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The Word of God, we are told, is sharper than a very sharp sword indeed. “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:12–13). This is the language of sacrifice and altar. Just as a priest cuts an animal’s throat, then cuts it into pieces to arrange it on the altar, the Word of God prepares us for worship.

For a complacent sinner, this is all rather unpleasant—and rather than accepting it as the truth of God, he tends to see it as a problem to be solved.

If we accept this through faith (which is the only way we can accept it), then the Word of God divides us. If we do not accept it, then we have to try to figure out what to do with the Word that comes to us in order to divide us. One of the most common expedients that we tend to adopt falls under the heading of turning the tables. Rather than being divided by the Word, we seek to do the dividing. Rather than have the Bible cut us up in pieces, we do the obvious, which is to cut the Bible up in pieces. We would rather do the dividing than be divided. So we call the pieces by different names—“Oh, that’s in the Old Testament!” Or we postulate a false dichotomy between law and gospel.

But lest this be misunderstood, of course we must recognize that the Scriptures come to us as law and also as gospel. But how?

First we must recognize the exegetical problem we face. Suppose I were to say that law is gospel and that gospel is law. Suppose I were to maintain that the law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul, and that the preaching of the cross is folly to those who are perishing—and that we are therefore saved by law and damned by gospel. Obviously there is a problem here, but what is it?

For the perishing, the entire Bible is law. It is heard as law, as condemnation, and as a hateful word of authority. The unbeliever refuses to honor God as God and refuses to give Him thanks. Even the common kindnesses poured out on him—sunshine, food, health—obligate him to render thanks, but he hates to do so. The obligation is therefore perceived by him as hateful law. But when a man hears with faith, the entire Bible is gospel—good news, relief, rest. The unregenerate heart reacts to the Ten Commandments as though there were nothing there but thunder, lightning, and blue ruin. The regenerate heart hears the preamble to the Ten Commandments—“ ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’ ” (Ex. 20:2). The law is gospel, and obedience proceeds from gratitude.

The law is altogether lovely and gracious. But the law presents itself this way to those who have already been saved through the cross.

The law is altogether lovely and gracious. But the law presents itself this way to those who have already been saved through the cross. For those still in the grip of unbelief, the law terrifies and makes them shrink back from the mountain. But, of course, the gospel makes them shrink back the same way.

So the division that makes sense is the division between sheep and goats, wheat and tares, believers and unbelievers. And it is the Word of God, sharper than any sword, which makes this division.

The law must slay me before I can understand it. But the same thing is true of the gospel. The gospel, after all, is a cross—an instrument of death that invites me to it. As many of us as have been baptized have been baptized into Christ’s death. The gospel kills me, and so does the law. The gospel raises me to life again, and when I look around one of the first things I see is the nature of love. Until the law slays me, I see it as nothing but a series of demands—demands that I must defy if I am an antinomian or try to manipulate if I am a legalist. Until the gospel slays me, I see it as nothing but another series of demands—demands that I must defy if I am an infidel or try to manipulate if I am a legalist. How can such manipulation occur? We sign little cards, we go forward, we throw pine cones into the fire the last night of youth camp, or we give our assent to certain spiritual laws. Of course, this does not mean that no one has been saved on such occasions—we are, after all, saved by grace, not by having our acts together—but it shows our tendency to actively divide when we should be passively divided.

The law is altogether lovely and gracious to some people. Not surprisingly, the gospel strikes them the same way. But the gospel is intolerable folly to some people. And it goes without saying that they take a dim view of the law. We know who these two groups of people have been over the course of history because the Word of God has come to our fallen race, and has come to us in order to divide us—and all to the glory of God.

Trust and Obey

Redemption for Jews and Gentiles

Keep Reading Cut Off from the Law

From the September 2002 Issue
Sep 2002 Issue