Divine Double-Talk and the Parable of the Good Samaritan

William M. Cwirla
Friday, June 22nd 2007
Nov/Dec 2000

"The Lord kills, and He makes alive; He brings down to Sheol, and He raises up again" (1 Sam. 2:6). "I form light and create darkness, I make wealth and create woe, I am the Lord who does all these things" (Isa. 45:7). Sin and grace; death and life. Even the novice reader of the Scriptures detects the tension almost immediately. God seems to talk out of two sides of his mouth. He commands, threatens, curses, punishes, kills, destroys. He comforts, he promises, blesses, forgives, raises to life, restores. On the one hand, God appears full of wrath and anger; on the other hand, he is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. What's a reader to do with this "divine double-talk"?

The Scriptures picture the Word of God as a two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12; Rev. 1:16; 2:12; 19:15-16). The reformers identified the two edges as the law and the Gospel-two distinct doctrines yet one Word of God. The law teaches what God expects of his foremost creatures created in his image, what we are to do and not. It threatens divine wrath and punishment on all who break God's commandments, down to the slightest infraction. The law diagnoses the death of Adam at work in Adam's fallen children. It mirrors our sinful condition back to us and magnifies our sin so that it becomes unmistakably sinful (Rom. 5:20; 7:13). The law instructs, informs, guides, governs, and shapes our actions and attitudes. It reveals pictures of what man in the image of God looks like without the corruption of sin. Law always accuses. Combined with sin it always kills (Rom. 7:10-11). It kills our pride, our ego, our attempts to bribe God with religion. The law reveals our death in Adam, and it keeps us nicely dead, lest we should imagine that we have life in ourselves.

The law is the killing edge of the Word, the Gospel is its healing edge. The Gospel teaches what God has done, does, and will do in his son Jesus Christ to save the fallen sons and daughters of Adam from sin and death. It reveals God's mercy in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by his dying and rising. In the death of his son, God has reconciled the world to himself, not counting humanity's sins. The death of Adam is reconciled and redeemed by the death of the second Adam (Rom. 5:18-21). Where the law reveals death in the midst of life, the Gospel reveals life in the midst of death. The Gospel raises the dead in the life of Christ. It lifts up the fallen, gives sight to the blind, declares freedom to the captives, not on the basis of our merits, but on the merits of Jesus' perfect life and death.

The challenge for the reader of the Scriptures is to hold these two doctrines of the Word, the law and the Gospel, properly distinguished. To borrow some Chalcedonian terminology, law and Gospel must be held together as two distinct doctrines yet one divine Word "without confusion, division, change, or separation. " The reformers saw this distinction of law and Gospel as an especially bright light under which the writings of the holy prophets and apostles may be explained and understood correctly. Outside this light, the merits of Christ are obscured, the law becomes a moralizing ethic, and the comforting teaching of God's grace in Jesus is changed into a religion of works by which we bargain with God for his favor.

The danger with distinctions is that they easily become confusions on the one hand, divisions on the other. The double-edged sword of the Word turns into a single-edged blade, either by confusing law and Gospel and changing them into something else, or by dividing and separating one from the other.

One way to confuse law and Gospel is to change Gospel into law, permit some work on our part to trickle into God's unconditional bestowal of salvation in the death of Jesus. Forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation become conditional on some action in us. "If you do this, that, or the other thing, then God will forgive and save you." Jesus' "it is finished" becomes "my part is finished, now it's up to you." This is the raw material of religion in the naughty sense of that word, by which we try to earn by our good behavior what God has given out for free by his grace in the death of Jesus. Conditional grace is neither amazing nor is it grace.

Another way to confuse law and Gospel is to change law into Gospel, hold out the law as though it were something a sinner could actually do if only he or she tried hard enough, prayed long enough, or believed sincerely enough. This happens when preachers misapply the so-called "third use or function" of the law. Here the law is preached as something you can do to please God, provided you have a proper dose of the Holy Spirit, or Gospel power, or infused grace, or whatever you choose to name it, which enables you to keep the law. This is the way of perfectionism. Now that you are a Christian, you are in a position to keep the law. Keep working at it, and you will do the law with ever-increasing proficiency on your way to perfection, all with divine assistance, of course. But this is not the way the apostle Paul teaches it. As far as he is concerned, he is dead, crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20). His life in the flesh he calls a "body of death" from which he prays continually for deliverance (Rom 7:24). His life is hidden with Christ in God, not in himself (Col. 3:3). He no longer lives but Christ lives in him (Gal. 2:21) who enables him both to will and to do (Phil. 2:13). Certainly we are to be encouraged, even exhorted, to "do" or "obey" the law. Paul's epistles are full of such examples. But the exhortation to do the law must never call into question that God has nailed the law to the cross in the death of his son (Col. 2:14).

Another way to confuse things is to rend asunder what God has eternally joined together, to divorce the law from the Gospel. Instead of one double-edged sword, we now have two single-edged razors that can be used independently from each other. The dynamic law and Gospel become two static categories; buckets into which we sort the scriptural catch of the day. Law passages here, Gospel passages there. This overly simplistic approach leads to moralizing on the law hand, and antinominianism on the Gospel hand. Antinomianism, the mistaken notion that Christians do not need to hear the law but only the Gospel, is at the extreme end of this line.

For example, the preacher may decide that a person is "not yet ready" or "repentant enough" to hear any good news of God's unconditional forgiveness, and so he will preach law without Gospel until his hearer is good and contrite. This was the path of pietism, which focused on the quality of one's contrition. Only those who were "sincerely sorry" for their sins were permitted to hear the good news of forgiveness in Jesus. On the other hand, the preacher may conclude that people have heard enough bad news in their lives, and so preach Gospel without law. What the Reformation identified as the distinction of law and Gospel was not a categorical division of God's Word, but a paradoxical tension between God's command and his promise within his one, undivided Word. Every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God is double-edged. Even the simple declaration, "Jesus died for your sins," has both a law and a Gospel edge to it, depending on where the accent is placed. "Jesus died for your sins" is a terrifying word of law. This is how great a sinner you are, that the Son of God had to die because of you. "Jesus died for your sins" is a word of Gospel. This is how great a Savior you have, that Jesus should die for you. The paradoxical tension of law and Gospel is reflected in the concrete existence of the believer as being at once sinner (law) and saint (Gospel).

The law and the Gospel are not two separate words, but one double-edged word, whose ultimate goal is to forgive sinners and raise the dead. God kills in order to make alive. He condemns in order to forgive. He brings down to Sheol in order to raise up. The law was given not to make us good but to lead us to Christ so that we might be justified by faith in Jesus (Gal. 3:24). Having come to Christ, we have come to the end (telos) of the law (Rom. 10:4). The prophet Isaiah calls this God's "strange" or "sinister" work (Isa. 28:21). What is strange is not that God punishes the wicked and rewards the good. What is alien to our religious way of thinking is that God forgives sinners and raises the dead. He consigns all to disobedience so that he might have mercy upon all (Rom 11:32). That's counter-intuitive, strange, and downright left-handed. God paid out the just wages of our sin in the death of Christ, and in him all died. The death of Adam is absorbed by the death of Christ. Life in a fallen world is now found precisely in the death of the Word by whom the world was made, whom God raised from the dead. Death is not God's last word. Life is. The law is God's penultimate word; his ultimate word is Gospel, the good news of life in Jesus Christ.

Law, Gospel, and the Good Samaritan

How does the distinction of law and Gospel play out in practice? Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). I choose this parable because it so easily lends itself to a moralistic interpretation and application, as evidenced by its popular title. (1)

A synagogue lawyer, an expert in the Torah, comes to test Jesus with a question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus, in fine rabbinical form, answers the question by asking a question: "What is written in the Torah. How do you read it?" The lawyer responds in legal form: "Love God, love your neighbor." He answers his law question with an appropriately law answer; Jesus says, "Right you are. Do this, and you'll live." But something doesn't sit well with that answer. Seeking to justify himself, the lawyer asks another question: "Who then is my neighbor?" If loving your neighbor is what you must do to inherit eternal life, then you must know precisely who your neighbor is. Eternal life hangs on the definition.

In reply, Jesus tells this parable. A man fell among thieves and was left lying in the ditch at the side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. A priest came, saw the man from a distance, and went on the other side. A Levite came by and did the same thing. Finally a Samaritan came, saw the man, and had compassion on him. He bandaged the man's wounds, put him on his donkey, took him to the local Motel 6, set him up for a couple of nights, and left a couple of denarii and a credit card to cover the tab. "Now who was neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves?" Jesus asks. "The one who helped him," said the lawyer. "Right. Go and do likewise," says Jesus.

At first glance, Jesus' parable seems to invite turning Gospel into law or law into Gospel. Question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Answer: Love God, and love your neighbor. Clarifying question: Who then is my neighbor? Clarifying answer: Every broken-down person who crosses your path. Conclusion: If you love God and love your neighbor, including every man in the ditch, then you will inherit eternal life. That makes your inheritance of eternal life a transaction in which you do your part, and God does his part.

We might try turning things around. If you want to be sure that eternal life is yours, love God and love your neighbor as yourself. You can be as certain of your inheritance as you are sure of your love. The focus is now inward, on your love, instead of outward. The good news of eternal life becomes the bad news of your love, which is considerably less lustrous than the law requires. Your certainty of salvation wobbles every time you fail to pull over on the freeway to help someone with their hood up.

Try law without Gospel. Read the parable as pure law. Help anyone in need that crosses your path, regardless of the cost or convenience, and at the same time love God with your whole being and entire strength. Do this perfectly, and you will live. Don't do it, and you're dead. Have a nice day. Thank you for asking.

At least this approach is more faithful to the parable and its context. However, if there's going to be any Gospel, it will have to be smuggled over the border, usually under the cover of allegory. You and I are the priest and Levite. Cold, indifferent, hardened to our neighbor in need, looking out for number one. Jesus is the good Samaritan who obediently humbles himself to death to help the neighbor in need, healing the sick, raising the dead, driving out the demons, keeping the law perfectly where we would not. And we get credit for being the good Samaritan even though we never actually lift a finger. Had Jesus ended this parable as he did the parable of the vineyard workers (Matt. 20:1-16) with priest and Levite getting credit in the local papers and a rich reward for having rescued the man in the ditch, we might be on to something. But as it stands, the law here serves only as a pretense for the Gospel. Love God and neighbor. You can't do it. Jesus did it for you.

You and I could be the man in the ditch, dead in trespasses and sin. (Never mind that the man in the parable fell among thieves while we're in the ditch by our own doing. We're trying to smuggle Gospel pearls past the exegetical border guards, remember.) The old religion offers us no help or comfort. Good Samaritan Jesus rides up on his donkey, pours healing oil and wine into our wounds, and brings us to the inn of the Church where he pays all the bills and we are nursed back to health. And having been so graciously restored, we are now in good shape to go and do likewise. Gospel gives way to law, and the parable becomes an exercise in it. (2) Jesus rescued you from your ditch, now you go and do the same.

But watch what happens when we look at law and Gospel in paradoxical tension. First, check out the synagogue lawyer's question. He wants to trap Jesus. Jesus knows it and declines to give a straight answer. Instead, he gives the lawyer just enough rope to hang himself. Will the lawyer interpret the Torah in terms of his merit or God's mercy? Law or Gospel? Jesus' question is open. The lawyer's answer is from the perspective of the law: Love God; love your neighbor. He believes that this is what you must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus lets him run with it. "Do this and you'll live."

The lawyer is caught in his own trap. He knows this is neither possible nor realistic. He begins to panic. Seeking to justify himself, he pops the six million dollar question: "Who then is my neighbor?" The self-justifying question goes right to the law/Gospel heart of the parable. Ultimately, this parable is not about helping crime victims in ditches at the side of the road. It's only the bait in the trap. This parable is about the religion of the law and the bind the law puts us in when we make it the basis of eternal life.

Who fails to help the man in the ditch? The religious clergy-the priest and the Levite, whom the synagogue lawyer would hold up as examples of blue-ribbon righteousness. Why didn't they help the man in the ditch? Not because they were wicked, or indifferent, or bad, or uncaring, but because their religion based on keeping the law would not permit them. If the man in the ditch were as dead as he appeared, the priest and Levite would have become ceremonially unclean simply by touching him (Lev. 19:11-13). Rabbinic interpretation drew a four-cubit radius safety zone around the corpse. Step inside and you're automatically unclean. Even if the priest and Levite were heading home for the holidays, the last thing they would want is to come home in a state of impurity. In addition to the humiliation, there would be the time-consuming and costly process of restoration. Most people would have approved the priest's and Levite's decision not to help the man in the ditch. (3)

Priest and Levite are caught between a legal rock and a rabbinic hard place. The law says they must love their neighbor. Yet helping the man in the ditch puts them at risk of ritual impurity. And all the while they must also love God who makes these laws in the first place. Only the Samaritan, a half-breed heretical layman, is free enough to stoop down and help the man in the ditch. He's dead to the law, impure from the start. Ritual purity is the least of his concerns. He needs no commandment; he seeks no reward. He is free to help the man in the ditch for no other reason than the man needs help, and his help far exceeds what the law required precisely because he acts in freedom.

Who is most like Christ in the parable? The broken man in the ditch. He is Christ in cognito, hidden under weakness, beaten, broken, and bloody, who himself is on the road to Jerusalem to fall among the religious and be crucified with the thieves. And the only way to relate to him is to repent of the religious notion that commandment-keeping is the way to inherit eternal life, drop dead to the law, get off your religious high horse, and take your place in the ditch along with the Samaritan and the man who fell among the thieves.

Only one who is completely free of the law can even remotely do the law. The law says, "Love God and love your neighbor," including that poor loser lying there in the ditch bleeding to death. But if your eternal life hangs on your bending down to help him, you are doomed from the start because you will not only resent him for lying there in the ditch, you'll despise God for commanding you to help him.

Jesus' parable turns out to be a poison pill for what Paul calls the righteous which is by the law. In order to concur with the law, the lawyer must criticize the priest and Levite and identify with the Samaritan, the very person he least admires. What must one "do" to inherit eternal life? In a word: Repent. Have a change of mind, a re-thinking, a "re-cognition." "Re-cognize" who God is and who you are. You are a sinner under the law, and the law can't help you. Your only hope is the broken man on the cross. He alone holds your life in a way that you cannot.

Viewed under the polarized light of law and Gospel in paradoxical tension, the parable of the Good Samaritan is both bad news and good news at the same time. It is bad news to those who would justify themselves with the law, and good news for those who re-cognize (i.e., repent) that they belong with the Samaritan and the broken man in the ditch. Only when eternal life is no longer the prize will you truly be free to love your neighbor and God. In this light, the question "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" turns out to be just plain foolish. You don't do anything to inherit. You're born into the right family and then the head of the family has to die. The only thing you can earn is your own death. Eternal life is a free gift of God in Jesus Christ.

Held in paradoxical tension, distinguished but not confused or divided, the law remains law, and the Gospel remains Gospel. There are neighbors aplenty to love. And there is freedom in Christ to love them. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).

1 [ Back ] See Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988), pp. 58-67.
2 [ Back ] What Would Jesus Do? See Brian Lee's article "What Would Jesus Preach?" in this issue of Modern Reformation.
3 [ Back ] For this insight, see Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), pp. 33-56.
Friday, June 22nd 2007

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