To warm us up, here is some handy theological vocabulary: “The Two Tables of the Law.”
When Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Mt. Sinai they were written on two tablets (see Exodus 32:5-16). With this in mind, students of the Scripture have seen two groups of commandments, the first having to do with God, and the second having to do with our neighbor.
The “First Table of the Law,” then, describes our fear, love, and trust of God, our exclusive worship God, our prayers, and our hearing the Lord’s Word.
The “Second Table of the Law,” beginning with the commandment “Honor your father and your mother” gives shape to our love for our neighbors.
Jesus beautifully summarizes both tables when asked about the greatest commandment:
“The first of all the commandments is, ‘Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength:” this is the first commandment.
And the second is like, namely this, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ There is none other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
Now, when it comes to good works, we normally think of the Second Table of the Law, and especially the outward works of love and kindness to our neighbor. When I help someone, give to those in need, etc., I think, “Good Work!”
Likewise, we normally think of sins according to the Second Table of the Law, those things we do to hurt our neighbor: murder, theft, adultery, etc. When you as someone to list the Ten Commandments, which comes first? “You shall not murder. You shall not steal.” Second Table.
There is no doubt that the Second Table defines good works and sin, but this is only half of the Law.
These outward works are what the Lutheran Confessions call “civil works.” They are the good works taught by the philosophers. These are the kinds of good works that we can manage with our own reason or strength.
But, and this is the point, there is an entire world of sin and good works taught in the First Table of the Law, the works that have to do with God. When the Lutheran Confessors speak of Good Works, these are the works they are thinking of.
Here is an example from The Apology to the Augsburg Confession:
It is false, too, that by its own strength reason can love God above all things and keep his law, truly fear him, truly believe that he hears prayer, willingly obey him in death and in his other visitations, and not covet.
But reason can produce civil works. (Apology IV:27)
I find this list of good works astonishing, and I hope you are surprised as well. When Philip Melanchthon thinks of true and Christian works, he lists:
- Loving God above all.
- Truly fearing God.
- Truly believing that God hears our prayers.
- Willingly obeying God in death and other troubles (called God’s “visitations”!).
- Not coveting.
These are the good works of the First Table. (Mostly. “Coveting” is covered in Commandments 9 and 10, but remember how St. Paul equates covetousness with idolatry in Colossians 3:5.)
These things cannot be accomplished by our own reason and strength. In fact, even by the strength of the Holy Spirit working through the Word, we only begin to accomplish these things.
Now, both the theological and practical results of focusing on the Second Table of the Law and forgetting the First is disastrous. Here’s some more Melanchthon (well worth our time to digest):
If the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, then the flesh sins even when it performs outward civil works. If it cannot submit to God’s law, it is certainly sinning even when it produces deeds that are excellent and praiseworthy in human eyes.
Our opponents concentrate on the commandments of the second table, which contain the civil righteousness that reason understands. Content with this, they think they satisfy the law of God. Meanwhile they do not see the first table, which commands us to love God, to be sure that God is wrathful at our sin, to fear him truly, and to be sure that he hears us.
But without the Holy Spirit, the human heart either despises the judgment of God in its smugness, or in the midst of punishment it flees and hates his judgment. So it does not obey the first table. It is inherent in man to despise God and to doubt his Word with its threats and promises.
Therefore men really sin even when they do virtuous things without the Holy Spirit; for they do them with a wicked heart, and (Romans 14:23) “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Such people despise God when they do these things, as Epicurus did not believe that God cared for him or regarded or heard him. This contempt for God corrupts works that seem virtuous, for God judges the heart. (Apology IV.33-35)
If the Law is merely the Second Table it becomes “doable” by my own reason and strength. If I define righteousness only according to the Second Table, then I can achieve it with my own efforts.
And, apart from faith, that is, a trust in the promise fo the forgiveness of all my sins won for me by the death of Jesus on the cross, then all my outward civil good works are stained, and, in fact, a cause for judgment.
The good works that God require of us are much more than the outward acts of love for our neighbor. God requires our worship, our fear and love and trust, our confidence in His goodness even in the midst of trouble and death. Our flesh is much too weak to accomplish these things. We are guilty of breaking God’s Law at the primary point, at the First Commandment.
We have some hope and chance of achieving a human civil righteousness according to the Second Table of the Law. But there is no hope of righteousness in ourselves when it comes to the First Table. Our only hope is Christ.
Melanchthon will bring it all home (and don’t skip this because it is a quotation. These words are the entire reason I wrote this post.):
Paul says (Romans 4:15), “The law brings wrath.” He does not say that by the law men merit the forgiveness of sins. For the law always accuses and terrifies consciences. It does not justify, because a conscience terrified by the law flees before God’s judgment. It is an error, therefore, for men to trust that by the law and by their works they merit the forgiveness of sins.
We have said enough about the righteousness of law or of reason which our opponents teach. …
Therefore men cannot keep the law by their own strength, and they are all under sin and subject to eternal wrath and death. On this account the law cannot free us from sin or justify us, but the promise of the forgiveness of sins and justification was given because of Christ. He was given for us to make satisfaction for the sins of the world and has been appointed as the mediator and the propitiator.
This promise is not conditional upon our merits but offers the forgiveness of sins and justification freely. (Apology IV,38-41)
Trinity 2, 2017