Demystifying Lent Part Three: Lent and the Law

Written By: Rev. H. Ashley Hall, Ph.D.

The season of Lent encourages us to reflect upon our sinfulness, the ways we both willfully and inadvertently contribute to the harm of self and others. As our confession says, we ask God to “renew us and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways.” Thus, Lent is a very heavy “Law” season in which God’s Word stands as a “reality check” against our vanity and inaction. Some Lutherans have a difficult time addressing the “shoulds” of this season in general and the Law in particular. So, lets briefly examine our Lutheran understanding of both Law and Gospel and how the season of Lent is a vital part of Christian discipleship.

The Reformation began with a call to repentance for the sin of “works righteousness” – an age-old, universal human habit of reducing our interactions with God and others to a self-beneficial transaction where we “earn” divine favor and set ourselves above others. The Reformation called us back to true righteousness – a righteousness rooted in humble service to others in thanksgiving to God for what we have first received by grace. Thesis one of the 95 Theses declares “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying, ‘Do penance’ [or ‘Repent,’ Matt 4:17], wanted the entire life of the faithful to be one of penitence.” Thesis three continues, “[‘Do penance’] does not mean solely inner penitence – indeed such inner penitence is nothing unless it outwardly produces various mortifications of the flesh.” Repentance turns us to humility, humility turns us to trust in God, and trust in God produces works of love.

Martin Luther and his colleagues offered a distinctive way of examining Scripture: all of it can be divided into “Law” (commands) and “Gospel” (promises). They were very careful not to reduce the Law to just the “Old Testament” nor the Gospel to just the “New Testament.” They knew that God’s promises fill the Jewish scripture (e.g., the covenant with Abraham, the Exodus, and the coming of a messiah) just as much as Jesus and the Pauline letters make serious demands of those who would live according to God’s will. The Lutheran tradition holds sacred the entirety of God’s Word in the old and new testaments and the commands and promises found in each. It simply will not do to rank or negate the parts of Scripture (especially the commands to live righteously) with the parts we prefer (the comfort of the gospel).

Lent is a time to reflect and to tell the truth about ourselves and the righteousness of God (the Law). In this reflection, Lent also invites us to hear and to tell the truth about God’s work to change our hearts, minds, and actions (the Gospel). Lutheran interpretation sees Jesus Christ as the key to all of Scripture, as he (the Incarnate Word of God) is the author of both Law and Gospel. This interpretive legacy is far more rich than we can fully elaborate here. For our purposes, perhaps we can say simply that Jesus Christ is the source and means of God’s creative and redemptive work. That is, through the Word, the triune God created the cosmos. Through the Word made Flesh, the triune God redeems the world. And through the office of preaching and administering the sacraments (the ministry of the Word), the triune God continues to call and transform us for works of love and reconciliation in the world. It would indeed be a “strange gospel” that looked upon the arc of God’s redemptive work and assumed that it was a dramatic show that we merely observed but which left us unchanged and uninvited.

We can only know the joy of Easter through the foolishness of the Cross. In Lent, we pause and listen to the voice of God. We repent. We live in trust that what God proclaims God also makes real for each of us each day. Amen, come Holy Spirit!