Human nature is like a drunken cowboy riding a horse. He climbs into the saddle, but because he is inebriated, he can’t sit up straight. After just a few hundred yards, he falls off the left side of his horse.
Stubbornly he picks himself up and gets back on his horse. He tells himself, “I better lean to the right this time so I don’t fall off again.” A few hundred yards later, he slides off the other side.
As human beings, the pendulum of our emotions and attitudes seldom stays in the middle of the road. As individuals and as a society we tend to fall into extremes.
That truth can be seen, for example, in how we deal with the two most basic teachings of the Bible: the Law and the Gospel. Most parts of the Bible fall into one of those two categories.
The Law are God’s commands. The Law tells us, “Do this and don’t do that.” The Law shows us the consequences of disobedience.
The Gospel are God’s promises. The Gospel is the good news about how Jesus suffered our punishment in our place – how God freely forgives and gives us heaven.
The Law demands; the Gospel gives. The Law declares us guilty; the Gospel declares us innocent. The Law shows us our sins; the Gospel shows us our Savior.
Both are true. Both are inspired by God. Each plays a role in our faith and salvation. The Law is a mirror which shows us the parts of ourselves we don’t like to see – all our dirty and ugly failings. The Law shows us the hell we deserve and our utter helplessness to save ourselves.
The Gospel shows how God loved us so much he gave up everything to save us. The Gospel offers and gives faith and forgiveness. The Gospel empowers and motivates us to thank God with our lives. The Law then guides us, showing us how we can thank God by lovingly serving him and others.
Like a drunken cowboy, however, we tend to slip off the saddle. We fall into the ditch of legalism. We make God’s love and the gift of heaven dependent on what we do. “Yes, Jesus died for your sins, but you still have to earn it by obeying God… by being a good person… by going to church.”
The Gospel contains no ifs or buts. It makes no demands. It only gives.
But we have to be careful not to fall off the other side of the horse. Yes, heaven is God’s free gift. You can’t commit a sin God won’t forgive, but forgiveness is not a license to sin. Watch out. The devil loves to whisper in our ears, “It’s no big deal. Nobody’s perfect. God will forgive you anyway.”
God hates sin. He wants us to strive for perfection – to serve him faithfully with our lives. But we don’t live good lives in order to earn heaven. We live good lives to thank God for the heaven he gives.
Each of us has a drunken cowboy living in his or her heart who has a hard time staying on his saddle. Sometimes we fall into the ditch of pride and legalism – thinking God’s love and gift of heaven depend on what we do. Then we fall off the other side into the ditch of cheap grace, treating forgiveness as a license to sin.
Properly understanding the relationship between God’s Law and Gospel is the single greatest skill a Christian can learn.
It will help you stay in the saddle.