Johnny Law

04.24.2012 by Reed Dunn


This post is part of the the lutheran captivity of the church series (click to view the other posts in this series).

Lutheran Captivity of the Church: Part 5 of 7 - Johnny Law

This post is about God’s Law, not Johnny’s, but if you have never seen the movie Bottle Rocket then please stop reading this blog immediately and go watch it.  Or at least the trailer... 

This post references one of the striking differences between Calvin and Luther* - their view of God’s law.

Even the biblical writers seemed to have a volatile and confusing relationship with the Law of God.  No wonder we as Christians do too.  One example is how the law guards us.  In some passages the law guards us like a kind old watchdog (Psa 94:12) while other passages make it sound like a prison guard (Gal 3:22)! 

So which is it?  Good or bad?  Binding or not?  Or, maybe, what is it?  Is the law a dungeon master making us crave the light of God?  Or is it a well-worn path that acts as our trusty guide?

Lutheran theology doesn’t have much use for the law beyond its ability to show us our sin.  This is definitely a use of the law - it is attested throughout Scripture - but as we have seen Lutheran theology is not always informed by ALL of Scripture.  Rather ALL of Scripture was informed by its view of justification.  In justification, the law is clear.  Before Christ came the law was brutal - it condemned us, killed us, imprisoned us.  But for the Christian, the law is not there to condemn us (Rom 8:1).

For the Lutheran, this is a cycle that is played over and over.  The law shows us our sin.  The Spirit shows us Christ’s mercy.  And we, in turn, live a more righteous life that springs from our thankful hearts.  And then the cycle begins again.

The problem with all this is all the places in Scripture where the law still is in effect, and used for something more than condemnation.  Whether it is Christ intensifying it in Matthew 5-7, Paul calling us slaves of righteousness in Romans 6, or James saying all his Jamesy stuff, any simple reading of Scripture will find that the law (or some form of it) is still an active part of the Christian life.  That it is good, helpful, and keepable.  This is Paul’s presupposition in many passages.

In all my struggles with this, I have found one analogy more helpful than any other.  The Bible writers used analogies all the time to describe the law so I think we are on firm ground to look for such a thing.  And my analogy is that of a map.

A map is powerless.  Anyone that has ever owned a map has probably used it the right way.  We cannot say that about the law.  Paul says the law is powerless to save us, powerless to impart life, powerless to grow us.  It is the Spirit that moves us from one place to another, not the law.  No one has ever wanted to drive to Chicago and tried to do it by climbing onto a map!  The map will tell you how to get to Chicago, but a map by itself cannot get you there.  You need a car for that.  The Holy Spirit is our spiritual car, and the law is our spiritual map.  Without the Spirit the law is worthless for getting us anywhere.

A map can condemn.  So, you want to go to Chicago.  You go to google maps and print out everything you need, maybe even plan your meal stops based on the map.  You walk outside and... O yeah!  You don’t have a car!  What now?  Now you look at the map and you don’t see a road trip, possibilities, and nice scenery, you feel trapped.  The map now condemns you because it shows you just how much you need a car.  Because the map is right it shows you the distance, because the map is powerless it reminds you of your inability.  The same is true for the law.  The law condemns us because it makes God far off and doesn’t provide any transportation.

A map can guide.  But your buddy pulls up in his nice new car.  Now things are different!  Now the map does help you.  Now the trustworthiness of the map becomes crucial.  If you have the wheels, the map is great.  Now, people in Paul’s day tended to make the map more important than the car.  Paul rips them up and, in so doing, makes the map/law seem really bad.  It isn’t.  His comments need the context.  If at a rest stop you told your driving buddy you could finish the trip on your own because you have a map he would laugh at you.  But, get in the car with him, and he sings a different tune, now he needs your map.  The map is not bad and neither is the law. 

Luther placed the law and grace at odds with one another.  He took the tough language about the law to heart and basically overlooked the rest.  For him, or at least for his followers, keeping the law meant legalism.  But to take this position means that you are only reading about half of what Paul wrote and almost nothing of Jesus or the other New Testament writers - something Lutherans can end up doing.  There is much more that could be said about this, but hopefully that helps a little.

My last two posts in this series are coming up, so you are now on the home stretch.  This was my final post on the technical aspects of the theology.

* DISCLAIMER - I am not critiquing the Lutheran Church or even formal/historical Luthern theology.  These posts address a form of Lutheran theology that is active in the Presbyterian Church in America.  Whether the critiques hold true outside the PCA, I would not be the judge.

This post is part of the the lutheran captivity of the church series (click to view the other posts in this series).