Christian preaching isn’t a math equation. As a Christians pastor, I want to see my sheep and even myself abound in good works, but, again, Christian preaching isn’t a math equation. It’s not L + G + l = C. Where L is “preaching of the Law”, G is “preaching of the Gospel”, l is “little bit more law” (this variable can also be expressed with “e”, i.e. exhortation), and C is “the Christian acting the right way.” Proper Christian preaching is a constant dynamic of declaring both Law and Gospel to the Christian.
Christian preaching is not some sort of formula whereby I put in the proper proportions of L, G, and e to get the desired outcome. If one formula doesn’t work, maybe I’ll another: 3L + 1/2G + 4e, 1/2L + 4G + 2e, or whatever other values you can come up with. Christian preaching is the bold declaration of “thus says the LORD.” Within Holy Scripture this “thus says the LORD” takes on my twofold nature: Law and Gospel.
Law: the Lord says, “Do this: love your neighbor as yourself”; the Lord says, “Don’t do this: bear false testimony against your neighbor”; the Lord says, “Saints should speak kindly to one another and not about one another behind their back.” The Law demands, rebukes, convicts, and exhorts. For, as Paul says, “But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.” (1 Tim. 1:8-11)
Gospel: the Lord says, “Jesus loved His neighbor as Himself”; the Lord says, “Jesus never bore false testimony against His neighbor, in fact, He took false testimony against Himself”; the Lord says, “Jesus never gossiped about His neighbor”; the Lord says, “All that Jesus did He did for you and in your place, swapping out your unrighteousness for His righteousness.” More concretely, the Lord, through St. Paul, says, “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5) and “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’)” (Gal. 3:13), and through Isaiah the Lord says, “Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:4–5).
Christian preaching, like that of St. Paul, preaches “Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23–24). This preaching takes place by “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), i.e., in terms of Law and Gospel for “The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up” (1 Sam. 2:6), and He puts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly (Lk. 1:52). To preach Christ crucified properly both Law and Gospel are needed. The condemning, demanding, and curbing Law must be preached. The consoling, freeing, and faith-imparting Gospel must be preached. Without the Law the Gospel is meaningless, viz., that Christ has been crucified and raised for you is utterly gutted and meaningless without the Law. Without the Gospel the Law will flay and torment souls, viz., without the preaching of Christ’s death and resurrection for you the Law’s accusations are never silenced even unto eternity.
The distinction between these two messages of God must be kept most diligently. “We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction of the Law and the Gospel, as a most brilliant light, must be retained in the Church with singular diligence so that the Word of God, according to the admonition of St. Paul, may be rightly divided” (EP V.2). This is not just done by way of order, but also by way of predominance. C.F.W. Walther said, “The Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching” (Law and Gospel, Thesis XXV). This, again, is not in a formulaic sense. The preaching of the Gospel, again, is not a formula or equation.
The following is not a proper way of understanding Law-Gospel preaching: first, preach the Law; second, preach the Gospel; finally, exhort to good works. This also is incorrect: first, preach the Gospel; second, the Law; third, the Gospel. Such a mindset of preaching can have the outcome of overly formulaic preaching. As the order of things, so also is the predominance of things. To think that predominance means that the Gospel must be, at least, 50.1% of the sermon, or 75, 80, or 90 percent, is a misunderstanding, and is, in fact, a legalistic understanding of the relation between Law and Gospel.
While some forms (e.g., two or three part sermons) may be used as an outline to order and organize one’s preaching, the interplay between Law and Gospel is a dynamic one. The Law—never the Gospel!—is preached to those who live securely in their sins, as the Lord says, ” ‘Is not My word like a fire?’ says the LORD, ‘And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?’ ” (Jer. 23:29). Likewise, the Gospel—never the Law!—is preached to those who are in terror on account of their sins, as the Lord says, “A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench” (Is. 42:3). The Gospel to the secure will breed self-righteousness, and the Law to the terrified will breed despair.
The proper distinction of Law and Gospel is indeed a difficult one, and Walther is correct when he says, “Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience” (Law and Gospel, Thesis III). This is why Luther says, “Place any person who is well versed in this art of dividing the Law from the Gospel at the head and call him a Doctor of Holy Writ; for without the Holy Ghost it is impossible to master this distinction” (Law and Gospel, 47).
But what about exhortation? It must be understood that “exhortation” is a preaching of the Law and not the Gospel. For “the Gospel is properly such a doctrine as teaches what man who has not observed the Law, and therefore is condemned by it, is to believe, namely, that Christ has expiated and made satisfaction for all sins, and has obtained and acquired for him, without any merit of his, forgiveness of sins, righteousness that avails before God, and eternal life” (EP V.5). When it comes to exhortation, predominance must be kept in mind, namely, that the Gospel has the final say. Moreover, it, that is, exhortation, must be preached in a way as to not mingle Law and Gospel. Walther rightly warns, “The Word of God is not rightly divided when the law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness, when, on the contrary, Gospel elements are mingled with the Law and Law elements with the Gospel” (Law and Gospel, Thesis VI).
Why is there this need for exhortation? Indeed, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). In Christ the Law is done for: done for you. The Law’s demands and condemnations don’t reach the Christian for “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). But as Luther would say, “Solus Decalogus est aeternus,” i.e., “Only the Decalogue is eternal.” Christ Himself says, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail” (Lk. 16:17). The Law is still in effect over the Christian until death (Rom. 7:1). It’s condemnation and exhortation is still preached. Why? The simul.
The Christian is simul iustus et peccator, at the same time righteous and sinner (cf. Rom. 7). According to the new man (iustus) he does the Law freely, joyfully, without any exhortation, goading, or threatening. By virtue of faith the Christian fulfills the Law, and thus faith confirms the Law rather than destroying it (Rom. 3:31). The old man (peccator) is a completely different story. We confess:
Indeed, if the believing and elect children of God were completely renewed in this life by the indwelling Spirit, so that in their nature and all its powers they were entirely free from sin, they would need no law, and hence no one to drive them either, but they would do of themselves, and altogether voluntarily, without any instruction, admonition, urging or driving of the Law, what they are in duty bound to do according to God’s will; just as the sun, the moon, and all the constellations of heaven have their regular course of themselves, unobstructed, without admonition, urging, driving, force, or compulsion, according to the order of God which God once appointed for them, yea, just as the holy angels render an entirely voluntary obedience.
However, believers are not renewed in this life perfectly or completely, completive vel consummative [as the ancients say]; for although their sin is covered by the perfect obedience of Christ, so that it is not imputed to believers for condemnation, and also the mortification of the old Adam and the renewal in the spirit of their mind is begun through the Holy Ghost, nevertheless the old Adam clings to them still in their nature and all its internal and external powers. (SD VI.6–7)
For this reason the Law (exhortation) is preached to the Christian. “Therefore, because of these lusts of the flesh the truly believing, elect, and regenerate children of God need in this life not only the daily instruction and admonition, warning, and threatening of the Law, but also frequently punishments, that they may be roused [the old man is driven out of them] and follow the Spirit of God” (SD VI.9). Moreover, “But as far as the old Adam is concerned, which still clings to them, he must be driven not only with the Law, but also with punishments; nevertheless he does everything against his will and under coercion, no less than the godless are driven and held in obedience by the threats of the Law” (SD VI.19).
What then is a good interplay between the Law, which includes exhortation, and the Gospel as regards Christian preaching? These must not be mingled or hedged by each other, as was said above, but each must be given its own place. The preaching of Law and Gospel is not like drinking a boilermaker, but it is the taking a shot whiskey and then drinking the beer. Exhortation truly is a part of Christian preaching and teaching, but the Gospel predominates. St. Paul has a good example of this:
For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 1:9–14)
Law, including exhortation, is preached, and then the Gospel. They don’t mix in the middle.
When it comes to the believer, he will do the work of the Law from both an ill will (peccator) through blows and a Spirit-driven will (iustus). Exhortation cannot be thought of anything else than the Law for exhortation keeps the Old man in check. It forces him to do what he is unwilling to do, and so the believer, as he is renewed (thus wanting to do the Law), rejoices in the Law because through it the Spirit slays, beats, controls, bridles, and slays the old man. It must also be remembered that the works done are only acceptable because of God’s grace. We also believe:
But how and why the good works of believers, although in this life they are imperfect and impure because of sin in the flesh, are nevertheless acceptable and well-pleasing to God, is not taught by the Law, which requires an altogether perfect, pure obedience if it is to please God. But the Gospel teaches that our spiritual offerings are acceptable to God through faith for Christ’s sake, 1 Pet. 2, 5; Heb. 11, 4ff. In this way Christians are not under the Law, but under grace, because by faith in Christ the persons are freed from the curse and condemnation of the Law; and because their good works, although they are still imperfect and impure, are acceptable to God through Christ; moreover, because so far as they have been born anew according to the inner man, they do what is pleasing to God, not by coercion of the Law, but by the renewing of the Holy Ghost, voluntarily and spontaneously from their hearts; however, they maintain nevertheless a constant struggle against the old Adam.
For the old Adam, as an intractable, refractory ass, is still a part of them, which must be coerced to the obedience of Christ, not only by the teaching, admonition, force and threatening of the Law, but also oftentimes by the club of punishments and troubles, until the body of sin is entirely put off, and man is perfectly renewed in the resurrection, when he will need neither the preaching of the Law nor its threatenings and punishments, as also the Gospel any longer; these belong to this [mortal and] imperfect life. But as they will behold God face to face, so they will, through the power of the indwelling Spirit of God, do the will of God [the heavenly Father] with unmingled joy, voluntarily, unconstrained, without any hindrance, with entire purity and perfection, and will rejoice in it eternally. (SD VI.22–25)