This week, upon noticing that the cavity on my lower front tooth had grown, I thought it was time to set up an appointment with a new dentist. As this appointment for what was dubbed "a thorough examination" began to approach, I noticed myself getting a little anxious; even to the point of a Panic Attack. It was here that I had a sort of new realization about why I, and I think others, hate going to the dentist.
In short, going to the dentist is a time when law, judgment, and condemnation seem and are in some senses final. Now this may seem like a stretch, so bare with me and it will make sense.
In a Christian sense, the Law is God's good, true, and righteous demand on the inmost heart. More than this, the Law leaves no one without sin, but proclaims the wrath of God upon all, even people who appear good, and makes us no better than open sinners; hardened and unrepentant (Romans 3:10, 20 & Luther xix). Now this is where the Gospel, Grace, and Love come in; but we're not quite there yet.
In an everyday life sense, there is also law (notice the little "l") that is any form of external command. Although this often does not illicit the same sort of existential crisis that God's Law does, it still has its way of poking at your weaknesses and pronouncing condemnation on where you have failed. In short, law tells us "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about ourselves" (Zahl 2). The painstaking point is that the law does this and leaves it at that. It fails to give us the power and will to correct its diagnosis. For example, if someone says I'm overweight that will pronounce condemnation on me and probably lead to further eating. Similarly if you tell an alcoholic to stop drinking, he/she will drink more. More than this, the law not only leaves us in condemnation it often provokes the opposite of what it demands. This is because our sinful nature is so allergic to any sort of demand. Just listen to the Apostle Paul:
When the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. (Romans 7:9-11)Again, the law says the right things, it's just because of our sinful natures that the law is unable to engender in us what it demands.
So what's this have to do with the dentist? I think the dentist chair is as close as we can get to God's throne of judgment here on earth (speaking in exaggerations of course). In this chair, all of your "sins" are laid bare. You can't lie and say you did floss, because by looking at your gums the dentist knows you didn't. The fact that you drank gallons of soda is revealed. The fact that you've been lazy with brushing your teeth is exposed. Then, the dentist looks at you and pronounces the verdict. You know he's disappointed in you. You know you should have done better, but you've failed. For punishment you must return next week to the elevated tan chair of judgment for painful, time sucking, expensive, and high pitched drilling. This is why going to the dentist is a time when law, judgment, and condemnation seem and are in some senses final. NO GRACE HERE!
For the weeks following the dentist you brush and floss, but eventually your poor habits return. You know you should brush, but you don't. You know you should floss, but it hurts and is bloody. You know you should brush this evening, but you've stayed up to late watching reruns of CSI Miami again and just fell asleep on the couch. As the Apostle Paul said about his own struggle with sin, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death" (Romans 7:24).
This trip to the dentist made me painfully aware of how grateful I am for the Christian Gospel. Because the truth is, we are just as decayed and lost in our lives as I am with my teeth. If it wasn't for the good news of the Gospel, all of existence would end in a dentist chair type scenario where all our sin would be exposed and our condemnation would be final. As Werner Elert says, "With none of our decisions can we stand before God with the claim that any of them conforms to the law; as always our hope lies in the promise of forgiveness" (46). That "promise of forgiveness" is the Gospel.
It would work this way in the dentist chair. The dentist would pronounce the verdict, "Shawn do you floss your teeth with Twizzlers and use Mt. Dew for mouth wash?" But then he would say, "Shawn look in your mouth, all of your cavities are gone, the consequences of your neglect are now in my mouth. Excuse me while I drill these cavities out of my own mouth…" This is what the cross does for us all! The death of One atones for all. "By God's performing one act of judgment all share in the righteousness that 'leads to life'" (Elert 28).
Because of this we, like Paul, we can come to the conclusion that we are wretched humans in a body of death while hanging on to the simple fact that, "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering" (Romans 8:1, 3). This is the Gospel which no law, judgment, and condemnation can take away. This is because "when the Gospel speaks, the law must hold its peace" (Elert 1). When the laws and judgments of the world assail you, "run straight to the manger and embrace the Virgin's babe, and behold Him being born, growing in wisdom and stature, conversant among men, teaching, dying, risen, ascending up 'far above the heavens', and having power over all things. This sight and contemplation, will keep thee in the right way…"
The crazy thing is when we comprehend this fact, the Gospel engenders what the Law demands, but that is a whole different story. May this message of Gospel, Grace, and Love keep you in the knowledge and love of God in Christ this Christmas Season.
Elert, Werner. "Law and Gospel"
Luther, Martin. "1552 Preface to the Commentary on Romans" & "Commentary on Galatians"
Zahl, Paul. "Grace in Practice"