The Ghosts of Sins Past

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I am not much for ghosts. I don’t believe we get visits from the dead, at least not in any sort of positive way (Samuel was no fan of being called forth by Saul, after all). But, there are nights I find myself awake and frightened by things I long thought dead. Sins of the past haunt me. That feeling of guilt hovers over my conscience. I hear voices in my head accusing me, telling me these sins will be there on the Day of Judgment unless I make atonement. I thought these things were dead. After all, these sins have been confessed and absolved multiple times. Yet, there they are, haunting me late into the night. What frightens me so often is that the accusations that come for me are not empty accusations, but they are actually based on God’s Law. After I’ve already been killed by the Law and raised by the Gospel, after repentance and faith have been given, for some reason the Law comes back, it enters my conscience, it tells me more must be done. It tells me I’m damned when I’ve already been given heaven. It requires more from me when I’ve already been promised, “It is finished.” So, why is it there? Is this the Holy Ghost haunting me, telling me I didn’t repent enough? I didn’t do enough? More is expected? Or, is there another spirit at work here? Is someone else using the Law against me?

There is a lot of discussion and debate circling around “the Law” in Lutheran circles these days. What is the Law? Is it eternal or does it have an end? Does it always accuse or only accuse? How many ways does it function? Who uses it? These conversations can be both fruitful and frustrating. But, as I think through much of this in light of my own encounters with the Law, I wonder if there isn’t another discussion to add to the mix. I wonder about the devil’s use of the law.

I thought about calling this article “the fourth use of the law” and then describing what I believe is the devil’s “use,” maybe calling it the “haunting use.” However, this would be misguided, as the devil doesn’t really “use” anything. He abuses. That is, he takes that which is good, true, and beautiful and distorts and destroys it for his own ends. Nothing is off limits to the devil. He is especially adept at taking the good things of God and placing them in areas they don’t belong in order to wreak all kinds of havoc. He’s happy to take the fruit of the most beautiful of all trees and put it in the mouth of Eve. He’s brash enough to take the scriptures and twist them into a temptation placed in the ears of Jesus, the very God who wrote them (Matt 4:1-11)! And, the devil is more than happy to take God’s Law and tell you it is the basis of your righteousness before God. Like the fruit misplaced in Eve’s mouth, Satan is happy to have the Law dominate your conscience before God.

So, I can’t call this the fourth “use” of the Law, because I believe it is the Holy Spirit Who uses His Law. What we are describing here is the “devil’s abuse of the Law.” And he is subtle in his abuse. He will seek to pass himself off as the Holy Spirit when he haunts with his accusations. After all, the Spirit’s chief use of the Law is to accuse the sinner. As a sinner, you need the Spirit to wield this sword and kill the old Adam or Eve dead. You need to be attacked by the Law. But, once the Spirit has crushed and killed that proud sinner, “the New Testament immediately adds the consolatory promise of grace through the Gospel, which must be believed...” [1] That is, the Spirit kills the old man or woman to bring forth the new. God kills with His Law in order to raise us with His Gospel. To you who have been raised, He has promised not to remember those sins anymore. (Isaiah 43:25)

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But, the devil won’t have that. He wants you to think the Law has more to say about those past sins. He won’t have you believe that Christ is sufficient, you are completely washed in the blood, or that you have been killed and raised to a new life. He will use the Law to convince you, not only that you are still dead, but also that hope of the true resurrection lies in you (which means there is no hope at all). The Gospel takes your sins out of the house and throws them in the trash heap.

But the devil is waiting. He digs them out of the dirt, carries them to the door of your conscience and starts knocking! There you are, just about to fall asleep, when you hear the floor creaking and the bones rattling and the devil, armed with echoes of the Law, ready to condemn. The devil, you see, “uses” the Law to block out the Gospel. Where the Spirit kills you with the Law to show you your need of a Savior, the devil abuses the Law and tries to tell you it is your savior, or it would be if you weren’t so damned sinful! Just look at the ghosts of your past! Just as in Zechariah’s vision, he stands at your side, trying to force his way into your conscience, ready to accuse (Zech 3:1).

But, what Satan does not realize is that he has overplayed his hand. For in entering the baptized conscience, he is entering God’s claimed territory. He’s trying to force darkness into the light. He’s trying to bring hell into heaven. He’s gotten too high for himself again, for you are God’s child, God’s beloved, who has already been raised up and seated with the Crucified Lamb in heavenly places (Eph 2:6). Satan tries to enter and God says, “The Lord rebuke you Satan...Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?” (Zech 3:2). You are that brand. He accuses, and God says, “Have you seen my servant Job? Oh! I can’t get enough of him!”  (Job 1:8 ...my rendering). You are that Job. Satan has been cast out from before God, being overcome by the blood! He can’t accuse you before God anymore. God isn’t listening anyhow! (Rev 12:7-12)

This dragon comes to call forth the ghosts of past sins that have been crucified with Christ and left for dead. He’s an accuser and a liar and, since God won’t give him an audience, he must come for you. But, he’s a fool, this devil. For you are a brand plucked from the fire, a baptized, blood-bought, beloved child of God. Your sins are dead and gone. The Spirit used the Law to kill them already. You have been raised with Christ. If they haunt you, rest assured, God doesn’t even think about them. He only sees you sitting next to Jesus. No matter what the devil says, those ghosts can’t accuse you anymore! So, sleep well!

[1] Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles