Recently, our 16-year-old son got his first phone. (Yes, we lean slightly toward the old-school way of life. . . . We also still have a car with a tape deck, just so you know what you’re dealing with here.) Now, aforementioned teenager is a typical firstborn: very responsible, respectful, and overall a really good kid. Six days into newfound phonedom, he was ice fishing with a friend when—bloop—phone slipped out of his pocket, took one fateful bounce, and fell into the six-inch icy hole. Sigh.
As my husband drove toward the boy on the bay to see if he could retrieve the phone from its murky depths, I sent him this text: “Just be like Jesus. He needs grace now.” And just as we suspected, our son was giving himself all the law in the world. We did not need to come down with a heavy hand and ream him out for being careless or remind him how much money that phone cost; he was doing that himself. He recognized the seriousness and was deeply convicted. What he needed from us was to remind him about grace. He needed the gospel. And not just once. Over the next several days and weeks, we needed to continually speak grace and forgiveness into him. He needed to be restored and made whole.
In God’s infinite wisdom, he gave us two sides of his Word: the law and the gospel. Sometimes we need to hear the law; to be sure, it is only through the law that we become aware of our sin and that we fully realize the awesomeness of the gospel when we hear it. But when we are stuck in the murky depths of guilt and shame, that’s when we need the life-giving news of the gospel.
This is not to say there aren’t consequences for our actions. Our son is in indentured servitude at our brewery for a while to pay for his new phone. When King David realized and repented of his sin of adultery and murder, he still had to bear the consequences of his actions. But through the prophet Nathan, he was restored and forgiven and made whole again by his Savior (2 Samuel 12).
All analogies limp, of course. For instance, I’m not saying that dropping a phone in a hole was a sin. But go with me here. Had our son shown no remorse and had flippantly asked for a new phone, not caring about the cost or the sacrifice, then we as parents would have needed to point that out to him. In the same way, if we don’t care about the cost of our sin, if we don’t feel even a little bit bad about the icy hole in our hearts, then we need the law to point that out to us. But if we are having a hard time forgiving ourselves, we need to be reminded of the forgiveness of our Savior. Over and over again.
Jesus was so perfect at this. He always knew exactly what people needed to hear. Sometimes it was the law, like in the case of the Pharisees (Matthew 15), or the time when, in his righteous anger, Jesus overturned the tables in the temple courts (John 2). Sometimes Jesus used both law and gospel in a matter of sentences, as he did with the Samaritan woman (John 4) and the woman caught in adultery (John 8). And sometimes he used pure gospel. The man hanging next to Jesus on a cross was pretty familiar with the law. He knew he deserved the death he was dying. While the third criminal on the cross mocked Jesus, the other man said these words: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserved. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:41-43). How sweet that grace must have sounded to that man.
I don’t think I’m breaking big news to you all, but we are not always like Jesus. We don’t always know intuitively what people around us need to hear. If you are a parent, you’ll probably agree that it is pretty easy and natural to give our kids lots of law; parenting is full of commands and failed expectations. It is much harder to forgive and offer grace to wayward or disobedient children. In fact, it’s hard to offer forgiveness to anyone who has wronged us. But God calls us to forgive. God calls us to give grace. God calls us to use the gospel. We do need to use the law on occasion, but we cannot stop with the law. The law is crushing. The law leaves us broken. The law is a big icy hole where phones and souls go to die. And the gospel is the only thing that makes us whole again.
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:19-24)