My Rant for the Month: Preach Christ!

Yesterday I listened to a sermon on the topic of morality by a local pastor of a large church and it was all law and no gospel. Christ wasn’t even mentioned, not even in the prayer of application. It was really sad to me to think that all those people went to Church and didn’t hear Christ proclaimed or even mentioned by name in the preaching and prayer of application. It reminds me of something that Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse once said. Over a half century ago Barnhouse asked what a city might look like where Satan had really taken control? And he offered his own scenario. Barnhouse speculated that “if Satan took over a city, all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday . . . where Christ is not preached.”

We NEED Christ proclaimed EVERY week from the pulpit. We NEED to hear the gospel in EVERY sermon or it causes us to become either self-righteous proud Pharisees or to despair and burn out. But when we hear Christ proclaimed, his life, death, resurrection, ascension, session and return, it frees us up to truly love God and others out of gratitude and not fear. It humbles us and strengthens us. And when we are called to depend on the Spirit’s strength through Word, sacrament, and prayer, we give God all the glory from beginning to end! Pastors, myself included, preach Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 1:20-24; 2:2; Col. 1:28; John 5:39; Luke 24:25-27, 44; John 8:56; Col. 2:1-3)! If your pastor doesn’t preach Christ and Gospel-driven, Spirit-wrought sanctification, be warned, you might be a Pharisee or on the brink of despair. Who cares about church programs if Christ isn’t being preached?! The gospel is the power of God for salvation, from beginning to end, for everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16)!

In light of Reformation weekend coming up, that’s my rant for the month. Here I stand!

(Click on the above image to check out the best book out there on preaching Christ from all the Scriptures)

Just Say No! To the Golawspel

When you confuse the law and the gospel you get the theological error known as the “golawspel” (Kim Riddlebarger’s term).  I want to encourage you to “just say no” to this confusion.  The law-gospel distinction is a hot topic on a few blogs, and since I mentioned this in my catechetical sermon this past Lord’s Day, I thought I would share a few thoughts, and allow for Zacharias Ursinus to chime in as well.

To begin with, I preached on Lord’s Day 6 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Questions 16-18 deal with the question, “Why does Jesus satisfy God’s justice as our only mediator?”  The answer is because he meets three qualifications: He is true man, righteous man, and true God.  He had to be all three in order to be our mediator and deliver us from our sins and misery.  Question 19 then asks, “From where do you know this?”  i.e. “From where do you know your mediator?”  It is a question that parallels question 3, “From where do you know your misery?”  The catechism tells us in question 3 that we know our misery “from the law of God.”  Here in question 19 the catechism tells us that we know our mediator “from the Holy Gospel.”  The parallel nature of these two questions popped out at me for the first time.  I was pretty excited about the alliteration of misery and mediator as a mnemonic device as well.

Now I had always known that the law-gospel distinction was built into our catechism (guilt, grace gratitude=law, gospel, law), but I never realized just how explicit it was.  Then I checked out Ursinus’ commentary on Lord’s Day 6 and he makes it even more explicit.  Ursinus himself, one of the chief authors of the catechism, makes the connection between questions 3 and 19 when he says,

“This question corresponds with the third question of the Catechism, where it is asked: Whence knowest thou thy misery? Out of the law of God. So it is here asked: Whence knowest thou thy deliverance? Out of the gospel.  Having, therefore, spoken of the Mediator, we must now speak of the doctrine which reveals, describes, and offers him unto us–which doctrine is the Gospel.”

I don’t see how anyone can say that the law-gospel distinction is solely a Lutheran concept and absent from Reformed theology.  The distinction between the law and the gospel is built into the structure of our Reformed catechism.  Ursinus, one of its primary authors, even says it’s there.  He then goes on for a few pages explaining the gospel.  One thing of note is when he says, “The gospel is, therefore, the doctrine which the Son of God, our Mediator, revealed from heaven in Paradise, immediately after the fall” (p. 101).  Notice, the gospel wasn’t published before the fall, but after.

Ursinus then comes to the question, “In What Does the Gospel Differ From the Law?”  Here is what Ursinus has to say:

1. In the revelations which they contain; or, as it respects the manner in which the revelation peculiar to each is made known.  The law was engraven upon the heart of man in his creation, and is therefore known to all naturally, although no other revelation were given.  “The Gentiles have the work of the law written in their hearts (Rom. 2:15).” The gospel is not know naturally, but is divinely revealed to the Church alone through Christ, the Mediator.  For no creature could have seen or hoped for that mitigation of the law concerning the satisfaction for our sins through another, if the Son of God had not revealed it.

2. In the kind of doctrine, or subject peculiar to each.  The law teaches us what we ought to be, and what God requires of us, but it does not give us the ability to perform it, nor does it point out the way by which we may avoid what is forbidden.  But the gospel teaches us in what manner we may be made such as the law requires: for it offers unto us the promise of grace, by having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us through faith, and that in such a way as if it were properly ours, teaching us that we are just before God, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  The law says, “Pay what thou owest.”  “Do this, and live” (Matt. 18:28; Luke 10:28).  The gospel says, “Only believe” (Mark 5:36).

3. In the promises.  The law promises life to those who are righteous in themselves, or on the condition of righteousness, and perfect obedience.  “He that doeth them, shall live in them.”  “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Lev. 18:5; Matt. 19:17).  The gospel, on the other hand, promises life to those who are justified by faith in Christ, or on the condition of the righteousness of Christ, applied unto us by faith.  The law and the gospel are, however, not opposed to each other in these respects: for although the law requires us to keep the commandments if we would enter into life, yet it does not exclude us from life if another perform these things for us.

4. They differ in their effects.  The law, without the gospel, is the letter which killeth, and is the ministration of death: “For by the law is the knowledge of sin.”  “The law worketh wrath; and the letter killeth” (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 2Cor. 3:6).  The outward preaching, and simple knowledge of what ought to be done, is known through the letter: for it declares our duty, and that righteousness which God requires; and, whilst it neither gives us the ability to perform it, nor points out the way through which it may be attained, it finds fault with, and condemns our righteousness.  But the gospel is the ministration of life, and of the Spirit, that is, it has the operations of the Spirit united with it, and quickens those that are dead in sin, because it is through the gospel that the Holy Spirit works faith and life in the elect. “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). (pp. 104-5).

I think Ursinus makes things pretty clear on what the difference between the law and the gospel is.

However, before I conclude this post I just want to say a few clarification points.  Although we speak of the law as showing us our misery, this isn’t meant to encourage us to have a negative view of the law.  I know that some critics of the law-gospel distinction have said that we at Westminster West only speak of the law in negative terms.  Perhaps we have given this impression, but we don’t mean to.  The law is indeed good (Rom. 7:7, 13; Gal. 3:21-22).  How can it not be good?  It is a reflection of God’s holiness and perfection.  To say something bad about the law is to say something bad about God.  The law is not bad.  We are bad.  But it is precisely because we are bad and that there is nothing good in us whereby we might attain the righteousness that we need to be saved, that we need to highlight the difference between the law and the gospel.  If we don’t then we are in danger of losing the gospel and our only hope of salvation.

Secondly, there are various ways in which theologians have used the terms “law” and “gospel.”  We must be patient with one another and be clear on which way we are using these terms.  When we speak of the law-gospel distinction we are speaking of the difference between two ways of inheriting eternal life, works vs. faith (cf. Phil. 3:9).  Hopefully we can all at least agree that one is saved by grace alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9).  For more on how the terms law and gospel are used in different contexts see this post: The 411 on the LGD.

Finally, we don’t only speak of the law as showing us our misery.  The law does more than just show us our misery.  The Reformed have always spoken of three uses of the law.  The first use is it’s “pedagogical” use.  It is a tutor which leads us to Christ.  The first use of the law is what is in mind in the law-gospel distinction.  The second use is its “civil” use.  In it’s civil use, the law serves to restrain sin in society.  The third use of the law is what we call it’s “normative” use.  That is to say that it is the norm of the Christian life.  It is our rule of love.  It no longer threatens us with its curses because Jesus bore our curse (Gal. 3:10-14).  Therefore, as Christians, we no longer hear the law as a terrifying thunder outside of us.  We are being transformed now from the inside out and the law has become our inner disposition of love for God and neighbor.  This is why our Heidelberg Catechism contains the 10 commandments in the gratitude section of the catechism.  More specifically the structure of our catechism is guilt-grace-gratitude=law (1st use)-grace-law (3rd use).

I hope this clears a few things up for a few of you reading this.  My prayer is that we might find greater unity on this topic and preach unequivocally the good news of the gospel, for God’s glory, the comfort of His people, and the salvation of the lost.  “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16).

The Law of God is Good and Wise

I recently preached a sermon based on Lord’s Day 2 of the Heidelberg Catechism which asks:
3. From where do you know your misery?
From the Law of God.

4. What does the Law of God require of us?

Christ teaches us in sum, Matthew 22: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

5. Can you keep all this perfectly?

No, for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.

I just stumbled across the hymn “The Law of God is Good and Wise” for the first time.  It captures much of what I said in my sermon:

The law of God is good and wise,
And sets His will before our eyes,
Shows us the way of righteousness,
And dooms to death when we transgress.

Its light of holiness imparts
The knowledge of our sinful hearts,
That we may see our lost estate
And seek deliverance ere too late.

To those who help in Christ have found
And would in works of love abound
It shows what deeds are His delight
And should be done as good and right.

When men the offered help disdain
And willfully in sin remain,
Its terror in their ear resounds
And keeps their wickedness in bounds.

The law is good, but since the fall
Its holiness condemns us all;
It dooms us for our sin to die
And has no power to justify.

To Jesus we for refuge flee,
Who from the curse has set us free,
And humbly worship at His throne,
Saved by His grace through faith alone.

It’s important that we recognize this “first use of the law,” which the Reformers called the “pedagogical use.”  The law functions in this use as a tutor to lead us to Christ.  It shows us our guilt and the punishment we deserve, and consequently our need for a Savior (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:24).

Christ has already fulfilled the law on our behalf and paid the penalty for our sins on the cross.  Because of his life and death we are forgiven of our sins and receive his righteousness by faith alone (Gal. 3:10-14; Eph. 2:8-9).  This is the good news of the gospel, we are saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.

But it doesn’t end there, we are then called to walk in newness of life in thankfulness to God by living according to his commandments.  This is why the Heidelberg Catechism is divided into three parts: guilt, grace and gratitude (in other words, law, gospel, law).  Once we have been led to Christ by the law and have trusted in his completed work (the gospel), we then look to the law not to merit salvation, but as a guide for how to live the Christian life.  The law can no longer condemn us, but it still commands us.

The Reformers called this the “third use of the law” or the “normative use.”  In its third use, it functions as “the rule of love,” (1 Jn. 5:3) namely how we are to love God and live a life that is pleasing to him as a response to grace as we are enabled to by the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:27; Eph. 2:10).

Let us never confuse the law and the gospel and let us always remember that the law of God is good and wise in all of its uses.

You can listen to the sermon, entitled “Exposed by the Law” here.