The Burned Over Place

This is an illustration I used in a recent sermon that describes a Christian’s relationship to the Law in Christ Jesus. I first read this illustration in the book One Way Love by Tullian Tchividjian.

We are a little like the duck hunter who was hunting with his friend in a wide-open barren of land in southeastern Georgia. Far away on the horizon he noticed a cloud of smoke. Soon he could hear the sound of crackling. A wind came up and he realized the terrible truth: a brush fire was advancing his way. It was moving so fast that he and his friend could not outrun it. The hunter began to rifle through his pockets. Then he emptied all the contents of his knapsack. He finally found what he was looking for – a book of matches. To his friend’s amazement, he pulled out a match and struck it. He lit a small fire around the two of them. Soon they were standing in a circle of blackened earth, waiting for the brush fire to come. They did not have to wait long. They covered their mouths with their handkerchiefs and braced themselves. The fire came near- and swept over them. But they were completely unhurt. They weren’t even touched. Fire would not burn the place where fire had already burned.

The point here is that the Law is like a brush fire that takes no prisoners. It cannot be escaped or extinguished. But if we stand in the burned-over place, where the Law has already done its worst, we will not get hurt. The Law’s power has not been nullified. Yet because of where we are standing, not a hair on our heads will be singed. The death of Christ is the burned-over place. The Law did its worst on Jesus. And so there we huddle, at the foot of the cross, barely believing, yet relieved. Christ’s death has disarmed the Law, and where there was once guilt, now all that remains is gratitude.

Thanks be to God!


Swiper, No Swiping!

Swiper the Fox has a problem.

For those of you who do not what I am talking about, Swiper the Fox is a character on the popular Nick Jr. television show, Dora the Explorer. Dora and her monkey friend, Boots, go on many adventures together, aided by a talking map, a hungry backpack, and by many of their animal friends. However, one animal is not part of Dora’s inner circle. That animal is Swiper the Fox.

As I mentioned above, Swiper has a problem. He is a habitual criminal. Swiper, as his name suggests, likes to swipe things. He is a thief, albeit not a very good one. I don’t know if Swiper has ever successfully swiped anything from anyone. But he certainly does try to swipe things from Dora and foil her adventures. Dora, not being a typical innocent child but portraying the street smarts of hardened teenager, is not amused or fooled by any of Swiper’s attempts at thievery. When Swiper makes his move, Dora and Boots (and you, the audience!), tell him over and over again, “Swiper, no swiping! Swiper, no swiping! Swiper, no swiping!” Swiper eventually realizes that he is about to be caught red-handed, and he responds with his classic quip, “Oh man!” as he snaps his fingers and darts off the screen, no doubt planning his next attempt to impede Dora and Boots from attending Benny the Bull’s birthday party.

I feel bad for Swiper the Fox. I don’t feel sorry for him because he is never successful at swiping. Stealing is wrong, boys and girls. I feel bad because he is doomed to repeat the same pattern over and over again, not just because he is stuck in a formulaic kid’s show, but because he never hears anything but the law.

That’s right. I am about to make a theological point based off of a cartoon character on Nick Jr. This is my life now.

This is an important note for preachers and for parents and really for all Christians: Believing that simply saying “No” or that by forbidding an activity has the power to exact lasting change is completely unrealistic.

God’s Law, as revealed in his Word, is good and necessary. I am certainly not implying that the law is a bad thing. Rather, it is the perfect will of God. However, God’s Law, ever since humankind’s fall into sin, has one primary purpose: to show us our sin. From Romans 7:7- If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”

swiper 2

No one likes a bossy-pants, Dora!

God’s Law tells us what sin is and says “Don’t do it!” Dora and Boots serve this purpose well in their interactions with Swiper. “Swiper, no swiping!” Stealing is bad. Do not steal.

But because of our sinful nature, we humans are not able to produce the good works that the Law demands. In fact, the Law actually produces the exact opposite reaction from us than it intended. Paul continues in Romans 7- But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me.

What is Paul saying? He is saying that when we are confronted by the Law, sin actually increases, not decreases like we would expect. The Law does not and cannot produce its intended effect. The Law cannot produce in us the very goodness that it demands. Rather, it only increases our bad behavior. Perhaps you have heard the expression about tasting the “forbidden fruit.” When we humans are told we cannot have something or do something, we immediately want to have it or do it. The Law might be able to curb our sinful desire for a time, but it is unable to actually make us good or even inspire goodness. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian says this well in his excellent book, One Way Love:

We make a big mistake when we conclude that the law is the answer to bad behavior. In fact, the law alone stirs up more of such behavior. People get worse, not better, when you lay down the law. This isn’t to say the Spirit doesn’t use both God’s Law and God’s Gospel in our lives and for our good. But the Law and the Gospel do very different things. The Law reveals sin but is powerless to remove it. It points to righteousness but can’t produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. As Martin Luther wrote, “Sin is not canceled by lawful living, for no person is able to live up to the Law. Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God.” (From his commentary on Galatians) The Law apart from the Gospel can only crush; it cannot cure.

Doomed to repeat the same mistakes

Doomed to repeat the same mistakes

This brings us back to our poor friend Swiper the Fox. Swiper hears nothing but the law. Swiper knows that swiping is wrong and hearing the law stops him from swiping…for a little while. But sooner or later, Swiper is back at his old antics, trying to swipe everything in sight. The law can curb his behavior, but it cannot change his heart. It cannot produce the desire to do the right thing. It can only condemn and accuse.

We often do the same thing with other people. Parents do this with their children. Preachers do this with their congregations. They hammer them with the law over and over again. Don’t do this! Stop doing that! Do better! Try harder! The problem with this method is that we cannot do it. We can try as hard as want, but we will never be able to achieve the goodness, rather, the perfection, that the Law of God demands. We may stop for awhile or even for good, but it doesn’t mean that we have been changed. Outwardly, we may look cleaned up while our heart is still corrupt.

The Law does not and cannot reform the sinful nature.  Rather it reveals our sinful nature. It exposes us as sinners, and it drives us to the Good News found in Jesus! Only the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners can transform lives and give people (or foxes) the desire to do good. Only the Gospel can change your heart.

So preachers, preach the Law, but let the Gospel dominate. Don’t just stand up there and say, “Sinner, no sinning!” Preach the shed blood of Jesus which alone can cover their sinfulness. Connect the branches to the true Vine and see the good fruit which is naturally produced.

Parents, tell your children when they have done something wrong but always speak to them a word of forgiveness. Your unconditional love and forgiveness reflects their heavenly Father’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Let God’s love and mercy transform their sinful, selfish nature.

And let us always remind each other of Paul’s words in Romans 8:1-2 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Thanks for coming on this journey with me! What was your favorite part?


Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.  I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Psalm 32:1-5

I immediately thought of these verses when I read the story about the Ohio man who confesses via video to drunk driving and to hitting and killing a man. Below is his confession:

This is a powerful video. It is also a great demonstration of the crushing nature of the Law, not the law of the land, but God’s eternal Law. I am not claiming that Matthew Cordle is a Christian. I have no idea. But I do know that Paul says in Romans that every single human being has a natural knowledge of God’s Law. It is written on our hearts. In other words, every human being is born with a sense of right and wrong. And we humans spend our entire time trying to deal with God’s Law or as the late theologian Gerhard Forde puts it, we spend our entire lives trying to “get God off our backs.”

You see, God’s Law crushes us. It enslaves us. It tells us over and over again that we are not good enough. God’s Law demands perfection. And we fall short of those demands. So we try to deal with the Law in different ways.

1. We get angry with God because of his impossible demands, and so we do our best to simply ignore the Law that is written on our hearts. We rebel against the Law, and we do our best to ignore it when it rises up in our conscience to accuse us. We become our own Lawmakers.

2. We try to justify ourselves. We point out the areas where we are following the Law and try to sweep under the rug those times that we fall short. We point out other people who we think our worse Lawbreakers than we are. We attempt to present our best selves to other people and to God.

3. We despair. This is the intended effect of the Law. This is what happened to King David in Psalm 32 and to Matthew Cordle. Guilt overwhelmed them until they could not keep silent about their transgressions any longer. David described it as his bones wasting away all day long. He felt God’s hand heavy upon him. Matthew Cordle certainly felt the heavy hand of the Law upon him too. He didn’t want to lie about it or cover it up. He couldn’t ignore it any longer. It was crushing him. So he confessed his sin and is apparently willing to accept his punishment.

“I can’t erase what I’ve done,” Cordle says. And in our human justice system, Cordle will pay the price for his crime, as he should. But I hope that somebody has an opportunity to share with Matthew Cordle that his sin can be erased. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Matthew Cordle can try to right his wrong by accepting his punishment here on earth. He can reconcile with his conscience. But the only way to achieve peace with God is to confess his sins to Him. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

The only way to “get God off your back” is to confess your sins and turn to Jesus. On the cross, Jesus took all your sins and the sins of the whole world upon his back. He took your eternal punishment. Through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross, your sins are erased. You can have peace with God because Jesus died in your place.

I noticed that the YouTube user that uploaded Matthew Cordle’s confession goes by the name “becauseisaidiwould.” Matthew Cordle even holds up a piece of paper with that tagline on it. I don’t know anything about this tagline. I assume it encourages people to follow through on their words which is, of course, a good idea. But people, as I have already pointed out, are not perfect and often go back on their word.

But God does not. No matter what he says, we can trust. How do you know God will forgive your sins? Because he said he would. How do you know that he will grant you eternal life? Because he said he would. God always keeps his word and promises.

When you are crushed by the Law, do not ignore it. Do not angry with God. Do not try to justify yourself. Despair of yourself, confess your sins and receive healing and forgiveness through Jesus. He came and died for sinners like Matthew Cordle, like you, and like me. In Christ, you are declared, “Not guilty!”

east westThe Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does  he remove our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:8-12

A Family Resemblance

A church in town has a marquee sign over their front entrance. This is not significant in and of itself. Many churches have marquees, and like most churches, this church (which shall remain nameless) tries to put clever and inspiring phrases on their sign.

The phrase that is up on this particular church marquee is not especially funny or clever. It might not even be that thought provoking for you. It just happened to inspire some thoughts in me, namely some thoughts about Law and Gospel. Anyway, let me just get to it.

The church marquee reads “A child of the king should bear a family resemblance.” Like I said, this is not anything that deep or clever. It is simply a statement that, I believe, is trying to urge Christians to act more like Christ. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. But something always bugs me about this sign.

This statement is law. There is no doubt about it. This statement is addressed to the Christian. There is no doubt about that either. Those who believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for them and are baptized have the privilege of being called children of God. I am a child of the king. Therefore, this sign continues, as a child of the king you should act like it. You should look like it. You should not dishonor the family name. These are all true statements.

My misgivings about this church marquee phrase are not because this statement is law. The Law is good. The Law is necessary. The Law still has a place in the Christian’s life. It lets us know what sin is. It tells us what a good work is. It is a guide for the Christian life. However, the primary function of God’s Law is to point out our sin. The Law acts as a mirror. It accuses us. When we read “You should not bear false witness against your neighbor,” we should immediately be struck with the realization of all the times that we have broken that commandment. How do I measure up? Ooh! Not so well. The mirror that the Law points at us shows us our sin and our failures. The Law inevitably does this. Theologians have a Latin phrase for this function of the Law. Semper lex accusat- The Law always accuses.

So when I read the sign “A child of the king should bear a family resemblance” I am immediately accused. How do I measure up? Ooh! Not so well. Now again, this is not a bad thing. The Law is necessary. The Law is good. We need to hear the Law over and over again so that we can realize our sins and failures and repent and run to the cross.

However, while the Law has many functions, there is one thing that the Law cannot do. The Law cannot save lives. The Law cannot offer salvation. The Law cannot transform a life. The Law only condemns.

But too many Christian pastors and people misuse the Law. They tend to teach that once one becomes a Christian through the power of the Gospel, well then, the rest is up to you. It’s now up to you to train that sinful flesh through the Law and through good works. You need to grow in your faith, and you do that by becoming better and better at following the Law. Christians who are deceived by this kind of thinking will read the sign “A child of the King should bear a family resemblance” and think, “I can do that. I just have to try harder.” The Law has ceased to accuse them. Self-righteousness has sneakily taken the place of the Gospel in the life of the believer.

But even as Christians, we cannot keep the Law. Christian growth isn’t defined by a 12 step program of improvement. As Paul matured in his faith, he didn’t claim that he was getting better and better as a Christian. He called himself the worst of sinners. The Law was doing its job. It was accusing him.

Our sinful nature cannot be tamed or trained. It must be killed over and over again. It must be put to death. And the Law must be put in its place as well. [Paraphrasing James Nestingen] The law is like a wolf that we try to train as a guide dog. It appears to offer good guidance and protection but… it’s only a matter of time, it always turns on you.

The only thing that can continually transform a Christian’s life is a steady dose of the Gospel. Christian growth isn’t about getting better and better at following the Law. It’s about letting the Law do its work and condemn us. It’s about daily contrition and repentance. It’s about returning to the cross of Christ over and over again. The Gospel does not cease to be important once we come to faith. The Gospel is the sustaining food for the Christian throughout our lives. As John the Baptist said about Christ, “I must decrease. He (Jesus) must increase.” Christian growth is all about humbling ourselves that Christ would increase.

So when it comes to short, catchy phrases on church marquees, I am always going to prefer statements of Gospel over Law. Again, not that there is anything inherently wrong the statement over the particular church I mentioned, but here is how I would have put it: “A child of the King does bear a family resemblance.”

Just a one word change, but it makes all the difference of the world. Instead of accusing Law which can often be misused for self-righteousness, this is a statement of grace. As a child of the King, baptized into the faith, saved by God’s grace through the blood of Jesus, you do look like the King. You are holy, righteous, perfect. You are royal. You are an heir of God’s promises because He has called you by name. You are His. Sure, you may not act like a child of the King all of the time. You may dishonor the name of Christ. But you are still a child of God. You are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. You have the privilege of calling God, the King, your Father. You have the ear of the King at all times through prayer.

Now that’s inspiring. I could go on and on with the Gospel promises. The Gospel is what transforms lives. The Gospel is what inspires us to live godly lives and keep God’s Law. The Gospel is what makes us Christian. The Gospel is what keeps us Christian.

Hercules! Hercules!

From the website Liberate:

As Christians, we still need to hear both the law and the gospel. We need to hear the law because we are all, even after we’re saved, prone to wander in a self-righteous direction. The law, said Luther, is a divinely sent Hercules to attack and kill the monster of self-righteousness–a monster that continues to harass the Redeemed. We need constant reminders that our best is never good enough and that “there is something to be pardoned even in our best works.” We need the law to freshly reveal to us that we’re a lot worse off than we think we are and that we never outgrow our need for the cleansing blood of Christ. In other words, we need the law to remind us everyday just how much we need the gospel everyday.

And then once we are re-crushed by the law, we need to be reminded that “Jesus paid it all.” Even in the life of the Christian, the law continues to drive us back to Christ–to that man’s cross, to that man’s blood, to that man’s righteousness. The gospel announces to failing, forgetful people that Jesus came to do for sinners what sinners could never do for themselves–that God’s grace is gratuitous, that his love is promiscuous, and that while our sin reaches far, his mercy reaches farther. The gospel declares that Jesus came, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it–that Jesus met all of God’s perfect conditions on our behalf so that our relationship with God could be unconditional.