The Law and Gospel Matrix
Why not all law and gospel sermons are created equally
By Matthew J. Garnett
Believe it or not pastors, your laymen do listen to your sermons, especially if they are truck drivers. The wonderful part about driving trucks is that I get to listen to sermons, lectures, and podcasts all day long. Some are good, some bad, and everything in between. With plenty of time in the truck, I began thinking about what makes a sermon, lecture, or podcast “good” or “bad”. Thus, was born my “Law and Gospel Matrix”. This I think explains why good preaching and teaching is “good”. It also explains why not all that claims to be “law and gospel” preaching is actually “law and gospel” preaching and is in fact “bad”.
The “Law Matrix” – Preaching the Law in Its Full Sternness
Does the pastor tailor his sermons toward each use of the law?
As we know, the law has three functions. The best sermons are those that preach all three functions. Men who purposefully tailor their preaching to serve these functions deliver superior sermons to those who simply “leave the use of the law to the Holy Spirit”. To be sure, I understand that while a pastor can direct his law preaching say toward instruction (“third use”), that can and will be taken by the hearer also as accusation (“second use”). However, the preacher is being sloppy if he thinks a statement like, “You’re all murderous adulterers” is going to meaningfully instruct his people. Indeed, because the law always accuses as Melanchthon teaches in the Confessions, a pastor should take extra care to craft his law preaching as to clearly warn his people of the dangers of sin (“first use”) and to instruct people in the way of the Lord (“third use”). If he is inattentive to this in his sermon preparation, the people are sure to only hear the accusation of the law, effectively eliminating the law in its full sternness. (I am indebted to Pastor Holger Sonntag for this analysis.)
First Use Preaching – Does the pastor warn of possible temporal and eternal punishments of sin?
This question has two parts. Good sermons or lectures should speak of how sin wreaks destruction both on the individual sinner as well as harming everyone near to him. Secondly, the pastor should be warning his people that if they persist in such sin that this is both harmful to one’s soul and can end in a loss of faith resulting in damnation.
This a difficult area in which to preach, but it is the kind of preaching which brings about genuine contrition leading to faith. If a pastor avoids this very clear teaching from Holy Scripture and our Confessions, a false comfort can settle upon his people. It will also cause his gospel preaching to suffer. Without any genuine threat of the law, sinful men will see no real need for the gospel.
Second Use Preaching – Does the pastor show you your sin through his preaching?
Problems to look out for here include the obfuscation of original sin as well as abstracting actual sin. One very famous Lutheran pastor, speaking on original sin in one of his podcasts asserted that anytime Christians try to be good people in accord with the commands of Scripture, they are re-enacting Adam’s fall. Because only God is good, he reasoned, to try and be good is trying to be like God. Thus, for this man, trying to be good is the essence of original sin. I’ve observed variations on this theme as well from other preachers and obviously, it is wrong.
You will also find men who attempt to soften original sin because they are fearful about harming anyone’s self-esteem. This is usually followed by the pastor speaking of sin, but speaking of it in the abstract. Rarely will he mention specific sins. These are what can be termed as the “You’re All Sinners” sermons and clearly, they are bad sermons. Good second use preaching will leave the congregation with no doubt about their sin, both original and actual.
Third Use Preaching – Does the pastor instruct you in the law and tell you that you can obey?
There seems to be an aversion, especially among Lutheran pastors, to preaching and teaching the law as both something that should be obeyed and something that can be obeyed by the baptized and regenerate Christian. Of course, these men will affirm that we love the law because it accuses us and turns us to Christ, but sometimes the notion that we love God’s law because it instructs us and tell us how to live is missing. Good preaching has both. Good third use preaching should instruct Christians in how to live according to God’s commands.
Is the pastor preaching the law or is he merely preaching about the effects of the law?
For a preacher to assert, “The law always accuses you and damns you to hell”, while true, is not a preaching of the law. It is a preaching of the effects of the law. While this should be preached, if that’s all a man preaches, he’s not actually preaching the law. Proper law preaching should sound like our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount and like St. Paul in Ephesians chapter five. (I am indebted to Dr. Benjamin Mayes for this analysis.) Strong third use preaching will be very specific in its instruction and teach you that not only should you obey, but indeed that you can and must obey.
The “Gospel Matrix” – Preaching the gospel in its full sweetness
Freed from Sin by Forgiveness – Does the pastor preach the forgiveness of sins and the freedom from sin?
This aspect of the gospel has two parts. One is the declaration of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. The other is the freedom of the Christian from the power of sin. This ties into third use. As the preacher is teaching you that you in fact can obey God’s law, here he teaches you why you can obey. A good preacher will emphasize here how we have a new, free will in Christ that can and does cooperate with the Holy Spirit in Christian living. This is our freedom in Christ: both that we are freed from the law and its accusations and that we are now freed from being obligated to sin to now being able to do good. Good gospel preaching will include both elements.
Freed from Death to Life – Does the pastor preach on “physical, eternal, and spiritual” death and the life won for us because of Christ?
Here we want to see the preacher comfort us that we will be raised physically from the dead in the resurrection. We also want to hear him comfort us with the truth that Christ took the punishment we deserved for our sin. He took our eternal death in his bitter suffering on the cross. Also, we want to hear how the Holy Spirit, in word and sacrament, deliver us from unbelief to faith in the gospel; how it is that we are delivered from “spiritual death” to “spiritual life”.
Freed from the Devil to Salvation – Does the preacher speak of being transferred from a son of Satan to being a son of the Father because Christ has taken our sin and given us His righteousness?
This is perhaps one of the most comforting aspects of the Gospel. Not only are our sins forgiven in the gospel, we have been given the very righteousness of God in Christ. The Devil is no longer our Father. We have been adopted into the family of God because of Christ. God is now no longer our judge. He is our loving Father.
As you use the matrix to evaluate preaching and teaching, remember that a man may not always hit each one of these points in a single sermon. However, each one of these aspects should be thematic within his body of work. If he always emphasizes second use but never is exhorting and teaching his people in the law, this indicates a potential problem. The problem may be that he has simply been negligent and doesn’t realize his law and gospel preaching is deficient. The problem might, unfortunately, be that he rejects what our Confessions teach on these matters and is simply hoping that he’ll never be found out. My desire is that you, dear fellow layman, can make utility of my “Law and Gospel Matrix” to the end of helping you, your congregation, and your pastor from falling into manifest error.
Matthew is husband to Jennifer and father to Isaac and Amelia. He lives in Ft. Wayne, Indiana where he and his family attend Redeemer Lutheran Church. Matthew makes his living driving trucks and enjoys hosting the “In Layman’s Terms” podcast and writing for “The Federalist” as hobbies on the side.