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Law & Gospel on Golgatha's Hill

There is a clear distinction, in Lutheran Theology, between Law and Gospel. In fact, Walther woite a whole book titled Law & Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible. This is so clearly delineated that in a proper Lutheran Sermon you can almost immediately find the division between the two. Under this type of teaching, I have grown in understanding how to rightly “divide” the Word of God and it has unscrambled many areas that were quite muddied under evangelical and reformed preaching and teaching.

Today as I was reading the Bible Study Lesson, Luke 23:1-56 I had to stop and re-read this portion:

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him (Jesus), saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he (Jesus) said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (vs 39-43)

This may be a familiar recounting of the historic event of Jesus’ crucifixion to many, but something stood out to me today rather starkly: Law & Gospel.

Here are two criminals, murders we are told, who are also nailed to crosses for their crimes and yet they are very different. The first one demands Jesus save them from physical death. The other recognizes the strength of the Law and its just punishment of criminals and evil doers and yet asks for deliverance from eternal death. One demands the other repents. One orders God, for Jesus is God in the flesh, the other asks God for mercy.

It was the response of the second criminal which struck me.

He responds to the demands of the first criminal by reminding him that:

  1. They should be fearing God even more than the torture of crucifixion

  2. That the law of the land rightly demanded their execution

  3. That under the Law of God they were guilty and condemned as well

All of that is Law. We too should fear God more than anything we suffer here below because we, just like both criminals, are guilty before God and He rightly condemns all those who remain unrepentant. We, you and me, the whole world, as scripture says, lies guilty and under God’s judgment (Romans 3:19) and deserves eternal punishment for our sins against God and each other. The Law has a right to demand our condemnation, punishment in the form of death which is the penalty.

Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 15:56:

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

The Lutheran Study Bible explains this so beautifully:

Sins “sting…Piercing, moral wound. Sin is the point of the spear that kills us…The Law, as the guardian of what is right, thrusts against our sinful conscience and damns us.” (pg. 1977, LSB)

That is the Law. That is what the Law does to us. It kills us. Through the Law, none have been justified. (Galatians 2:16: …by works of the law no one will be justified…” The Law strikes fear but can never change a person.

Morality legislated does nothing to change the heart.

The second criminal, however, recognizing that he is guilty and “receiving the due reward of our deeds” recognizes something else, something so much more important: “BUT this man has done nothing wrong.” Scripture doesn’t tell us that this man even knew Jesus but he did know one thing: Jesus was perfectly innocent as far as the Law went.

Gospel shouting from the Cross. Oh, not the Cross of Jesus, while YES it does that, the Gospel is being proclaimed from the criminal’s cross. This is the part that just shouted out to me as I read it this afternoon:

Jesus…in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek it means “Savior” or “The Lord Saves”. This thief, by uttering the name of Jesus is saying, “Savior…Save me…”

This thief know a few things:

  1. Jesus is a Savior

  2. Jesus is King

  3. Jesus was going to be Victorious in spite of appearances

  4. That Kingdom was real and Jesus had authority over who will be in it

Can you hear the Gospel?

First, he recognizes Jesus is innocent, then He is Savior, then King and He has a Kingdom. The thief, criminal, murderer is not demanding that Jesus remember him or save him. He is repenting: I deserve what I’m getting…but…but Jesus, if you would just remember me. Nothing more. Just remember him. The Lutheran Study Bible notes say:

“Remember me. An appeal to act on his behalf…a Statement of true faith…He alone see Jesus’ messianic kingship, which welcomes sinners.” (LSB 1769)

Glorious Gospel of Grace on Golgatha.

As the hymn, The Lamb says,

Faith sees...Believes.

Here on Golgatha, during a bloody, cruel and tortuous execution a thief, a criminal and murderer seeks mercy from the one in the middle. He does not demand but repents and asks simply to be remembered.

Jesus responds with a mighty promise, as tenderly delivered to this wicked man as a mom would bind a wound on her infant child: Today…not someday but TODAY you will be with me in Paradise. For the Jew this is a reminder of the Garden of Eden lost by the sin of our first parents and lost to each and every one of us born since. For this Jewish criminal his not knowing the timing of the Kingdom (when he says “when”, LSB 1769) but it becomes TODAY.

The same promise is made to all who in true faith recognize that by the Law none shall be saved and none are kept saved by it either (the error of evangelicals who say we must be saved by grace but works help keep us saved). The Gospel promise is delivered to all of us who, just like this thief recognized we broke the Law and in repentance turn to Jesus the Savior who on Golgatha paid the price for the sins of the world.

Jesus, pitying the sighs

Of the theif, who near You dies,

Promising Him paradise:

Hear us, holy Jesus

May we in our guilt and shame

Still Your love and mercy claim,

Calling humbly on Your name:

Here us, holy Jesus.

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