One of the great pleasures of working in synod ministry are the collaborations with other parts of the body of Christ. A couple years ago, I asked Laura Barbins, bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, to teach a preaching class for lay ministers and synod-authorized ministers in the Indiana-Kentucky Synod. As one exercise in a truly remarkable class, the bishop invited her students to preach sections of the Sermon on the Mount through the window of the “third use of the law,’ or as she called it, “the second use of the gospel.” That phrase—second use of the gospel—will stick with me for the rest of my life.
“The third use of the law” is the Protestant idea that after humans have been saved by grace through faith, God’s law becomes a guide for living for God and for others. “The second use of the gospel” means very much the same: the good news that God intervenes with grace and love to save us from that which binds and imprisons us means that we, too, can and should intervene with grace and love to help free people from that which binds and imprisons them. For confessional Lutheran Christians, Jesus saving humans from sin and death isn’t the end of the story—it’s the beginning! Humans are invited into life and citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. For love’s sake, we are commanded and empowered by God’s Spirit to act out righteousness.
The bishop’s phrasing was new to me, but the idea of God wanting humans to not stop at salvation and to work righteousness out of love for God and neighbor is nothing new. In fact, it’s consistent throughout Scripture.
In one of my favorite chapters of Isaiah, God-through-the-prophet cries out against religious hypocrisy. The people were fasting, marking sacred days and putting on shows of humbling themselves (58:3). Surely making a public show of piety, celebrating liturgical seasons correctly and making sure everyone could see how humble they were was pleasing to God and sufficient witness to the world, right? Wrong! God was appalled. While refraining from food, the community was indulging in violence and denying just wages to workers (3-4). God simply doesn’t care about bowing heads and raising hands in prayer if systemic, social sins are unaddressed.
Jesus insists that those who follow him are to be salt and light—a taste that can’t be ignored and a vision that can’t be hidden.
God’s recipe for righteous actions from the Beloved Community is to undo the injustice they have committed: release the bonds of wickedness, undo ropes of the yoke, let the oppressed go free and break every yoke. Bonds, yokes and chains don’t form themselves—oppression, poverty and inequity are created by humans and must be undone by humans, the prophet says. God envisions shockingly intimate reparations for oppression: break your bread with the hungry. Bring the mistreated poor into the house (not just an almshouse or warming center). When you see the naked, cover them. Do not hide yourself from your own flesh (7). All of humanity is our own flesh and blood. There is no room here for so-called “Christian nationalism” that seeks to sanctify human-made borders and divisions. God insists that tolerating injustice and inequity is our problem to solve. Law and gospel both insist that we must work toward the solutions.
Turning to the Gospel, Jesus insists that those who follow him are to be salt and light—a taste that can’t be ignored and a vision that can’t be hidden. Christians are to have good works that are seen by people, which then causes them to glorify God (Matthew 5:16). Jesus insists that those who would enter the kingdom of heaven need to perform righteousness even more than those who are known for their righteousness (20).
Make absolutely no mistake, we don’t perform righteousness in our strength alone. God doesn’t set humans up for failure by demanding an impossible task. God sends the prophets, and ultimately the Messiah, to call on humans to repent and return to the paths of righteousness when we lose our way. And God sends the Spirit to inspire and guide the whole body of Christ (of which we are all gloriously diverse parts!) to perform righteousness and lovingkindness. This isn’t something that we are forced to do, but that we are allowed and empowered to participate in as God’s beloved children and citizens of God’s kingdom.
The gospel is good news of salvation! Praise God! And, as the early church knew well, spiritual salvation necessarily goes hand in hand with working against inequity and oppression and breaking down borders wherever they exist. That is the gospel we are called to proclaim and to enact!