“How God Uses His Law in Our Lives” (Romans 13:1-10)

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
September 4, 2011

“How God Uses His Law in Our Lives” (Romans 13:1-10)

Our text today is the Epistle, from Romans 13, and our topic is “How God Uses His Law in Our Lives.”

And he does. God uses his law in several ways in our lives, all ultimately for our good. Traditionally we talk about three “uses” of the law, and our text today especially deals with two of those three, what we commonly call the “First Use of the Law” and the “Third Use of the Law.” Oh, we won’t forget about the Second Use. And St. Paul hasn’t either; it’s just that he’s already dealt with that at great length earlier in Romans.

So, how God uses his law in our lives. The three uses of the law, especially the first and third uses–and how this all applies to you–that’s where we’re going this morning.

Now when we talk about God’s law, we’re talking about his will for his human creatures. God created us, and he knows what’s best for us. God’s law tells us what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not supposed to do. Live according to God’s law, and life works better. Disregard God’s law, or disobey it, and things fall to pieces. That is true on the personal level. And if you spread it out over a society, our life in community works better or worse according to how well God’s law is accepted internally by people and followed externally in their conduct.

You see, God has written his law into human hearts. Romans 2 makes that clear. There Paul talks about the Gentiles, who did not receive the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone like Israel did, but yet, because God has hard-wired us with a sense of his law, even the Gentiles recognize that some behaviors are good and some behaviors are bad. Our conscience tells us that there is a difference between right and wrong. Murder is wrong. Stealing things from people is wrong. Lying about people, falsely accusing them, is wrong. On the other hand, marriage is good. Stable families and respect for God-given authority–that’s good. Life works better when these values are accepted and practiced.

Now of course, because of sin, because of our sinful nature, we often fool ourselves–and societies even can fool themselves–into thinking that the old standards of right and wrong no longer apply. We see that in our society today, where things like abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, and divorce have become more and more accepted. But the pendulum can swing only so far to one side before it comes back. There is a reason why those things are always wrong, and that’s because they’re bad for us. But sometimes individuals and societies need to “bottom out” before they realize their folly.

So God’s law provides order to our lives. It sets boundaries. It discourages bad behavior and encourages good behavior. This is what we call in theology the “First Use of the Law.” It doesn’t save anyone–only the gospel can do that–but it does provide for a better life in this world. And so we thank God for the law’s useful function of telling us his design for this life and keeping the world in some semblance of order.

To help keep it in order, God has established the authority of government. That’s what this first part of Romans 13 is about. In fact, if you just say “Romans 13,” people who know the Bible will immediately think of this passage, the classic statement on the role of government:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

This is perhaps the clearest passage in the whole Bible about how God has established government, civil authority, to keep order in the world. God has entrusted the ruling authorities with power, even the use of force, that is, “the sword,” to punish wrongdoers and to protect those who do right.

Romans 13, then, is the historic basis for government’s God-given authority: to authorize the use of deadly force by police; to execute capital punishment on murderers; and to conduct a just war. All of these things should only be done when necessary, of course, and for a legitimate reason. But they should be done. The police should use deadly force, if necessary, to protect law-abiding citizens. The government should execute murderers–capital punishment–to carry out justice and to deter and strike fear into those who might otherwise be more ready to take innocent human life. Sometimes a nation must engage in a just war, in self-defense and to protect its citizens. These things are all within the purview of legitimate, God-given, governmental authority.

Now just because the authority is legitimate doesn’t mean it cannot be abused. It can. And it has, many times. Remember, Paul is writing the Letter to the Romans . . . to the Romans! And the Caesars of the Roman Empire often abused and misused their governing authority. And yet Paul tells the Christians to respect the God-given authority of their governing officials. It’s not that the Caesars were such good guys–they weren’t–it’s because God has instituted governing authority for our overall good.

Now, in our country, with our form of government, if we don’t think the particular governing authorities we have at the moment are the best, we can do something about it: Put up better candidates for office and work for their election. Try to persuade our fellow citizens to see things our way. Don’t just grouse and moan, but take a more active part to improve things for the better. And of course, as always, whoever our government officials may be at the moment, we pray for them, that God would give them wisdom to govern well. We pray like that most every Sunday, don’t we, in the Prayer of the Church.

So the role of government is to encourage and enforce the first use of God’s law, which is to keep order in the world. This is a good thing. Good government is a gift from God.

The law doesn’t stop there, of course. These commandments–honor authority, respect human life, uphold marriage, respect other people’s property and their reputation–while they keep order in the world, they also reveal to us that we are sinners. You and I have not kept these commandments. “What?” you say. “I have never killed anybody. I’ve never robbed a bank. I’ve never had an affair. I’ve never lied in court.” Fair enough. You have successfully avoided the outward breaking of the law in its extreme manifestations. But you have broken God’s law, nonetheless–in your thoughts, in your words, and in the lesser degrees of wrongdoing: the defiance toward parents; the hitting and hating and hurting that we do; the lust in our hearts; the cheating of our employer or our workers; the gossip and backbiting that we do. These all are breakings of God’s holy law, and the punishment for them is death. Eternal death, Death with a big D.

This function of the law, to reveal to us that we are sinners, that we have no righteousness of our own, that we are lost, apart from God’s mercy–this is what we call the Second Use of the Law, and it is the most important one. For without this knowledge that we are sinners, doomed to death and in need of help outside ourselves–without this mirror to show us our sinful nature, we would think we have no use for the gospel. We would tell ourselves we have no need for a Savior, and consequently we would remain lost and condemned and end up in hell.

So it’s a good thing, actually, that God uses his law to show us our sins. Now we know that we cannot save ourselves. And so our ears are open now when we hear a different word from God, namely, the gospel.

The gospel–this is the message that saves. The gospel tells us of a Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to rescue us from our lost condition. Jesus kept the law on our behalf, perfectly, always doing the right thing, always thinking and speaking the right thing. Yet out of his great love for us, Jesus willingly suffered unjust punishment from a governing official who was ruling badly. Pontius Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent, yet he bowed to the will of the crowd, rather than do what is right. Jesus submitted himself to that authority, in order to achieve a great and saving purpose. Christ was taking our sins upon himself and dying for them in our place, under God’s judgment, really. God’s own Son did this so that you would not die forever, but instead, by his holy blood shed on the cross, you now have forgiveness for your sins and Christ’s own righteousness to cover all your wrongdoing. This is how you have life, not just now, but life forever, life that conquers the grave. Life in a new and restored creation, where everything will work right and everyone will do what is right. This is what our Creator has planned, and he uses his powerful gospel word to bring it to pass.

So in this way the law serves the gospel, since the law shows us we need help. And then the gospel gives us the very help that we need.

We now have covered the first use of the law, to keep order in the world, which God maintains through his institution of government. And we’ve covered the second use, the law’s essential role of convicting and condemning us as sinners, so that we would be open to hearing the saving gospel. And that leaves what is often called the Third Use of the Law, which I think is what Paul is getting at in this other part of our text:

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Here Paul is appealing to Christians to live according to God’s commandments, which can be summed up in one word. Love. Keep in mind, he’s writing to Christians here, that is, people who are new creations in Christ. Sinners, yes, but forgiven sinners, who know what love is, since we have received love from God himself. Christians, that is, people who have been baptized into Christ and have received the Holy Spirit, who will direct us to walk in the ways of God’s good law. So we have the power now to do the will of God, which we didn’t have before. The Spirit guides us and leads us, so that now we even delight in God’s law, according to our new nature. We know when we hear it that we’re hearing what’s best for us from our kind and loving Father, not from some mean old ogre who wants to spoil our fun.

This, then, is the Third Use of the Law, to guide Christians in the way that they know to be right, because they have been given the Holy Spirit. We know that, when we keep God’s commandments, these things are pleasing to our Father in heaven, however humble these works may appear to the world. A mother changing her baby’s diaper. A child doing chores around the house. A father teaching his family the catechism. A husband and wife working to strengthen their marriage instead of bailing out. All these things may look small and not very spectacular, but we know from God’s law that they are indeed works pleasing to God. You don’t have to go running off to a monastery to be doing things that are “spiritual.”

The third use of the law, then, is that it acts as a true guide for Christian living. And so I say to you, dear Christians: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, members of the same family. Do good to one another. Do good to all. I know this is what you want to do, because here I am appealing to Christians.

Today we’ve looked at how God uses his law in our lives. First use: To provide order in the world, enforced through the authority of civil government, the law acting as a curb on bad behavior. Second use: To show us our sins, the law acting as a mirror, so that now we know we need help–which we then receive in the gospel, which saves us. And the third use of the law: To serve as a guide for Christian living, the law acting as that rule or guide, heard gladly by Christians who are forgiven, who delight in God’s law, and who have the Holy Spirit to lead them in the way they should go. All these things God does for us ultimately for our good, to bless our lives now and to lead us into life everlasting.

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Published in: on September 3, 2011 at 3:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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