That’s the way it is with God. He works in two ways toward all men, toward us. He kills and He makes alive; He comes with judgment and with mercy; He terrifies and He comforts. That’s law and Gospel. God comes showing our sins, judging our sins, terrifying us over our sin, and then He comes forgiving our sins, washing away our sins, dying for our sins so that we might be His own dear children.
These two works of God are not equal. The Bible calls the killing, judging terrifying work of God His “strange” work.
Isaiah 28:21-22 For the LORD will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused; to do his deed–strange is his deed! and to work his work–alien is his work! Now therefore do not scoff, lest your bonds be made strong; for I have heard a decree of destruction from the Lord GOD of hosts against the whole land.
This is a particularly important point for the preaching of the Gospel. The Gospel is the point, and the law is to get us there. God comes commending and showing us our sin so that we would know our need for a Savior and look to Him for help and comfort and peace.
The first Lutherans loved to talk about this. Here’s Philip Melanchthon explaining it in the Apology (or Defense) of the Augsburg Confession:
For the two chief works of God in men are these, to terrify, and to justify and quicken those who have been terrified. Into these two works all Scripture has been distributed. The one part is the Law, which shows, reproves, and condemns sins. The other part is the Gospel, i.e., the promise of grace bestowed in Christ, and this promise is constantly repeated in the whole of Scripture. (Apology XII.50-53)
The law prepares the way for the Gospel, terror is the way made flat for comfort. But here’s the trouble, we think that the law is God’s native work, and that the Gospel is His strange work. We get it backwards.
“And as for those of you who are left, I will send faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies.” This is how the Lord describes this terror of the law in Leviticus, “The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues.” (Leviticus 26:36) The rustling of a leaf will send you into a panic.
God is after me.
If we have the law without the Gospel, that’s what we think. I don’t know how this sounds in your head, but I’ll tell you how it works in mine. Something will go wrong, it doesn’t even have to be a big thing. The check engine light on the car, or someone’s upset about something I did at church, or I stub my toe on something, and I instantly think, “God is judging me for my sin. What did I do wrong?”
There is something about our flesh that wants God to be mad at us. There is danger here. It is the law that is the strange work of God, not the Gospel. The Gospel is the Lord’s delight, His joy. He wants to deal kindly with us, gently with us, mercifully with us. God wants to forgive our sins. But we think He wants to judge and kill and condemn us. That’s a different God.
A loving father will discipline His children. That is quite a different thing than a father who delights in punishment, who wants to hurt his children. We know that, but somehow our flesh always flips that channel back to the law; it is the language our sinful flesh understands.
Now all of this is to get us to John the Baptist in prison, our Gospel text from Matthew 11. John has done his courageous prophetic work, calling the people to repentance, baptizing for forgiveness, making the straight way for Jesus to come. He even preached against Herod, telling him that he shouldn’t be married to his sister-in-law, and for that he is in prison, and now the trouble comes, the doubts and fears. John had preached a sermon of firey repentance, but Jesus had come in meekness, lowly, gentle, not with judgment but with mercy, not in strength but humility. Jesus had not mustered an army of soldiers but a band of disciples. And John in prison is troubled. “Are you the One, or do we wait for another?” Is this what God in the flesh is really like? Is this who God really is? Where is the brimstone? Where is the wrath? Where is the punishment for sin? Where is the judgment?
Jesus sends John’s disciples back to John to comfort him in prison, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them. Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.”
Blessed indeed, because this, dear saints, is who God really is. He is kind and merficul and humble and loving. He is patient and long-suffering and abounding in mercy and love. He is willing to suffer all, even the shame and ridicule of death on the cross, and the abundance of His wrath on the cross for your sin, for you.
I will play a little game with the confirmands and youth. You have three words to describe God. Answers are generally something like this: Holy, Loving and Powerful. Good, Holy, Righteousness. Adjectives. Some of them are Gospely, like “loving” and “merciful”. Most line up well with the law: “Powerful, Strong, Mighty.” Some sit in the middle, “Good, Holy, Righteous.” But if you want to know who God is, really, then the best three words we have are these: “Jesus Christ crucified.”
If you have any doubt or question that the Lord loves you, that He forgives you, that He has for you a smile and not a scowl, then remember that the Son of God was nailed to the cross for you, suffered God’s wrath for you.
This love and mercy and kindness is not the strange work of God, it is who He is, now and forever, and this, dear saints, in the middle of our sin and temptation and trouble, this is our comfort and our peace. Amen.