Preaching law and the Gospel. Do you dare?
Herein I am addressing the matter of confession. That is, what is being done when the preacher is making a public witness to the world of the one, holy Catholic Church’s proclamation of, and faith in Christ. Just as Paul said: “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The Scripture says, ‘no one who believes in him will be put to shame.” [Isaiah 28:16; Romans 10:10]
The goal of a confession is to be confessed. That is, to give the free word of God in Christ, gratis, as a promise without any strings attached. Such confession comes, “in these last days of this transitory world: God has time and space we know not of, and gives this as a new creation and new time—by your preaching through the office of the ministry.” So, what time is it when you come to preach? God’s final judgment and so Day of Wrath has already come, and you were found guilty of killing God. You can’t go back and undo that. It is historical.
But then God ups and does a new thing apart from the law. Who would have thought it! A new history! We call this time of preaching, “mercy time,” where you stand guilty and yet are declared just in such a way to actually make you right. In relation to God in the new kingdom you are just, not in yourself but in relation to Christ who gives all.
God does this, elects sinners to eternal life through men in the preaching office. That is, we leave “if… then,” conditional speaking and move to “because… therefore” speech that is categorical. “On account of Christ your sins are forgiven.”
The brightest light we have from the Lutheran Confessions for doing this is the distinction of law and the Gospel. “The distinction between law and gospel is a particularly glorious light. It serves to divide God’s Word properly and to explain correctly and make understandable the writings of the holy prophets and apostles. Therefore, we must diligently preserve this distinction, so as not to mix these two teachings together and make the gospel into a law. For this obscures the merit of Christ and robs troubled consciences of the comfort that they otherwise have in the holy gospel when it is preached clearly and purely. With the help of this distinction these consciences can sustain themselves in their greatest spiritual struggles against the terror of the law.“ (FC V. 581.1)
This comes especially from Luther’s re-discovery of Paul’s distinction in 2 Cor. 3 that, “the letter kills and the Spirit gives life,” is a literal truth! God actually does this. He kills and raises the dead to new life.
Typically the church has mucked this up. Every text was understood to be time-bound and must have a relevant meaning released for people who come afterward. Once it was allegory. Every text tells a story of the past, but hidden in its words is a lesson for you, usually tropological, this is what God wants you to do. Now it is, “meant/means.” Once it meant this, but times have changed, and now it means that.
Instead we confess that God creates a new kingdom by the preached word. We call this, “doing the text” to hearers, whose wills are bound against hearing, rather than turning hearers into moral agents. That is:
“Law and Gospel are rightly divided in preaching when the sermon is not primarily didactic, but rather something that claims the listener on God’s behalf… Christ is really present in preaching! Hence, preachers need to be bold enough to give Christ to their hearers. Preachers are tempted to give the text a moral – translating it into our terms or allegorizing it in order to offer us something to do. We miss Luther’s insight that it is the Scripture that interprets us. Preachers need to read the pericopes so as to allow themselves to be exegeted by them and then preach in a fashion that allows the text to do its deed to the hearers.” (Gerhard O. Forde, The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament)
This means further that the direction of action is key, from God to us is key. Or, to use four rules of grammar:
a) When Christ is preached he is the subject of every verb.
b) The hearer is the direct object, “for you.”
c) The promise (what Christ is doing for us) is identified and given unconditionally.
d) And the Gospel is present tense. “here and now,” not, “one day, perhaps our prince will come.”
The great fly in the ointment for preachers is the danger preachers see in freedom. This comes because preachers think they are speaking to free wills rather than bound wills. First fear in their parishioners. What if they actually began to act freely, might I then either loose control or they would use it as an excuse to do nothing? Then nothing would improve and I will live my whole life in a leper colony! Then fear in themselves. What if what I am saying actually works? What if the Holy Spirit does what he is promised to do? Kill and make alive. Then I too would come under the Spirit’s operation, suffer and die, even for my very preaching of this word?
What do scared preachers do? Put the breaks on and make everything first a gift, then a carefully managed demand, i.e., “If Jesus did this for you the least you can do is…”
Practically speaking, ask, “What happened when God’s word went out in this text?” That means first that you have no other responsibility in your sermon than to deal with God’s own word in Scripture. Your illustrations are manure in comparison. Manure can help, but it isn’t the plant! God’s own words are the things. Look for what happened in the text that caused God’s words to be left, resisted, contorted, unbelieved [the fight against the words by bound wills] [I find it helpful to take a text and anticipate your own fear by turning everything into a legal requirement first] Then locate what God did with such sinners, i.e., locate the judgment (working of the law) and/or promise. Then, prepare to make this a present event. Give it “for you,” don’t just talk about it.
Do you dare? Are you that free? Can you let go an unconditional word of God in Christ and watch God work the end of the law in us, while in Christ he makes all-in-all so that we have no other God than this man, Jesus, and no other freedom than a death like his and a resurrection like his? I double dare you to go out into the world and confess like that, and watch the Holy Spirit elect sinners through you in ways you thought were impossible, for what is impossible for you is quite possible for the God who gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall be saved.