I’ve written on Stephan Pastis’ work before; Pearls before Swine is my favorite comic strip, and I read it daily. Pastis typically displays what we might call “great acumen about human nature.” And he’s done it again here in the above (and below) strips.
It’s naïve Pig’s response that caught my eye. When asked why he’s excited, Chained-up Dog replies with tremendous enthusiasm, “New Chain!!” Pig’s right, being excited about a new chain is quite optimistic. In fact, it’s nothing to be excited about, because it’s not good news—the dog is still chained up. But, truth be told, don’t we all get excited about the new thing/behavior/rule/diet/routine that will be the key to real success, to us finally achieving control over our lives. It’s in our fallen nature to be oriented as such. I’ve seen this in my own life, and I’m sure you’ve seen it in your own. I’ve seen it in my tendency to be attracted to the newest diet craze (where are we now, gluten?) to my fruitless efforts to watch just one show at night (wait…how is it 12am?). I desperately try to control broken behavior with behavioral changes, and that is just switching out an old law for a new one; that’s not freedom and it’s certainly nothing to be excited about.
The good news is that the Gospel is not a new chain, a new law. It is a word of freedom, silencing the law and its tyranny in my life, in our lives.
But all too often the Gospel is presented as law. One too many of us have heard some form of the idea–either explicitly, but more often implicitly–that it is not simple faith in Christ that justifies but faith and works. When the ‘and’ creeps in, then the Gospel, rather than being a word of life and freedom, becomes a new Law. And Jesus becomes a new Moses. And no amount of optimism (or marketing) can change the fact that we are now not free but have been given a new chain.
The problem with turning Gospel into a new Law is this: the Law doesn’t love me, won’t lay down its life for you, and can’t pity and have mercy on miserable sinners like us. Also this: the Gospel rather than being the word that sets us free and grants us new life becomes a demand that we won’t fill and that will bring death. And worse: the work of the Cross is nullified; Jesus’ sacrifice was in vain.
But the Gospel is not a new Law nor is Christ a new Moses. The good news is that by faith in Christ we are justified apart from works; the good news is that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification—all of it apart from any of our works and always in spite of them. Martin Luther in his Lectures on Galatians writes,
‘…Now I have Another, who has freed me from the terrors of the Law, from sin, and from death, and who has transferred me into freedom, the righteousness of God, and eternal life. He is called the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.’
As I have said, faith grasps and embraces Christ, the son of God, who was given for us…When He has been grasped by faith, we have righteousness and life. For Christ is the Son of God, who gave Himself out of sheer love to redeem me…. Therefore Christ is not Moses, not a taskmaster or a lawgiver; He is the Dispenser of grace, the Savior, and the Pitier. In other words, he is nothing but sheer infinite mercy, which gives and is given…
It’s important to maintain this definition of Christ because otherwise, to use Luther’s words, we turn Christ into a taskmaster and tyrant. The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world becomes the rigid judge standing over us in judgment dolling out death sentences.
When Christ is turned into a taskmaster and tyrant, people are wounded, become skeptical, and flee the one place that should have been a word of life because it has become a word of death. Pastis is right, the new chain does nothing but make us desperate. And, desperate for life and freedom, we will run and run (hungry and thirsty) seeking to fill that void with just about anything.
Therefore, we hold on to this definition of Christ: He is the one who “loved you and gave himself for you.” (Period.) There is positively and absolutely no “and” attached neither to that fact nor to the fact that this is all ours by faith alone. We might even find ourselves inspired to proclaim to the desperate, burdened, shamed, guilty, wounded, and the skeptic (i.e. ourselves and our fellow human beings) who Jesus Christ is and what he has done on our behalf.
For Christ is the joy and sweetness of a trembling and troubled heart. We have this on the authority of Paul, who adorns Him with the sweetest of titles here, calling Him the One ‘who loved me and gave himself for me.’ Therefore Christ is the Lover of those who are in anguish, sin, and death, and the kind of Lover who gives Himself for us and becomes our High Priest, that is, the One who interposes Himself as the Mediator between God and us miserable sinners. — Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians.