The Attraction Of Legal Preaching

lawDisclaimer: All biblical and Reformed preachers must preach the law in both the pedagogical and normative or moral uses (first and third uses, depending on who’s numbering them). Any preacher who does not preach the law in those two uses is not preaching the whole counsel of God. So, this post is not a diatribe against preaching the law. This post is a diatribe against the abuse of the law.

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Symptoms: A legal preacher is a preacher who majors in the law to the neglect of the gospel.  In practice, he preaches nothing but law. He thinks that mentioning Jesus periodically or even regularly means that he’s not a legal preacher and he can’t imagine that people are concerned about the tenor of his preaching because he doesn’t see anything wrong with it. It’s the sort of preaching he heard as a young man and it’s the sort of preaching he heard in seminary and it’s the sort of preaching he admires in other preachers.

He turns every passage into a law, because he doesn’t know any other way to read the Scripture and he doesn’t know any other way to preach. He preaches the law and he doesn’t even know he’s doing he it, even when, in his mind, he’s preaching the gospel. When he finds a bit of good news in his passage, he doesn’t end with that because he doesn’t want his people to get the idea that there are no obligations to the Christian life.

He’s heard talk about a distinction between law and gospel but he’s pretty sure that’s a Lutheran way to think and talk and beside, he never heard that when he went to seminary and he went to a good school where, were it important, he would have heard about it. He’s suspicious of the fellows who do talk about law and gospel. They don’t seem to be nearly as interested in sanctification and obedience as they should be. Certainly those fellows aren’t as interested in it as he is. He suspects that those fellows are just lazy.

He’s heard about the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives but it was a lot of reading and he hasn’t really had time. He’s had other things on his plate. He’s not really sure what the big deal is. After all, those guys in Moscow seem like good fellows. They believe the bible and they understand that the culture is going to pot around us and they publish some pretty good things on the family and school.

Every so often he mentions grace and faith but he doesn’t dwell on it or get caught up in it. When salvation comes up in a passage at hand (e.g., the crossing of the Red Sea) he covers it but he doesn’t leave the people there. In his application he presses them as to whether they really believe it enough and whether they’ve really obeyed God. Is God really pleased with them? He doesn’t want them to become lazy or presumptuous. We all know what the gospel is. In our age what we need to do is to get busy applying the Scriptures to everyday life and getting after the hard work of obedience and sanctification.

One of his parishioners once asked him, “Pastor, are you unhappy with us? You seem dissatisfied with us.” He thought to himself: “Yup, that’s right. I’m not really satisfied with you folks and why should I be? You have a long way to go.”

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Diagnosis: Our legal preacher doesn’t know the law from the gospel, the good news from bad news. To him all of Scripture is law and all of it is gospel. There just two sides of the same coin. There’s no real difference between them. The gospel is that God is sovereign and that he has sovereignly decreed his will for his people.

Ironically, his second problem is, at bottom, that he doesn’t really know the first use of the law. For the legal preacher,  it’s all gift, it’s all guidance. He has not been smitten by the law, struck by its righteous, powerful blows—or if he has, it’s been so long ago that he’s forgotten the horror. He doesn’t see the law for what it is: a completely holy and righteous condemnation of sinners, a terrible and relentless judgement that will swallow him up and from which he needs a deliverer.

Third, because he doesn’t see the law for what it is, he no longer sees himself for what he is, apart from grace, a vessel of wrath and condemnation. Yes, he knows intellectually that he’s a sinner but his sins seem almost vanilla, pedestrian compared to those he’s faced as a pastor, those he’s had to address in session or in the counseling room. Sometimes when he prays the prayer of confession during the service, he’s hard pressed to think of anything to confess.

Fourth, not surprisingly, he isn’t really enamored with the gospel. Sometimes, when he hears people going on about how great the gospel is, he’s not really sure what they’re talking about because it hasn’t gripped him personally, at least not for a long time.

Fifth, he has a lot of folks aiding and abetting him. The congregation likes his sermons. They like the lists he gives them and the practical, detailed instructions he gives them about the Christian life. He knows how to make his congregants feel guilty. He’s heard their confessions. He knows their struggles. He knows which buttons to push. They’ve come to find a kind of satisfying guiltiness in his preaching. They know that they’ve been to church because they’ve felt that familiar pang of guilt and they leave knowing that they need to do better. The preacher’s grim face is a reminder of God’s attitude toward them.

There’s a final problem. As a legal preacher has control of his people, of his church, of his session, of his whole life—his identity. As long as people have the idea that they have to do something to earn favor with God or keep favor with God, he preacher is in charge. The moment they learn that it’s a free gift, he’s no longer the boss. He’s just a minister announcing good news. That’s a demotion for which he’s not ready.

62 Comments

  1. But it works.

    People love to be told ‘what to do’. It makes everything easier for them. ‘Now I’ve got a list of easily identifiable rungs on the ladder upward.’

    But it is a deadly poison which may be very difficult to remove from a person once they get used to it and believe that it (the law) is actually the gospel.

    • Jeff,

      How does Carrick distinguish L/G in his book, where is that distinction clearly spelled out and applied to preaching in the way, e.g., that William Perkins did it?

  2. The law demands good works. Grace inspires them. There’s a whole lot of law in that Book. But thankfully, there’s a whole lot of grace in there, as well.

    And grace always trumps the law.

    • Jeff,

      Here are some resources on this question.

      Perkins wrote:

      The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect, stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it. However the gospel not only teaches us what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it….A statement of the law indicates the need for a perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins which are contrary to the law and of the curse that is due them…. By contrast, a statement of the gospel speaks of Christ and his benefits, and of faith being fruitful in good works (The Art of Prophesying, 1592, repr. Banner of Truth Trust,1996, 54-55).

      I’ve heard Carrick lecture. I was here when he wrote this book as his DMin project. Now that you can see Perkins’ theory, is this the theory that you find in Carrick?

      Why exactly do you think that Carrick’s book hits the right “balance”? Between what two positions is he balancing? Have you read representative writers from those two positions?

      ps. Here is Beza on the same distinction:

      We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558)

  3. Yes, I do believe Carrick would agree with the two quotes you provides, as I would. Carrick is addressing something a bit different I guess, but they are certainly related.

    The gospel is the indicative, but the indicative always moves on the imperative (obedience, or as John puts it “walk as Jesus walked” (1 Jn. 2:6), and we need to preach this way: indicative –> imperative.

    The disclaimer you make above is important, but even with the disclaimer, there are some who will twist what you’ve said in your post (obviously the blame for this is not to be laid at your feet).

    • Jeff,

      Thanks for this but let me press you a bit. You encouraged us to read the book so I’m assuming that you’ve read the book. Can you give us some direct evidence that Carrick wants us to read the Bible the way that Perkins and Beza did?

      Can you describe for us the two poles between which Carrick wants us to balance? How does he relate explicitly to the historic law/gospel distinction?

      If you’ve read RRC and if you’ve been reading the HB, then you know that sanctification has been a major concern here. The question for confessional Reformed folk is not whether Reformed pastors must preach and encourage sanctification but rather what sanctification is and how to preach in a way that actually leads to the desired results.

      I get the sense from your comments that this post makes you a little uncomfortable. Is that correct?

    • Scott, sorry to take so long in getting back, had something to do. I’ve mentioned the two poles to balance (indicative and imperative). I also acknowledged that it (Dr. Carrick’s discussion) is somewhat a different (so I probably shouldn’t have stuck my nose in here), but it certainly relates. So, I don’t want to say that the book explicitly makes the distinction, b/c it doesn’t, b/c that is not what the book is about.

      You asked “I get the sense from your comments that this post makes you a little uncomfortable. Is that correct?” That is correct, but there maybe more to it than what you are assuming (if you are assuming anything). I had someone (a Christian) recently tell me that I (as I’m preaching) should be telling them them they are in Christ, and not telling them to do something. That they are so sinful, they can not obey the law. But, “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God…therefore consider the members of your body as dead to immorality, impurity….” (Col. 3:3-11). Because one is united to Christ, one is able to “walk as Jesus walked” (1 Jn. 2:6). I’m not talking about perfection (I’d hope you’d understand that without me saying), but one who claim they are a believer, and tells me that if I say in a sermon “you need to do this” that that is putting them under the law. That kind of thinking is simple unbiblical.

      Hope I’m making sense.

    • Jeff,

      I understand. I am a little frustrated that, after all the time I’ve spent writing about sanctification here, when I write about legalism in preaching I’m criticized for not re-writing everything I’ve ever written about sanctification.

      Once more: sanctification is morally and logically necessary for the Christian. It is the necessary result or consequence of justification. Christians must struggle against sin. I heartily affirm Heidelberg QQ. 88-90, on which I’ve written many times here. There are two parts to the Christian life, the killing of the old man and the making alive of the new. Sanctification is by grace but by God’s grace and in his grace we do struggle against sin, we confess it and we strive “manfully,” as we used to say, against sin. By grace we seek to obey not part but the whole moral law of God. Anyone who denies this, as far as I know, is denying basic biblical (e.g., Rom 6) and Reformed teaching. The Heidelberg Catechism qq. 86-129 and the Westminster Shorter are very clear about this.

      Everything I’ve written here seeks to be faithful to what we confess about sanctification.

      Read on its own terms, setting your recent conversation aside, what is there about what I wrote that makes you uncomfortable?

  4. Dr. Clark, it is good for every minister of the Gospel to be stopped in his tracks for a moment, take a step back, and ask himself, “Am I a legal preacher? Do I abuse the Law of God in my preaching?” And then remember that the Good News is true for him too!

    Thank you for writing this post! Oh that more ministers would think about these things!

    I think that if a minister asks himself those questions and it leads him to thank God for Christ and the Good News for himself…that’s probably a good sign that his preaching rightly distinguishes between the Law and the Gospel and points the sheep to Christ.

  5. Excellent!!

    And… some preachers preach a kind of “light” law and “light” gospel (which really isn’t the gospel). They’ll preach the law, but as a mild reminder of what we should be. They’ll mention sin, as that problem we all have in “not keeping the law perfectly”… sort of falling short in our well-intended efforts as new creatures. They’ll mention the phrase good news but then attach it to only to things that can be attributed to God that are positive without mention of Christ crucified, e.g. “God is faithful… God gives grace to aid us in obedience and for our growth… God will always be with us… and that is ‘good news’ for us!”

    Melted vanilla ice cream that leaves one wondering if the reason they keep “falling short” is that they’re not trusting enough in God’s supply of faithfulness and grace. This kind of good news is more like discouraging news , another form of law.

  6. I report. I do NOT endorse this:

    They infinitely mistake the subject who suppose that the moral law is not part of the Gospel. This is the way to make Christ the minister of sin. This would be to weaken the law. Do not mistake me: I do not mean that men are to be saved by their own righteousness; but what I do mean is, that this is a condition of their forgiveness, –they must break off their rebellion, and become submissive and obedient to its authority. A man who has once violated a law can never be justified by it; this is governmentally impossible. But there must be obedience to the law as a condition of forgiveness for past sins . (Finney, Christ Magnifying the Law, 1850)

    • And of course, for Finney, this obedience to the law was not that difficult. Where’s the Grace, CG? How obedient do we have to be, going forward now, to have forgiveness for the past sins? Oy!

  7. I thought this was a very helpful post. Though I do believe Jeff helpfully fills in a gap with the indicative->imperative structure (which is, on my view, another way of saying the difference between Law and Gospel). I might just add this one thing. Is it “legal preaching” to end your sermon with “evangelical obedience?” Not if the sermon has been clear concerning the free and absolutely gracious nature of the Gospel. If it is clear that evangelical obedience flows from the free redemption we have in Christ, there will be no thought in the listeners that the imperatives of evangelical obedience are in any way meritorious.

    • Jim,

      if our legal preacher above understood the law and the gospel, then he wouldn’t be a legal preacher. In other words, if he was letting the law be the law and preaching the gospel clearly, then he wouldn’t be a legal preacher.

      I’m trying to give folk a way to analyze the legal preaching that they’re hearing. I’m not criticizing the proper uses of the law. I’m urging preachers to make proper use (1st and 3rd) use of the law, to do so consciously and intelligently. If that happens, then posts like these wouldn’t be necessary.

  8. So when lacking a substantive response, well, just appeal to ridicule: an informal fallacy which presents an opponent’s argument as absurd, ridiculous, or in any way humorous, to the specific end of a foregone conclusion that the argument lacks any substance which would merit consideration…

  9. I don’t have a link to examples of L/G confusion but I know a church that has this mission statement on their site.

    “Love God, Love People, Make a difference in the world”

    Well that’s law, law, law. And I have been to churches where the preaching is like this.

    • What ever happened to preaching the texts as they are? In Carrick’s book, that is what he suggests, primarily. He highlights the different aspects as they appear within the Scriptures and gives examples through the sermons of other faithful preachers. Approaching everything through a “grid” regardless of the “grid” is exhausting and not required. Major where the author majored. That doesn’t mean that I can’t apply as a preacher, but spend more of your time understanding the author’s thought process and the main point that he was driving at when he wrote. Isn’t that the beauty and tremendous benefit of expositional preaching, you get a healthy and well-balanced diet. And by well-balance I don’t mean 50% Law and 50% Grace, I mean I get encouragement, hope, challanged, a better picture of myself…the church…and the world around me.

  10. Dr. Clark,

    I’ve read through the post again, perhaps paying more attention. After reading, I don’t have a problem with what you have said. As I mentioned earlier in the example I gave, it is the abuse that I have an issue with. That abuse, in my estimations, is the Christian who does not wanted to hear how he is supposed to live (by the power of the Spirit) as a new creation in Christ Jesus.

    If I’m correct, we see this abuse in MP’s comment above. He takes issue with a missions statement of a church, calling the church to “Love God, Love People, Make a difference in the world” “law, law, law.”

    Do you agree with him?

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  12. Indeed Dr. Clark would not write such a mission statement.

    Wouldn’t a better church mission statement be something like: “Proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ’ name” (?)

    Jeff, do you think the law law law mission statement is good? Love God, love neighbor. That’s the thing that condemns us cuz none of us does it. It shows us the Will of God and how woefully short of that Will we fall. It’s the Law, stop preaching it as the Gospel.

    Some churches give it as the Benediction: At their dismissal they announce – “Love God, love your neighbor, do something wonderful”. I would prefer 2 Cor. 13:14 “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” And maybe add a little, “And you are justified and made right before God on the basis of Christ’s work for you and imputed to you and received by faith (trust, resting, receiving) alone”.

    And Jeff, I’m a huge J. White fan. I like how your name links to A&O.

    • MP, I too would not have written that statement. But I sincerely do hope you love God and your neighbor. The Christian has been united to Christ for both the forgiveness of sin and to walk in the newness of life. If you do not love God and your brother, albeit imperfectly in this life, then you have no reason to believe you have the forgiveness of sins. After all, “We know that awe have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” (1 John 3:14).

  13. MP said “Jeff, do you think the law law law mission statement is good? Love God, love neighbor. That’s the thing that condemns us cuz none of us does it. It shows us the Will of God and how woefully short of that Will we fall. It’s the Law, stop preaching it as the Gospel.”

    Dr. Clark,

    It seems pretty clear that the 1st use, and the 3rd use of the law are being blurred here. I ask if you agree with MP that the missions statement was “law. The result of MP’s thinking here is that we shouldn’t be telling Christians, they ought to live this way. I’m not sure how to take your answer. I wouldn’t have written this as a mission statement either, but that is another issue.

    MP said “It’s the Law, stop preaching it as the Gospel.”

    I’m not preaching “love God…” as gospel either. It is simply the outworking of the gospel in ones life. I really can’t add (well, I could) to what Jim Cassidy has said above, with reference to 1 John.

    • Jim,

      Of course I love God and neighbor; why else would I be here saying these things? I agree with all that you said. We imperfectly love God and neighbor even when walking in newness of life.

      Jeff,

      “The result of MP’s thinking here is that we shouldn’t be telling Christians, they ought to live this way.” That’s not what I mean, Jeff. We certainly should tell Christians to love God, love neighbor, do good works, etc. I was just saying don’t preach it as the Gospel.

    • “I was just saying don’t preach it [love God, Love Neighbor] as the Gospel.”

      Who does? Why do you assume, simply from seeing a sign about the churches mission statement, that they are preaching, love God and neighbor, as the gospel?

  14. Check out Dr. T. David Gordon in his book “Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers” ( P & R 2009) when he contrasts Christ-centered preaching with “Introspection”

    “Some of the neo-Puritans have apparently determined that the purpose and essence of Christian preaching is to persuade people that they do not, in fact, believe. The subtitle of each of their sermons could accurately be: “I Know You Think You Are a Christian, but You Are Not.” This brand of preaching constantly suggests that if a person
    does not always love attending church, always look forward to reading the Bible, or family worship, or prayer, then the person is probably not a believer…”

    “The hearer falls into one of two categories: one category of listener
    assumes that the preacher is talking about someone else, and he
    rejoices (as did the Pharisee over the tax collector) to hear “the
    other guy” getting straightened out. Another category of listener
    eventually capitulates and says: “Okay, I’m not a believer; have it
    your way.” But since the sermon mentions Christ only in passing (if at
    all), the sermon says nothing about the adequacy of Christ as
    Redeemer, and therefore does nothing to build faith in Christ. So true
    unbelievers are given nothing that might make believers of them, and
    many true believers are persuaded that they are not believers.”

    “It is painful to hear every passage of Scripture twisted to do what
    only several of them actually do (i.e., warn the complacent that not
    everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven). And it is absolutely debilitating to be told again and again that one does not have faith when one knows perfectly well that one does have faith, albeit weak and imperfect…”

    “So no one profits from this kind of preaching; indeed, both
    categories of hearer are harmed by it. But I don’t expect it will end
    anytime soon. The self-righteous like it too much; for them, religion
    makes them feel good about themselves, because it allows them to view themselves as the good guys and others as the bad guys – they love to hear the preacher scold the bad guys each week. And sadly, the
    temperament of some ministers is simply officious. Scolding others is
    their life calling; they have the genetic disposition to be a Jewish
    mother.” (pp. 83-84)

    Notice that Dr Gordon did not mention Paul Washer or Al Martin. But I just did….

  15. I think “legal preaching” can take very subtle forms, as you wrote. For instance, always telling us to “go deeper,” “fall in love with Jesus more,” etc; i.e. pietism. I have tried to work that stuff up in me, and just can’t, and then feel like a bad Christian, because I don’t have the same experiential depth of the speaker. What then can I do? I can only remember that if I love God at all, it is only because He first loved me. I can only return to the Cross and find my peace there.

    Another instance is referenced above, and that is “to make a difference in the world,” i.e. missional/transformationalist preaching. There we are invited to constantly compare ourselves to others who are doing “more” than us in the world. (This can also occur in 2K quarters, but there it’s reference is to work in the church). Either way, it just depresses me. It also makes me wonder why Jesus really thought that two mites was a mighty contribution, if we are to measure things so externally.

    So what to do? Again, all I can do is return to the Cross and remember that it was precisely because I am a failure that Christ died and rose again. Whenever I start measuring my life, I lose my wonder for the Gospel, and end up with Prufrock instead.

    Is it too much to ask that the Church relax a little about changing the world, and just bring solace and comfort to hurting people, to remind us that our citizenship is in heaven, and we await a Savior from there? And in the meantime, to mind our own business, lead quiet lives and work with our hands?

    • Hi Chris,

      This is what I’m driving at. The legal preacher has subtly changed the Christian message. This is why the people sense that he’s disappointed in them, because the main tone of his message is “do this, do that” or more likely, “you’re not doing enough of this or that.” Such a message wears on people and though there is plenty about “doing” in Scripture, for the Christian, it begins with what has been done for us in Christ and what the Spirit is doing in us.

      We can get “do better” anywhere. We don’t really need preachers for that. We can get it from Dr Phil or Oprah or any rabbi or Imam. The one thing the Christian preacher has that none of these alternatives have is the good news. When “do” overwhelms the good news, the distinctively Christian message is lost.

      I tried to get at one aspect of this problem in the series on the warning passages in the NT

  16. Jeff,

    You asked: “Who does? Why do you assume, simply from seeing a sign about the churches mission statement, that they are preaching, love God and neighbor, as the gospel?”

    I told you who does – the church that has law law law as the mission statement and then you listen to what is preached and that’s what they say is the Gospel. They confused law & gospel. Are you asking for names and addresses? Are you saying because you haven’t experienced this, it doesn’t exist? I’ve heard it, been there and refused the T-shirt.

    Another example I heard recently on Christian radio: The guy says “feeding people and helping the poor, that’s what the Gospel is all about”. I challenged him and said he was confusing law & gospel. He didn’t get it.

  17. Indeed, the gospel is an announcement. We don’t live announcements, we live in light of said announcement. Horton, per usual, nailed it.

  18. Well I don’t know if I have a problem with the synopsis. I can address #5 at least now cuz there’s a lot to chew on there. I’ll be the first to admit I’m quite a simpleton when it comes to the intelligence of the commenters at the Heidelblog and elsewhere.

    5. Good Works and Rewards: Are good works necessary for salvation and what constitutes a “good work”? What about rewards for obedience? Does God need our good works?

    Good works are resultative of being set free. They’re all sanctification and not a shred of justification. We do good works because we’re saved. A much better summary can be found in the Heidelberg Cat. Quest. 62-64.

    God doesn’t need our good works; our neighbor does.

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  20. Kudos Dr. Clark.
    I concur with your observations.
    Too many years I had little to rejoice in. Certainly because of my own sin and struggle against it, but also I’m afraid because I was not fed a better diet that included “indicative” preaching as a healthy percentage.
    There is serious suffering that occurs as a result.
    Good theology emanating from a glorious Gospel is wondrous medicine for the soul and sustenance for the good fight of faith in seeking to both glorify and enjoy the Triune God.
    His grace to you kind sir as I pass this valuable piece along.
    hk

  21. Dr. Clark,

    THANK YOU for this piece. It breaks my heart. My brother, who knows the Word better than most people I’ve met, is the legal preacher. His congregation doesn’t love him; they fear him. I ache to think he loves the truth more than he loves Christ. There is no evidence of the joy of the Lord in him at all.

    My fear is that he doesn’t know Christ. Do you have any suggestions on how to humbly and gently open up a conversation with him about this? He’s far more intelligent than me and views me as a bit of a heretic (among other reasons, because I’m reformed, and he isn’t), so I’m not sure how to approach it in a way that would promote peace. I pray God will soften his heart.

    Thank you again for the article and for any help you can provide!

  22. Those who are addicted to the law (for their righteousness ) need to have the law poured on them. And heavily.

    Jesus did it with his Sermon on the Mount. Who could possibly stand after hearing that? Unless they are so delusional and full of pride that they are blind to their sin.

    (my 2 cents)

  23. One thing I was told by a wise minister in the URCNA is that a pastor has the difficult challenge of making the people in their congregations who are clinging to their righteousness let go of it and cling to Christ. He also must comfort the true believer in the grace given to him by the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.

    There is a lot of time in a sermon to bring a person who is trying to be righteous through the law to their knees. But for those who trust in Christ, the Pastor must have the prerogative (same as Paul) to show the beautiful grace that relieves us from the burden of law keeping.

    Not to mention this happens during the liturgy of the URCNA.

    I really appreciated this post. Much of it resonated with my experience of certain preachers in Reformed circles.

    I also feel extremely blessed by the preaching at the URC I attend in Escondido which convicts with the law, breaks down with the law, but doesn’t stop there! It always builds up with the gospel of Jesus Christ. I NEED the gospel every week.

    Thanks Dr. Clark, and I’m looking forward to WSC this fall!

  24. Justification, sanctification, and glorification all have to do with righteousness, but not in the same manner or degree. The law/gospel hermeneutic works well for the righteousness required of justification, but not so well for sanctifcaiton and glorification. Richard Hooker has this to say about the different kinds of righteousness:

    There is a glorifying righteousness of men in the world to come: and there is a justifying and a sanctifying righteousness here. The righteousness, wherewith we shall be clothed in the world to come, is both perfect and inherent. That whereby here we are justified is perfect, but not inherent. That whereby we are sanctified, inherent, but not perfect. (Richard Hooker, A Learned Discourse of Justification, Works, and How the Foundation of Faith is Overthrown 3)

    As the question turns upon reconciliation with God in justification, then, this is good news indeed, howsoever much it may seem folly to others:

    Then, although in ourselves we be altogether sinful and unrighteous, yet even the man which in himself is impious, full of iniquity, full of sin; him being found in Christ through faith, and having his sin in hatred through repentance; him God beholdeth with a gracious eye; putteth away his sin by not imputing it; taketh quite away the punishment due thereunto, by pardoning it; and accepteth him in Jesus Christ, as perfectly righteous, as if he had fulfilled all that is commanded him in the law: shall I say more perfectly righteous than if himself had fulfilled the whole law? I must take heed what I say: but the Apostle saith , “God made him which knew no sin, to be sin for us; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Such we are in the sight of God the Father, as is the very Son of God himself. Let it be counted folly, or phrensy, or fury, or whatsoever. It is our wisdom, and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this, That man hath sinned, and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God. (ibid., 6)

    • Don,

      1. Hooker would not be my go-to guy generally.

      2. I don’t see how these passages get to the law/gospel distinction?

      3. To say that the law/gospel distinction doesn’t apply to sanctification is to say that sanctification is a legal matter. I’m not willing to say that. We certainly don’t confess that, for sanctification, we are under the law. The law is the moral norm for the Christian life. Anyone who denies that is an antinomian. This is what we confess:

      86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?

      Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing,1 and also that He be glorified through us;2 then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof;3 and by our godly walk win also others to Christ.4

      1 Rom 6:13. Rom 12:1, 2. 1 Pet 2:5,9,10. 1 Cor 6:20. 2 Matt 5:16. 1 Pet 2:12. 3 Matt 7:17,18. Gal 5:6, 22, 23. 4 Rom 14:19. 1 Pet 3:1, 2. * 2 Pet 1:10.

      87. Can they then not be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life?

      By no means, for, as the Scripture says, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the Kingdom of God.1

      1 1 Cor 6:9,10. Eph 5:5,6. I John 3:14,15.

      88. In how many things does true repentance or conversion consist? In two things: the dying of the old man1 and the quickening of the new.1

      1 Rom 6:4-6. Eph 4:22-24. Col 3:5-10. 1 Cor 5:7

      89. What is the dying of the old man?

      Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more.1

      1 Rom 8:13. Joel 2:13.

      90. What is the quickening of the new man?

      Heartfelt joy in God through Christ,1 causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works.2

      1 Rom 5:1. Rom 14:17. Isa 57:15. 2 Rom 8:10,11. Gal 2:20. * Rom 7:22.

      91. What are good works?

      Those only which proceed from true faith,1 and are done according to the Law of God,2 unto His glory;3 and not such as rest on our own opinion or the commandments of men.4

      1 Rom 14:23. 2 1 Sam 15:22. Eph 2:10. 3 1 Cor 10:31. 4 Deut 12:32. Ezek 20:18, 20. Isa 29:13. Matt 15:9. * Num 15:39.

      114. Can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

      No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience;1 yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God.2

      1 I John 1:8-10. Rom 7:14,15. Ecclesiastes 7:20. 2 Rom 7:22. James 2:10,11. * Job 9:2, 3. * Ps 19:13.

      115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

      First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature,1 and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ;2 secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.3

      1 I John 1:9. Ps 32:5. 2 Rom 7:24, 25. 3 1 Cor 9:24, 25. Phil 3:12-14. * Matt 5:6. * Ps 51:12.

      This is our confessional language about the judgment/glorification:

      52. What comfort is it to you, that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

      That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head, I look for the selfsame One, who before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven,1 who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation,2 but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.3

      1 Luke 21:28. Rom 8:23, 24. Phil 3:20, 21. Titus 2:13. 2 2 Thess 1;6,10. 1 Thess 4:16-18. 3 Matt 25:41.
      * Acts 1:10,11. * Heb 9:28.

      And in the Belgic

      Article 37: The Last Judgment
      Finally we believe, according to God’s Word, that when the time appointed by the Lord is come (which is unknown to all creatures) and the number of the elect is complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as he ascended, with great glory and majesty, to declare himself the judge of the living and the dead. He will burn this old world, in fire and flame, in order to cleanse it.

      Then all human creatures will appear in person before the great judge—men, women, and children, who have lived from the beginning until the end of the world.

      They will be summoned there by the voice of the archangel and by the sound of the divine trumpet. For all those who died before that time will be raised from the earth, their spirits being joined and united with their own bodies in which they lived. And as for those who are still alive, they will not die like the others but will be changed “in the twinkling of an eye” from “corruptible to incorruptible.”

      Then “the books” (that is, the consciences) will be opened, and the dead will be judged according to the things they did in the world, whether good or evil. Indeed, all people will give account of all the idle words they have spoken, which the world regards as only playing games. And then the secrets and hypocrisies of men will be publicly uncovered in the sight of all.

      Therefore, with good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to wicked and evil people. But it is very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished. They will then receive the fruits of their labor and of the trouble they have suffered; their innocence will be openly recognized by all; and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring on the evil ones who tyrannized, oppressed, and tormented them in this world.

      The evil ones will be convicted by the witness of their own consciences, and shall be made immortal—but only to be tormented in the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

      In contrast, the faithful and elect will be crowned with glory and honor. The Son of God will “confess their names” before God his Father and the holy and elect angels; all tears will be “wiped from their eyes”; and their cause—at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil officers—will be acknowledged as the “cause of the Son of God.”

      And as a gracious reward the Lord will make them possess a glory such as the heart of man could never imagine.

      So we look forward to that great day with longing in order to enjoy fully the promises of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

      The Westminster Standards wisely and carefully speak of justification in this life and vindication in the next so as to avoid any confusion between justification in this life sola gratia, sola fide and in the next by works as some have been tempted in recent years.

  25. I find it interesting that critics of Law/Gospel preaching are always talking about the matter of balance or the proportion of admixture. They see Law and Gospel as a spectrum between two poles, and good preaching as somewhere in between.

    There is a fundamental disconnect here. Critics fail to see that Law and Gospel are two distinct voices, two distinct messages. Preaching the Gospel faithfully requires preaching the Law as well… knowledge of your deliverance doesn’t do you much good if you don’t know what you’re being delivered from. But the Law is not “part of” the Gospel. Because the imperative (Law) follows the indicative (Gospel), does not mean they are part of the same thing.

    So it is not about proportion, balance, or any such thing. A sermon could be 99% Law, grind the people into the dust, and raise them up in the announcement of the glory of Christ’s resurrection in that final 1%… absolutely, definitely, declaratively… and that could be a faithful sermon.

    Once you understand that Law and Gospel are two distinct messages, then the question becomes what is the content of each, and their relation to one another in a faithful Gospel sermon.

    And, by the way, what was the message that Christ gave to his Gospel heralds in the New Testament?

    “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

    • I too find this post helpful.

      The message/voice application. It may even parallel the illocutionary act versus the perlucutionary effect?

      We have not power to hear and effect the voice correctly, it is a gift, it is gospel, even in sanctification.

      Without the voice we’re left with the message only, by default – which is law only.

  26. I need to better understand your conclusion that if the law/gospel distinction does not apply to sanctification then sanctification is a legal matter. If the end or telos of the gospel is our conformity to the image of His Son, wouldn’t sanctification (inherent but not perfect) be a gospel matter as well? For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

    • Any time we are not using the distinction or anytime we dispense with it then we have placed ourselves under the law. The distinction is not optional. It is not a part-time distinction it is not something that we can use or not use. It just is.

  27. And it’s interesting to see how the theonomic folks at American Vision react to this post–with abuse. How typical.

  28. I felt the need to clarify as it relates to Carrick’s book. In his book he wants the preacher to use the text as intended and sees different aspects and tones to the corpus of Scripture. He identifies indicatives, imperatives, exclamatives, and questions and wants the preacher to use these aspects or tones within the Scriptures to proclaim the intent of the book’s particular author. This, in my humble opinion is well-balanced preaching, not dividing a given text into law and gospel, even though those “categories” are to a certain degree biblical. Some of Paul’s writing is extremely indicative-laden (e.g. Eph. 1:3-14) and some times he engages in giving extensive moral imperative, even to the place of giving lists.

  29. Andre,

    Your posts seem to misunderstand of the L/G distinction. It’s not a truck we drive through the passage, it’s an analytical/diagnostic question we’ve been asking since about 1518 to try to understand Scripture. Asking the question doesn’t determine the outcome but it does help understanding it properly.

    If we don’t ask the question then we are likely to turn every text into law.

    After all, every preacher says, “I just follow the text.” That’s the that notorious moralist Richard Baxter said and look where he followed it: right into moralism and to the destruction of his congregation (which became Unitarian because of his moralism and rationalism).

    There’s no question whether we’re to follow “the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text” (as R B Kuiper used to say) but how we read and submit to the text.

    The legal preacher always tells himself that he’s “just following the text” but he every text turns into law, then, of course, he isn’t really following the text is he?

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