NOTE: Despite the fact that this post is law, you should still read it
I want to talk about a specific problem in preaching and teaching: the problem of preferring law over Gospel.
I consider the primary problem with preaching and teaching in my Southern Baptist tradition these days to be an obsession with (or addiction to?) preaching the “law.” To put it mildly, it’s brutal out there. In many churches and ministries, you’re getting clubbed into putty with the law and hearing slightly less Gospel than what you’d get in fifteen minutes of country music, all courtesy of a preacher who has no excuse not to know better.
I’m using the simple Lutheran “law/Gospel” division here: all of scripture is either what God commands/demands under penalty or what he promises/provides freely by grace. This is law and Gospel. “Do” or “Done.” Moses or Jesus. God the accountant older brother or God the Father of the Prodigal. Advice or announcement. Sinai or the cross. Threat or comfort. Blessing or curse. You do it or else. God did and praise.
If you get this, Luther said, you are a theologian even without the degree. So if you don’t know this, learn it, and if ou learn it, use it. Go to New Reformation Press and get you some Rod Rosenbladt or, if you’re up for it, the book by Walther. (Lutherans can make suggestions for the rest of us on this.)
There’s a lot to discuss with this topic, because I believe genuine discipleship, which has aspects of law to it, grows out of and lives in the Gospel, not the law. (Think of Gospel as soil and law as fence. How does your garden grow?) The Gospel is the Gospel of the Kingdom, and the King has a moral law. So I’m not simplistic. I sometimes hear people that I really respect do things with the Law-Gospel distinction that makes my skin crawl and that sounds like weird dispensationalism.
But let’s get this clear: I’m going to err on the side of the Gospel, not on the side of the law, so just expect that and understand it’s why I love Capon and Zahl. And don’t think it’s an easy thing for me to be consistently Gospel centered in my own life. God has really humbled me on this one through events in my own family. I have so much law stuffed in me from growing up Baptist that sometimes I’m useless. I could preach a great “beat-you-around-the-ears” law sermon in my sleep. When I hear preachers pummeling their people with the law and acting like the Gospel isn’t in existence anywhere in scripture, I understand how you can know better, but still get to that point.
For one thing, most of us have heard so much law preaching that we’re drowning in it. Most Baptists love it, too, or say they do. “You really told them today, preacher. You let ‘em have it” or my fave as a young preacher-boy “You really stepped on our toes today.” I must not have done it right then, because the law KILLS you, not annoys you, so you can be resurrected, not corrected.
I could name preachers all day who made their reputations on being law preachers, and they are popular because we love to hear someone preach our congregation or youth group right into the ground. When our people sleep and our youth group doesn’t care, we love to hear someone come in with the big stick and humble those uncaring sheep. Right?
Law preaching is powerful. It feels powerful. Even when it’s done poorly and just amounts to nagging, it makes the preacher feel like he/she is doing something. That’s one reason it’s so popular- you’re telling them what to do. You’re like Moses hitting the rock. Look what I did, you bunch of stubborn yokels. And joined with invitationalism and revivalism, it works. It fills the altar with crying students. I brings people down to get baptized for the 5th time and really mean it this time.
The Gospel, on the other hand, takes the power out of your hands. It’s the announcement of what God has done. You aren’t powerful at all. You’re one loser telling a bunch of other losers that they are going to be treated like winners. Bread for the thieves. Pardon for the unquestionably guilty. Love for rebels. You’re announcing that everyone gets paid the same. You’re issuing banquet seats to people who have no right to a ticket because they are dirty and sinful. You’re telling sinners that the lamb of God has paid the bill and it’s not going to appear on their charge anywhere.
You are telling people it is too good to be true, but it is too good and completely true, and it changes everything.
Apparently this must not be very exciting to a lot of preachers, because they just don’t enjoy preaching it (and often enjoy saying why they despise free grace.) I’m not saying they never say “Jesus died for you,” but it’s not a finished salvation given as a gift to sinners with nothing put empty hands. It is, as I usually hear it, something Jesus did that made salvation “possible.” Possible. If salvation is just “possible,” I’m toast. Burned on both sides.
If I can go to hell, I will. It’s that simple. (Sorry Catholic friends, but that’s what happens when you keep reading a thread like this. You should have turned back the first time I said “Luther.”) If Jesus closed hell by taking it upon himself for me and anyone else who believes, if hell has been conquered and sin/death defeated by the resurrected/reigning Jesus, then I can be saved. Because God does it and God promises it. (I’m enjoying the fact that I’m irritating some readers right now. See, the Gospel can be fun.)
What I hear in the pulpit is a lot of phrases like “get your priorities and values straight” or “do what pleases God.” This kind of talk can make some sense once we’ve been to the cross and understand the Gospel, but it is deadly if you put your hope in such efforts.
Remember this: Discipleship will put you in despair without the Gospel. Discipleship that’s rooted in law will just drive you into despair or Pharisaism. Discipleship needs to grow out of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit magnifying Jesus and the love of God.
You can recognize law preaching because it’s always full of references to the Bible being a “handbook for life,” full of principles for a successful life. If your Bible is just a handbook for life, throw it away.
The Bible is the story that delivers us the Gospel. It’s point is to get you to Jesus, the one mediator between God and man. It’s a big book to get you to a short message. You buy the whole field, but the treasure is the Gospel, not the book of Judges or financial principles from Proverbs. Once you have the Gospel right and you know what preaching is all about, then you can read and preach Leviticus or Malachi or whatever you want, as long as Jesus is in his proper place and the message is the Gospel, not the law, or the old covenant, or this week’s good advice.
I really think we have an army of preachers who think that people ought to come hear them “preach” about various life questions and issues. How to have a great family. How to get along at work. How to use money. How to discipline kids.
Why would I want a preacher to tell me anything about these things? Why are preachers talking about sex, politics and what Jesus wants you to eat? Can anyone admit that the preacher’s ego is often inflated to dangerous level when we let his/her advice about politics or parenting become legitimate material for preaching.
Preach the Gospel, brother. Then sit down, be quiet and let’s do something else. We can pray, sing or go eat. All good.
The Bible is about the Gospel. You are about the Gospel. Give me enough of the law to make the Gospel good news, though I’ll admit I’m not one of those people convinced that we need to try and recreate Bunyan’s conversion. I’m with Spurgeon on that one. Our job is to keep the Good News out there.
Law preaching demotes the preacher, often abuses the congregation, denies them the Gospel and offers a false hope in things like “getting serious about pleasing God.”
Law youth ministry is a waste of your time. If all you’re doing is trying to make kids behave, make good choices and buy into the church as a place to hang out, then by all means, get another job. Or be honest and just say you’re a moralistic therapeutic babysitter carrying out the wishes of the church to not have any kids make bad decisions.
What is ministry? Get them to the Gospel and Jesus, sister. Let Jesus decide if they need to be in jail or not.
In other words, it’s an unmitigated disaster unless the Gospel is heard louder, longer and much clearer than anything else.
I’d really like to apologize to anyone- and there are a lot of these people- who ever showed up at church and heard the “good news” that if they would take their talent and use it for the Lord, they’d be blessed. Or if they surrender their all to Jesus, they’ll be happy no matter what happens. Or if they will stop making excuses and get serious about following Jesus, they can please God.
Really, I apologize. We’ve got better news than that.
We’ve got the news that if everything sucks, asteroids hit the earth, you die, the economy tanks, no one at work likes you, Christians are jailed, your computer breaks and your kid turns out to be a lawyer, you still can’t stop the Good News of what God has done for you.
We’ve got the news that God has declared religion out of business. We’ve got the news that the church has nothing to offer or say except the Gospel, so that should simplify your search for a church. We’ve got the news that at the end of the world, there’s going to be a party for you and me, where we’re going to be embraced, loved and taken to the new heaven and the new earth completely on the free grace of God in Jesus.
We’ve got the news that the law has been satisfied and love is what remains. Faith, Hope and Love, and the greatest of these is Love, because we know who he is. Death has become resurrection. A world of hurt has become a new heaven and a new earth….in the GOSPEL.
Can we preach this please? My soul needs it and I am not alone.