The Pastor as preacher of Law and Gospel

Topic The pastor as preacher of law and gospelTime October 2016 Place APC, South Africa
So its down to the beach once again. This time I want to pick up what Paul says in Acts 20:25-27.

Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.

Paul said that he'd not hesitated to proclaim to the Ephesians the whole will of God. That declaration suggests he might have been tempted to preach something less than the whole will of God. It is worth thinking about. Are there things that we might be tempted to leave out of our preaching?
One way of putting this question is to ask whether we preach both Law and gospel (or law and grace we might say). I put it like that because in Protestant Christianity, Lutheran and Reformed, the relationship between God's Law and the gospel of Jesus Christ has long been a major topic.
In these traditions, the distinction between the doctrines of Law, which demands obedience to God's ethical will and gospel, which promises the forgiveness of sins in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ, it is seen as critical both as a hermeneutical principle for interpreting the Bible and as a guiding principle in homiletics (sermon composition) and pastoral care.
People often tend to think of it as a Lutheran thing but it is a standard formulation in Reformed theology as well. Ursinus sharply contrasted law and gospel as “the chief and general divisions of the holy scriptures” in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism and Berkhof in his Systematic Theology calls the law and the gospel “the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace.”
I think most evangelical and Reformed pastors tend to do it instinctively rather then consciously thinking each time they come to a passage, is this law or is it gospel?
Whatever may be the case it is certainly so that if we are to be biblical and effective preachers we should be preaching both gospel and law. There is usually little argument over that first part of the statement. Should pastors preach the gospel? Surely they definitely should. Aren't we called to be gospel preachers? Paul is to some extent a model for us and he is always talking about preaching the gospel. So in 1 Corinthians 1:17 he says Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel - not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. Or what about Acts 20:24 I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to the good news of God's grace.

Preacher of the gospel
The word gospel, of course, means good news. It is based on the Greek word evangel, which the New Testament Christians often used to refer to their message.
There is good news to be shared. In a sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:6, answering the question what it is to preach the gospel Spurgeon says To preach the gospel is to state every doctrine contained in God's Word, and to give every truth its proper prominence.” That is true to a certain extent but we can narrow down to the core of the message. The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia summarises

The central truth of the gospel is that God has provided a way of salvation for men through the gift of his son to the world. He suffered as a sacrifice for sin, overcame death, and now offers a share in his triumph to all who will accept it. The gospel is good news because it is a gift of God, not something that must be earned by penance or by self-improvement.

This is the good news or gospel that all pastors must preach. Everywhere we find it, not only in the New Testament but also as it is foreshadowed in the Old Testament. We are to preach it. In the sermon we mentioned before, Spurgeon said to ministers

Oh, minister of the gospel! stand for one moment and think of your poor fellow creatures! See them like a stream, rushing to eternity-millions flying to their endless home! See the termination of that stream, that tremendous waterfall which dashes streams of souls into the pit of hell! Oh, minister, remember that thousands of men and women are being damned each hour, and that each time your pulse beats another soul lifts up its eyes in hell, being in torments; think how men are speeding on their way to destruction, how “the love of many grows cold” and “iniquity abounds.” I say, don’t you feel compelled to preach? Is it not woe to you if you do not preach the gospel? … Take a walk one evening ... when the night has fallen, and darkness veils the people. Do you not see the prostitute hurrying on to her wicked work? Do you not see thousands and tens of thousands annually ruined? Up from the hospital and the asylum there comes a voice, “Woe to you if you do not preach the gospel.” Go to the prisons ... see the thieves who have for years spent their lives in sin. … A voice will come from each house of correction, from each prison ... saying, “Woe is to you if you do not preach the gospel.” … stop at the door of some place where there is heard the ringing of bells, chanting and music, but where the whore of Babylon has her sway, and lies are preached for truth; and when you reflect on this false religion of Roman Catholicism, let a voice come to you, “Minister woe is to you if you do not preach the gospel.” Or step into the conference hall of the infidel where he blasphemes your Maker's name; or sit in the theatre where lustful and immoral plays are acted out, and from all these haunts of vice there comes the voice, “Minister, woe is to you if you do not preach the gospel.” … Put your ear at hell’s gate, and for a little while listen to the mixed screams and shrieks of agony and complete despair; and as you come from that sad place with that mournful music still ringing in your ears, you will hear the voice, “Minister! minister! woe is to you if you do not preach the gospel.” Only let us have these things before our eyes, and we must preach. … Until the fiery centre of this earth will burst through the thick ribs of her brazen mountains, we will still preach the gospel; till the universal fire will dissolve the earth, and matter will be swept away, these lips, or the lips of … others called of God, will still thunder out ... We cannot help it. ...

That's how it should be with us.

Preacher of the law
But what about preaching the Law? Why should we preach the Law? Many modern evangelicals will tell you there is no reason to preach the Law any more. All that's over and we just have to preach the gospel and all will be well. There's a tendency to downplay the Law and proceed to a straight declaration of the gospel. The Law is not allowed to have its proper place. However, conviction of sin, while it does not guarantee conversion, is vital. This is where the road to possible conversion really begins. For this reason, proclaiming the Law of God is of high importance.
Some years ago Professor John Murray wrote that it is a primary task of an evangelist to bring the demands of law and gospel to bear on the conscience. “One of the most appalling defects of much present day evangelism” he says is a failure to proclaim and apply the Ten Commandments. It's as these commands are brought to bear on people's hearts and lives that the effect referred to by Paul (Rom 7:7, 9) is produced. “Only the sharp arrows of God's commandments” says Murray “can pierce the hearts of the King's enemies and only these can lay low the self-sufficiency of human pride.” It is through the law, applied to the conscience, that we become conscious of sin (Rom 3.20). Paul says, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I may live for God.” and, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, ...” (Gal 2:19, 3.24).
The commandments do the vital work of killing so that a person can come to true life in Christ. They discipline a man and take charge of him to bring him to Christ. Ole Hallesby says “we should never try to make ourselves believe that we can persuade anyone to believe in the gospel before, by the grace of God, we have helped him to believe in the law of God and his will and that he must do the will of God ….”.
This is the order then, first law then gospel. Calvin stresses how we need to be cast down “into complete consternation” for only this prepares us “to receive Christ's grace. For he who considers himself capable of enjoying it is deceived unless he has first humbled all haughtiness of mind. This is a well known passage, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
The seventeenth century Anglican divine Ezekiel Hopkins wrote that

Where the Law hath not wrought its convincing work with power upon the conscience, there the preaching of Jesus Christ will be altogether in vain. For, until a sinner be thoroughly convinced of his guilt and misery; and his conscience be awakened by the threats and terrors of the Law, that he stands forfeited to the justice of God, liable to eternal wrath, and may every moment be swallowed up in the abyss of woe and torments, into which thousands before him have been already plunged; it will be impossible to persuade him seriously to embrace those tenders of mercy, which the Gospel holds forth unto him by Jesus Christ.

Walt Chantry has written

Normal evangelical practice is swiftly to run to the cross of Christ. But the cross means nothing apart from the law. Our Lord’s wretched suffering must be tragic and senseless in the eyes of any who have no reverent esteem for the perfect commandments. On the cross Jesus was satisfying the just demands of the law against sinners. If sinners are unaware of the decalogue’s requirements for themselves, they will see no personal significance in Christ’s broken body and shed blood. Without knowledge of the condemnation of God’s holy law, the cross will draw sympathy but not saving faith from sinners. Christ was set forth to be a propitiation [Romans 3:25] — i.e., the substitutionary object of God’s wrath poured out against a violated law. …
Present-day preaching only pays lip service to the concept that a man must recognise himself to be a sinner before he can genuinely embrace the Saviour. The average witnessing booklet insists on the question, ‘Do you believe that all men are sinners?’ If there is any hesitation, you establish the point with, For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God [Romans 3:23]. But no definition of sin is included. There is scarcely a man alive, including the most hardened sinner, who will deny this broad statement. Anyone would answer, ‘Of course I am less holy than God. No one is perfect.’ ... But such is hardly an acknowledgement of sin. ….

In his Institutes Calvin distinguished three uses of the Law. Calvin wrote “To make the whole matter clearer, let us survey briefly the function and use of what is called the 'moral law.' Now, so far as I understand it, it consists of three parts.” He itemises them in this way

1. “While it shows God's righteousness ... it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness” (2.7.6).
2. It functions “by fear of punishment to restrain certain men who are untouched by any care for what is just and right unless compelled by hearing the dire threats in the law” (2.7.10).
3. “It admonishes believers and urges them on in well-doing” (2.7.12-13).

R C Sproul puts it like this

The first purpose of the law is to be a mirror. On the one hand, the law of God reflects and mirrors the perfect righteousness of God. The law tells us much about who God is. Perhaps more important, the law illumines human sinfulness. Augustine wrote, “The law orders, that we, after attempting to do what is ordered, and so feeling our weakness under the law, may learn to implore the help of grace.” The law highlights our weakness so that we might seek the strength found in Christ. Here the law acts as a severe schoolmaster who drives us to Christ.
A second purpose ... is the restraint of evil. The law, in and of itself, cannot change human hearts. It can, however, serve to protect the righteous from the unjust. … The law allows for a limited measure of justice on this earth, until the last judgement is realised.
The third … is to reveal what is pleasing to God. As born-again children of God, the law enlightens us as to what is pleasing to our Father, whom we seek to serve. The Christian delights in the law as God himself delights in it. Jesus said, If you love me, keep my commandments (John 14:15). This is the highest function of the law, to serve as an instrument for the people of God to give him honour and glory.

The third use is often objected to by Christians but even the first and second uses are often neglected. If these categories are correct there is every reason for preachers to preach the Law.
First, we ought to be holding up the mirror of the Law, that people may reflect on the perfect righteousness of God. People need to know what God is like. At the same time we need to see how sinful we are by nature. If people never see how weak and sinful they are, they are unlikely to seek the strength found in Christ. This is surely the biblical way to drive people to Christ.
Second, there is the restraint of evil. This is not the highest thing gospel preachers aim at but we would be foolish to ignore the way that it can protect the righteous from the unjust. Even if people who listen to us are not converted, at the very least there is the hope of restraining them from evil.
We ought not to forget either that the Law reveals what is pleasing to God. The converted are justified by faith. It is important that they also grow in holiness. The law, if preached, will enlighten us as to what pleases our heavenly Father and how to serve him. We need to instruct people what it is that pleases God. We will often discover that in the Law.

Preacher of Law and gospel
The pattern of three uses for the law perhaps raises the question of whether the gospel has more than one use. Taking the law as a pattern perhaps we can say preaching the gospel has three uses.

1. To show us something more of the character of God. Here we see his love and kindness and the way he has provided a way for sinners to be saved. Unbelievers need to hear this message. They need to know how to be saved.
2. Perhaps, the restraint of evil. Just hearing the gospel preached will not save anyone. Hearing it, however, can have a good effect even on unbelievers, drawing them from sin. We aim higher than that but it has this tendency, perhaps.
3. A reminder to Christians of their salvation and of the greatness of the God who brings it about. The argument is sometimes used that there is no point majoring on the gospel because all the people present are already converted but believers need to hear it too. Peter Jeffery has written

Christians need the gospel too, and pastors need to preach it regularly. Yes, the gospel is that which will save lost sinners; but it’s also this alone that will restore backsliders and deepen the love of committed Christians for their Saviour. The warmth of the gospel is the greatest tool to make believers more useful in the life of the church. … Whether we’ve been saved for two weeks or twenty years, we all need to hear regularly the message of the cross and the grace and love of God in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. Why? Because everything else in the Christian life flows out of it and depends upon it for freshness and vitality. This is why there’s nothing more thrilling to believers than to hear the gospel preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. ….

One writer (Terry Rayburn) objects to all this. He gives three counter arguments

1. All men already know in their hearts the moral law of God, and they know that they are sinners against God, and they suppress that truth in unrighteousness.
2. The Law has no power for salvation. But the Gospel does.
3. There are no NT commands, nor NT examples for preaching the Law before the Gospel.

It is true that all men have some idea of the Law (the requirements of the Law are written n their hearts). Their consciences are fallen, however, and do not operate as they should. It is part of the preacher's task to get under the skin and drive home the law that people by nature seek to resist.
It is true that the Law cannot convert anyone but, as we have seen, it has its place and must be preached. Galatians 2:19, 20 says that it was through the law that Paul died to the law so that he might live for God. When he says I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, he is talking about the killing work of the Law. Of course, when it says but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me he is talking about gospel's power. The Law can't save but it has its place in the preacher's armoury.
As for the argument that there are no New Testament commands or examples of preaching the Law before the gospel there are Scriptures like Romans 3:20, Romans 7:7 and Galatians 3:21-24

no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. … What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. … Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.

Luke 18:18-30
Further, when we consider how Jesus deals with the rich young ruler it becomes very clear that preaching the law ought to have an honoured place in our preaching. The story is in all three ‘synoptic’ Gospels and each time it follows the same incidents. Luke 18:18-30 reads

A certain ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life. "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good - except God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.'" "All these I have kept since I was a boy," he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Those who heard this asked, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus replied, "What is impossible with man is possible with God." Peter said to him, "We have left all we had to follow you!" "Truly I tell you," Jesus said to them, "no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life."

The story is interesting from many points of view, especially the contrast between how Jesus deals with this young man and how many Christians today might go about dealing with this enquiry from an obviously very keen fellow. I want you to see how Jesus preaches the Law to him.
In England it's rare to get someone approaching us eager to know what must I do to inherit eternal life? I'm not sure about in South Africa. Even in Jesus’s day it was far from being an everyday event. However, let’s imagine how an evangelist or pastor today might deal with the situation today.
Here comes this well-dressed, clean-cut young man, full of enthusiasm. Good teacher, he says what must I do to inherit eternal life? ‘Well young man’ says the evangelist or pastor ‘God has a wonderful plan for your life. If you admit you're a sinner and accept Jesus into your heart as your personal Saviour then you'll be saved.’ ‘Oh’ says the man ‘I know we’re all sinners and I do want to accept Jesus into my heart.’ ‘Then say this prayer with me’ and he will take him through a prayer saying sorry for sin and asking Jesus to come into his heart. Hey presto the man is saved – or is he?
I’m sure not all evangelists and pastors are so shallow but how many are like Jesus in how he deals with this young man? If we were confronted by a similar situation – how would we deal with it?
I’m sure that if it wasn’t Jesus some people would be quite quick to criticise his approach here. Here comes a man full of enthusiasm and instead of accepting him with open arms he starts picking him up on what he’s said. There is no ‘God has a wonderful plan’ or ‘Accept me into your heart’ or even ‘Put your faith in me’ just a list of rules he must keep. Then there’s this crazy thing about selling everything he has and giving it all to the poor. To cap it all, he actually sends the man away very despondent without praying with him or getting him to decide for Jesus or anything of that sort. We're not told whether the man ever came to faith. In just a few moments Jesus seems to have turned a golden opportunity into a great failure. What can be the explanation? Well, let’s look at just what is said here by the rich young ruler and by Jesus himself.
1. A great question, a discouraging but purposeful answer and a law-stressing statement. The question is ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ We know from elsewhere that this man was rich. We're guessing he was fairly young. He was also a ruler, some sort of civil magistrate. No doubt he'd heard Jesus preach and knew something about him. His burning question was how he could inherit eternal life. What did he have to do? Literally his question is ‘Having done what will I inherit eternal life?’ He sincerely wants to know what he needed to do to be sure of everlasting life.
Now Jesus’s response is rather unexpected. Instead of welcoming this enquiry with open arms he picks the man up on something he's said – something seemingly quite incidental. The different evangelists report it slightly different ways but they agree that the issue is this word good. Luke records Jesus’s words thus (19) Why do you call me good?… No-one is good - except God alone. It seems a little finicky. What's the point? The point is that the man really needs to think about what goodness consists of. It is to do with God – something that our English words bring out. This man had an idea there was something he could do to save himself. He needed to see the only way he could be good was through God and this good teacher as he calls him was not just good but God, God come in the flesh. Jesus is not being pernickity but points to a vital truth this man hadn't seen.
Then instead of all the expected stuff about giving your heart to Jesus, trusting in him, etc, comes this reminder of the Ten Commandments. You think – wow is this the best approach? It’s a little like watching a surgeon sticking the scalpel in. It looks brutal but he knows what he's doing. Jesus doesn’t mention them all but he covers the second five in no particular order. 20 You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother. We are not saved by keeping the Law of God and so people jump to the conclusion that we don’t need to say anything about it. One of the purposes of the Law is to convince of our sins. It’s easy to say ‘Yes, I’m a sinner’ but that needs to be fleshed out and understood properly. We need people to see they are lawbreakers who deserve to be punished.
2. An honest but naïve declaration, a penetrating observation and a soul-searching command. The rich young ruler responds (21) All these I have kept since I was a boy. We can say two things about this answer. First, it was honest. This man knew God’s Law, he'd been brought up with it. When he learned to speak some of the earliest words he learned were to do with the Law. When he learned to read some of the first words he read were from God’s Law. From earliest days he'd tried to keep the law as best he knew how. In some ways that was part of his difficulty. Here he was trying to keep the Law and, as far as he could tell doing okay, yet he wasn’t sure if he was saved.
The rich young ruler was honest but also rather naïve. Yes, many of us can go through the Law in a rather superficial way thinking we're not doing too badly but do you know what the Law actually says? Look at the commandments again. We need to show people that simply not to have committed adultery is not enough. There's such a things as adultery of the heart and mind. Similarly, the command about murder is against all hatred. The fifth command is not just about your parents. Even as adults we can be rebellious against the God-ordained powers that be.
22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, You still lack one thing. Jesus always had a very personal and appropriate way of putting things. It’s like a good doctor. A good doctor doesn’t listen five minutes then rattle of a one size fits all prescription. He listens carefully, discerns, then prescribes. Think of an old-fashioned tailor. He makes it fit. He doesn't say ‘You’ve got it all wrong. You’ve misunderstood.’ Rather he puts it in terms the man will grasp. We need to learn to do that. ‘Look, you’re doing okay’ he said ‘but the reason why you're not sure you have eternal life is because you need one thing more.’ Now the next bit will be different for different people but for all who don't know eternal life there is a sense in which we need just one thing more.
Now the next bit came a quite a shock I’m sure. When you first read it, it is just as shocking. ‘What’s the one thing extra I need?’ You can imagine the man thinking – Go to the Temple more often, make certain sacrifices, give up wine, a large donation, fast for a certain number of days? Any of those or even all together he would have gladly done if he could be sure he had eternal life.
So Jesus said to this man – and he said it to him not everyone: Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. There are three things then –
  • Sell everything you have. It seems so extreme but that’s what Jesus says.
  • And give to the poor. It's not enough to do something negative. There must be a positive good. Some people think they can find eternal life just by self-denial – being poor, fasting, going without.
  • Then come, follow me. Don’t miss this vital bit. You can give away every penny you own and give all of it to the poor. You can spend all your time seeking to help the needy but if you won’t come and follow Jesus Christ then you'll not know eternal life. Eternal life is impossible without him. These other things are designed simply to enable you to follow him. This making him your Lord and God is the vital thing, what really matters above all else.
The rich young ruler thought he was keeping the commandments but he wasn’t. Money was his god and he was guilty of breaking the tenth commandment (not mentioned by Jesus) – do not covet. He was greedy which, of course, is idolatry. Desperate cases demand desperate remedies. When the ship is going down then best throw everything overboard. If there is anything at all standing between a person and unreserved, unconditional, whole-hearted and unfettered devotion to Christ then it must go – whatever it cost. I sometimes say in response to the question ‘What must I give up to become a Christian?’ And my answer is ‘everything!’.
3. A despondent response and a significant remark. Consider the despair God’s Law brings. 23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. He'd been like a ship in full sail – he'd been full of enthusiasm. But now he's becalmed. The steaming train has suddenly come to a halt. The noisy and enthusiastic enquirer turns into a sad and silent mourner. What? Give up everything? He hadn’t banked on this. How he loved his wealth. To give up everything to follow Jesus. What a demand!
Consider how hard it is to enter God’s kingdom. 24, 25 Jesus looked at him and said, How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus is full of sympathy but he is not surprised. What a lure riches are. How many have been drawn away from Christ by riches. Not just riches of course. Some are lured by a lust for power or for fame –riches of a less material sort. Jesus doesn’t just say it is hard for the rich to be saved but impossible. People try all sorts of ways to water down his illustration but it's best to take it as it reads. He is saying it is impossible for the rich to be saved. The answer to that conundrum comes shortly after.
4. An incredulous question and a wise answer. Hearing Jesus say that it was hard for the rich to be saved people around him, who were mostly poor, say Who then can be saved? That may sound strange to our ears as the gospel has made such an impact that we are used to thinking of things in a different way but then riches were almost universally thought desirable. The reasoning is, if it is hard for the rich to be saved what hope for poor people like us? No doubt this man was thinking in a similar way ‘If I have to sell everything, how on earth can I be saved?’.
Finally, hear these wonderful words (27) What is impossible with men is possible with God That's the answer: God does it not us. Realising that makes all the difference. We save no-one. He does it all.


A final footnote on this subject is to say that one of the strange things about conviction of sin is that even the gospel can sound like law to the person whose conscience has been awakened. It is the duty of preachers, nevertheless, to uphold and proclaim the whole counsel of God.