A Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Law


In 1537, a reformer by the name of Phillip Melancthon wrote a document to confront the religious and political power in Rome during the Middle Ages. Melancthon understood that the power of the pope - claimed as both a divine right and necessary for salvation - was a threat to the Gospel. 

In Melancthon's Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, he boldly wrote, "The marks of the Antichrist clearly fit the reign of the pope and his minions."

I'm not interested in dissecting Melancthon's actual treatise. Instead I'd like to write in the same spirit as Melancthon's treatise - a call for Christians to not cave to the religious institutions that threaten the message of grace. 

The Abusive Power of the Law in the Church

The Law isn't bad. But the abuse and misuse of the Law in the Church is bad. And it's not only bad, but it's prevalent. The Church, through it's relational and positional authority, has misused the Law and spiritually abused those already burdened by the weight of their sin. 

Christians are being run out of churches because they've become victims of an abusive, graceless system. Under the facade of biblical teaching, preachers have found a way to inflate their egos by beating up those already wounded by their sin. 

The Law is a powerful word. 

The Law has the power to kill. The Law has the power to condemn and break down. The Law has the power to crush.  And all of those are necessary - without the power of the Law, we'd never bear witness to the power of the Gospel.  

@@The Law never exists for the sake of itself.@@  

The Law only kills so that it might bring life. It only breaks down so that it might build up. It only crushes so that it might raise us up. 

But instead of being brought life and being built up, people are walking out of churches, bloodied, bruised, and crushed by the weight of an impossible to-do list and the repeated exhortation to "just do it."  

C.F.W Walther, the great Law and Gospel theologian, once wrote, “As soon as the Law has done its crushing work, the Gospel is to be instantly preached or said to such a man or woman.”  We need more of these kind of churches.  @@We don't need more churches that use their power to leave people dead.@@ We need churches that use the power of the Gospel to bring people life. 

The Dangerous Primacy of the Law in the Church

The Law not only gets misused in the abuse of power, but it gets misused in its position of primacy. The Law has become the primary message of Christianity. The primacy of the Law in the Church is anti-Christ. @@We don't need more Law-centered churches, we need more cross-centered churches.@@ 

The Law is not anti-Christ, but a church that focuses on the Law certainly is. When churches make the preaching of the Law the primary message, they rob people of grace freely given. When the message is about what you need to do, you miss what Jesus does for you. 

The abuse of the power of the Law is a misuse of the primary function of the Law - showing people their sin.  The problem of the primacy of the Law in the church, however, is a misuse of the third use of the Law

John Zahl recently tweeted (thanks for the inspiration to this post):

"I think the problem with Calvin's understanding of church is the primacy of the 3rd Use of the Law (i.e., as over and against 2nd Use)."  

A quick survey of the most popular books, studies, and podcasts within Christianity will reveal a repeated message of "do more" and "try harder."  Preachers will quickly jump to give us the seven steps to better parenting. Writers will encourage us to step out in faith and find our dream job. And it's not that an emphasis on parenting, vocation, or the Christian life is a bad thing - I love to write and preach about all of these. The problem is much of Christianity focuses on the Christian life instead of on Christ. 

And culture multiplies this problem.

The world has abandoned the Law and the church by-and-large has responded by trying to correct culture's wrong-thinking with the teaching of biblical values and the Christian life. When culture redefines right and wrong, the Church rarely continues to preach the same repeated truth. Instead she often becomes hyper-focused on "thou shalt" and "shalt not." 

My friend Chad recently described his concern:

 "What frightens me most about the ongoing moral degeneration in our country is not the lawlessness it brings, but the almost inevitable rise in law-centered preaching that slithers into churches in response to it. That is not to say that we should abandon preaching the law. But the church does the culture no good when she neglects, or gives only lip service, to the centrality of Christ crucified and risen for a world that went mad long ago."

The moment we center our teachings on the Law, we miss the Gospel and we fail to give our people the power to do what is commanded.  And the moment the Law is within our own reach, we've dumbed down the Law and simultaneously eliminated our need for the crucified and risen Savior. 

@@The Law, no matter how we spin it, always accuses.@@ 

This is the danger of making the Law primary.  

Even when the message of the Law is intended to speak to the Christian life, it will burden and crush the conscience.  In fact, the more specific the application of the third use of the Law, the more direct the condemnation for the sinner who fails to obey.  

For example, "Love your wife," is a very specific call to obedience.  As a Christian it exhorts me in how I am to live, but it also calls me to repentance, not just in a general way but in a very specific one.  Vocation on one hand is the most freeing of doctrines, yet it also accuses me very directly - it doesn't just say "love your neighbor," it tells me which ones. 

The Power and the Primacy of the Gospel

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:16, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes." The Law has power, but it doesn't have the power to save. The Law has influence, but it doesn't truly change our hearts. The Law does a work, but it doesn't do the same work. 

It's time that our churches use the powerful Word given to us in order to "proclaim good news to the poor...[and]  to proclaim liberty to the captives."

The death and resurrection of Jesus gives hope to the hopeless and sets the captives free. Sin, death, and devil have no power that can compare to the power of the Gospel. Because of Jesus, we are no longer slaves to sin, we are sons and daughters of our Father. 

This message is primary. It's this message that Jesus and the apostles taught. It's this message that the reformers fought for. And it's this message that pastors, writers, and teachers will continue to proclaim. 

 "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." - 1 Corinthians 2:2

 

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