Christianity is Not a Religious Message with an Ethical Core
From Sasse’s pen:
“The message of the church of the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ is called the Gospel. “Be reconciled to God!” In this appeal, the Gospel calls us to faith in Christ. “He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” [RSV 2 Corinthians 5:21] This and nothing else is the Gospel, as if an angel came from heaven and proclaimed it to us. Of course Jesus did not teach a theology of justification, but he did proclaim the justification of the sinner by grace, by faith [sola gratia, sola fide] by coming to sinners and forgiving their sins. The scribes understood this in what he said by claiming God’s majesty for Himself – “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” [Mark 2:7] – He was fully aware that in this way he was claiming divine omnipotence for Himself. It is simply impossible, as the Lord’s Supper by itself shows, that the Gospel of the coming kingdom can be separated from the forgiveness of sins. So it is, that what the great church historian Adolf von Harnack defined as the “Gospel” was not Gospel at all. When he said that, “Not the Son, but the Father alone belongs to the Gospel, as Jesus Himself proclaimed it,” he was wrong on two counts. First this claim is historically inaccurate. Secondly, even if the message about Jesus is at most a preliminary step to the Gospel, but not the Gospel itself, we have to deal with the clear witness of the New Testament (Mark 1:1). The witness about Christ as the Redeemer is of the very fiber of the Gospel. The Gospel for Harnack and liberal theology was not the witness about Jesus Christ and the redemption which could be accomplished in Him, but it was a religious message with an ethical core. And if I may be permitted to use an example from the English speaking world, it would be one of its pious prophets, Walter Rauschenbusch [1861-1918]. What he understands by “Social Gospel” has nothing to do with what the New Testament calls “Gospel.” Rauschenbush has twisted things around. If he really has extracted the principles for governing society from what he finds to be the mind of Jesus, then these principles would be more properly designated a social law and not a social Gospel.
Here we are confronted with the important question of the difference between the Law and the Gospel. Luther has something specific to say about the ability of properly dividing the one from the other: “We should know that this is the highest art in Christendom; and if this is not known, you can never be sure about who is a Christian or a heathen or a Jew; everything depends upon this distinction.” He makes it quite clear that not only was this distinction not known in the church at his time, even the fathers denied it. “In making the distinction between the Law and the Gospel some of the most excellent of men and even some of the best preachers come up short… they do not know how to preach correctly and want to turn Christ into another Moses, the Gospel into Law, the Word (Gospel) into works.” (Luther) By saying ‘you should’ the Law places God’s demand before us. It reveals to us God’s holiness and righteousness and man’s impotence and sin. It not only leads us to a recognition of our guilt, but lets us sink deeper and deeper into this guilt. It places before us God’s anger and judgment and leads us to that point of despair where we say ‘I must sink into hell.’ Quite in another direction the Gospel convinces us what God freely out of his mercy has done for us. It is the message of God’s Son who was given to death for us. It says that everyone who believes in Christ, everyone who trusts in the promise of God’s grace, will have the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. It is the incomprehensible message about the justification of the sinner. God is not gracious to us because we have improved our lives or because we have made moral progress. In fact we keep only a small part of his commandments. He is gracious only and solely because Christ died for us and because His righteousness has become our righteousness. On the last day salvation will not be given to those who have fulfilled the law, but to those who fed and gave drink and sheltered Christ in the least of their brothers (Matthew 25). They have no knowledge of what they have done (vv. 38-39). Everywhere in the preaching of Jesus it is clear that “the reward in heaven” is a completely unearned reward. At this point the Law and Gospel come to a parting of the ways. This distinction does not mean that one has nothing to do with the other. They are both God’s Word. Both belong to the Old as well as to the New Testament. The Gospel as the promise of the coming Redeemer is already present in the Old Testament. Similarly the Law does not cease to exist in the New Testament, although Christ is the end of the Law, that is, he is the end of the Law as a way of salvation.
Hermann Sasse, Law and Gospel, 1936
translated by D.P. Scaer