A Gospel-Double-Decker Not A Law-Sandwich

We were walking out of chapel after our weekly prayer group and a student said to me, about a sermon he had recently heard, “It was a law-sandwich.” That might not have been the first time I had ever heard that expression but it struck me. The substance of the sermon was the law and not in a good way. What the preacher did was to put the congregation under the law. It was not that he had thoughtfully preached the law in its pedagogical use, the gospel, and then the law in its normative use for those who are in Christ. After all, this is what the Apostle Paul did in the book of Romans. The framers of the Heidelberg Catechism followed Paul. They structured the catechism in three parts: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. That would be a solid meal indeed. I would like to suggest a different menu for the congregation. Instead of a law sandwich, in which the substance of the sermon is nothing but law, I propose a gospel double-decker.

A Gospel Orientation

What I have in mind is first of all an orientation to the text of Scripture, to preaching, and to the congregation in which the purpose of the preacher, before he enters the pulpit and while he is in the pulpit, is to announce the good news to the congregation. By orientation, I have in mind the attitude of Jude as he wrote his epistle, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3; ESV). Jude’s original intent was to celebrate with his brothers and sisters the free salvation they shared but there arose certain pressing issues that duty required him to address rather pointedly. We might think also of the comments of the pastor who wrote to Jewish Christians about what they ought to be learning rather than what duty required him to address (Heb 5:12–6:3).

Each week, as he enters his study to pray, study, and compose his sermon, the pastor’s goal and purpose above all ought to be principally to preach the good news to his congregation. What a joy it is to announce week in and week out, whether it is fashionable or not (2 Tim 4:2), the good news that God the Son has become incarnate—why sequester the best news to Advent and Easter?

A gospel orientation means that the preacher is convinced that the best thing, the most salutary (in the fullest sense of that word) message for his congregation to hear is the gospel, that God the Son has come for his sheep, that he has obeyed in their place, that he has died for them, that he has been raised for their justification (Rom 4:25), that he has ascended for them, and is interceding for them (Rom 8:34); in short, that he has accomplished redemption for them and that the Spirit has sovereignly, freely applied redemption to them.

A Gospel Order

This is the message through which God the Spirit is pleased to work new life (regeneration) in the elect, and through which he creates faith (see Rom 10:14–15; Heidelberg Catechism 65). This is the message through which God the Spirit sanctifies his people (Eph 5:26; Rom 15:16; cf. Heb 13:12).

This is not to denigrate the preaching of the law. It is, however, to set a priority between the law and the gospel in the act of preaching. To put it another way, Moses works for Jesus. This is unquestionably true in the history of salvation (Heb 3:5–6) but it is also true in the order of the application of redemption and in preaching. The function of the pedagogical use of the law is to teach sinners the greatness of their sin and misery in order to point or to drive them to Christ (Gal 3:24). In that case the law works for the gospel. The point of preaching the law is not to glory in the law, but rather that sinners might become conscious of their need for a Savior.

What about the third or normative use of the law? In the magisterial Reformation the Lutheran and Reformed churches agreed that the law not only drives sinners to Christ but it also serves as the norm of the new life in Christ. In this use we are not “under the law” in the Pauline sense of that phrase. We are no longer under the covenant of works that says, “do this and live.” We are now in a covenant of grace, in which Christ says to believers, “I have done for you.”

In its third or normative use, the law serves as the rule for the Christian life. To deny the normative use of the moral law (e.g., the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or the application of the law in the prophets and epistles) is the very definition of antinomianism. It is true that such antinomianism is endemic among American evangelicals, who are influenced by Dispensationalism. Among the evangelicals there is little awareness that the moral law was revealed before Moses and is embedded in creation (see Romans chapters 1 and 2) and universal. Indeed, there is little evidence among evangelicals that they are aware of or accept the historic Christian distinction between the judicial, ceremonial, and moral law.

Among those influenced by Dispensationalism it is assumed that the Ten Commandments (the principal expression of the moral law) expired along with the rest of the Mosaic law. Such misunderstandings of the history of redemption and revelation have fueled evangelical antinomianism.

As always, the Heidelberg Catechism (following Romans and the other epistles) helps us here.

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, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; 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.

The first purpose of the third use of the law, is the same as the pedagogical use of the law: to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery and to drive us back to Christ. Even under the third use, the law still works for the gospel.

The second purpose of the third or normative use of the law is that, having been made aware of our sin, even in a state of grace, we might pray for the grace of the Spirit to mortify our sins and sinful nature and to be made alive in Christ and conformed to his image.

It is in this sense, according to Calvin, that the third use of the law is the “principal” use.

The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God [Jer 31:33; Heb 10:16], that is, have been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law in two ways. (Institutes, 2.7.12)

As Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) put it somewhere, we are justified in order that we might be sanctified. Having been set free from the law as a taskmaster, now we are friends with the law. It is, as Calvin reminded us, written on our hearts.

Thus, we confess in Heidelberg 114, that we now seek to keep not just some of the commandments but all of them, in union with Christ, in gratitude to God for his grace to us in Christ.

Even in the third use, however, the law works for the gospel because it is the gospel that frees us to obey. It is through the gospel, and not through the law, that we were given new life. It is the gospel, not the law, that gives us the power to obey. The law, as such, has no ability to empower us. Only the gospel does that.

When I visit a congregation I can usually tell even before the preacher opens his mouth whether he has a gospel orientation and a gospel order to his preaching. I can see it in the faces and lives of his people.

I have seen the fruit of a legal orientation. I recall one congregation that had been under the law for several years. When they had a gospel preacher, however, their faces reminded me of sunflowers turning toward the sun after a hailstorm.

Taking a gospel orientation and following a gospel order is an act of faith in the mysterious, sovereign power of the Holy Spirit to use the foolishness of the gospel to accomplish his justifying and sanctifying purposes in his people. May God grant such faith to his preachers this and every Sabbath.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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