarkable silence about this in all the schools and churches. This situation has produced a very dangerous condition for consciences; for unless the Gospel is clearly distinguished from the Law, Christian doctrine cannot be kept sound. But when this distinction is recognized, the true meaning of justification is recognized” (LW 26:313).

Lutherans are they only Christians who, in theory, should know how to distinguish the law from the gospel. In distinguishing the law from the gospel, the word of God as law and gospel becomes crystal clear and ever so near. The law cuts to the quick. It kills the self-righteous sinner. Then, the gospel proclaims the forgiveness of sins to ears dying to hear. The gospel raises us to newness of life. By faith alone it justifies the sinner who is freed from the tyrannical delusion of self-righteousness and liberated to live with God in God’s gift of holiness. Law and gospel, the cross and the resurrection, are God’s almighty conundrum to save sinners. So, what are the church and its mission to do? Be forgiven through Jesus Christ in thought, word, and deed!