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 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.
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
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?’.