There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.
1 John 4:18 NASB
I think people on the outside of the conversation must hear some of the theological debate over law and gospel and wonder what all of the endless hullabaloo is about. It probably seems like every Christian post in some circles somehow boils down to some obscure insight about this, and that whoever the writer is, they are very excited and passionate about it. I think to some people it may seem like a very obscure issue that doesn’t really matter in relationship to real life. On the contrary, I think that if you take this law and gospel idea down to its basic core concepts, you’ll find that it addresses every person’s core identity and need, and it provides a rather shocking degree of solution to that need.
What is really at the heart of the conversation here is the conditionality of love. Either, love has certain boundaries, beyond which there is rejection and justified hatred, or there are no boundaries, and love endures all challenges. Either, the threat of punishment is hanging over the relationship if one doesn’t measure up to certain expectations, or there is no threat at all and there is always the expectation of a powerful forgiveness. Jesus displays a powerful unconditionality of love, in that even as He was rejected, abandoned, betrayed, slandered, deliberately misunderstood, and brutally murdered, He proclaimed forgiveness and proved its durability when He subsequently rose from the dead. The cross and the resurrection are the extreme public display of the kind of love He always exhibits at all times towards us.
33 When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. 34 But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
I’ve had conversations with non-believers who imagine themselves to be easily on the side of unconditional acceptance. Here is an imaginary conversation:
[Enlightened Secular Guy]: “I’m not judgmental at all.”
[Stupid Irritating Theology Moron]: “But we are all, regardless of what we believe, judgers and judged. Would you never judge your significant other?”
[Enlightened Secular Joe]: “Of course not!”
[Stupid Irritating Theology Moron]: “What if they were constantly trying to murder you? Every time you turned around, there was poison in your food or there they were with a knife to your throat. They kept hiring hit men. Wouldn’t it be over?”
[Enlightened Secular Joe]: “That’s ridiculous, who wouldn’t judge that?”
[Stupid Irritating Theology Moron]: “Jesus – that’s who.”
[Enlightened Secular Joe]: “But Christians don’t believe that! They’re the most judgmental people on earth.”
[Stupid Irritating Theology Moron]: “What is a Christian?”
If we try to reduce or water down what either of these concepts mean – law or gospel – it stems from a heart of unbelief. If we say that the law doesn’t mean everything that can be judged, but only certain Old Testament legal issues, then the fear and expectation of punishment remains for those things which we think the word “law” doesn’t include, and we are still left on our own wondering if we have gone too far and the love of God is now rescinded over us. When we restrict our meaning for the word “gospel” to cover only a restricted idea of law, then certain things remain unforgivable, and we have eliminated the power of the gospel to save. For instance, many people will say that habitual sins are unforgivable. That is the conditionality of God’s love – it only covers non-habitual sins. As I recall, Jesus teaches that all sin is habitual (John 8:34). If we expand our idea of law to mean “anything that can be judged”, then when grace is expressed concerning those things, we know that it is a comprehensive forgiveness without boundaries.
Ironically, people fear that a limitless unbounded comprehensive grace which forgives everything forever will release people into a life of license and sin. This is the perennial Romans 6:1 objection to the gospel. As I have said elsewhere, most people solve this problem somewhere in their mind by going back to the cross and disqualifying its power and scope. This has the net effect of making Jesus’ death for us of no account, since conditionality and boundary is written back into the relationship. When that happens, fear becomes the motivating animus for our behavior, and virtue chosen because of threat is not truly virtue because it was not freely chosen. If you the love Lord your God only because otherwise you will be judged, you are doing it from fear of punishment and not from love, which by definition means you are breaking the commandment. You don’t even have a chance to do the tiniest genuine virtue at all until all threat is gone.
However, once you enter the realm of true belief in the scope and power of Christ’s death for you, and you come to understand that there is no threat and no punishment and no boundary for the love which God has for you, the dynamic changes altogether. There is no conditionality. You will be loved regardless of your success or failure. You will be blessed regardless of your success or failure. This is the gospel! If you work all day or if you work 5 minutes, you will receive a full day’s wage. If you squander your inheritance and dishonor your family name, you will still be celebrated when you come back home. It is no longer a question of being qualified to be loved. This unconditionality makes all the difference!
So, the whole law and gospel question boils down to the kind of love you operate under. It is either conditional, or unconditional. This is the beating heart of the power of the gospel. You either believe it or you don’t. You either operate under threat of punishment or you operate under unbreakable one-way love. These are two different universes, two different kingdoms. Which do you believe is true? I urge you to believe in the real power of the cross of Christ to satisfy justice for all concepts of law, and to enter into the beautiful realm where you know there is no threat of punishment or fear hanging over your head, forever. Enter into your rest.