While I was still an over-eager seminarian the professor warned me, “Mr. Riley, this is exciting stuff. It’s exciting when you first learn about justification by faith alone in Christ alone. That’s because Law and Gospel is heady stuff! But be careful. When you climb into a pulpit and you get to preach every week you’ll learn that the people you preach to don’t much like justification talk. The temptation for you then will be to back off Law and Gospel. Slow but sure, you’ll back off justification. You’ll change your sermons. They’ll be more and more about the people. More and more about what you want them to hear, or what they want to come out from the pulpit. Your sermons will be less and less about Christ, and more and more about Christians.” I scoffed at him. I would never back off justification by faith alone. I was faithful. I was zealous for the kingdom. I was a preacher of the Cross. I would never back off justification.
Sure enough, the first two years in the pulpit I struggled. It began innocent enough. I’d talk to someone or see a member of the church around town doing something that was clearly not Christian. With those things in mind, I’d make sure the sermon that Sunday was Law-heavy. I’d preach in earnest to the congregation about giving into temptation, unrepentant sin, the poor witness to the faith their behavior demonstrated. After the service some people would complain the sermon was too negative, too harsh. Others praised the sermon as, “Exactly what we needed to hear.” Then I’d see that I’d crushed those who struggled to believe and encouraged the self-righteous. So the next week I’d make sure the sermon was Gospel-heavy, about the comfort of God’s love, and so on. This way, I imagined, I would comfort the afflicted and afflict the self-righteous. This went on for two years, until I exhausted myself. No matter how I preached my hearers didn't seem to change much. Their attitude and behavior seemed rooted in place. My sermons had had no effect on them. Maybe God had decided to punish them for their hard-heartedness. Maybe God had decided to punish me for not preaching faithfully. I struggled to remain a faithful preacher. I hit bottom. I was a failure. It was time to consider giving up the pulpit altogether. I just couldn't preach another Law-Gospel sermon.
But I wasn't preaching Law-Gospel sermons. My professor’s warning had been right on. I’d given into temptation. I preached what I imagined the congregation needed to hear or what they demanded to hear. I even sought the advice of pastors and preaching gurus who explained to me that there were ways to read the Bible and preach other than just the Law-Gospel formula. Some said I needed to focus more on how Christians are to live in the world as Christians. Others urged me to emphasize evangelism and the mission the church more often. Still others told me I needed to emphasize Christ as example for Christians to imitate. Whatever the advice, the consequence was the same. The congregation showed little change for the better. Some left in despair, others to find a pastor who preached more to their liking. Then, after two years of this, the Lord had mercy on me. He brought me back to plain old Law and Gospel stuff. He showed me that Law and Gospel were the key to understanding the Bible. Most important, God showed me that Law and Gospel were His Word, not just godly words for me to manipulate or use for my purposes.
A Christian sermon isn’t human words we hope God can use to accomplish something positive for us. No, in a Christian sermon God speaks through His chosen instruments, His preachers. In the Christian sermon God speaks His Word of Law and the Gospel. This creates conflict for both preacher and listener, which is why so many, like I did, go looking for “better methods.” The sermon isn’t the place for the pastor to jump on his hobby-horse, to thump on spiritual accomplishments or point at moral growth charts.The congregation isn’t free to demand the pastor turn his attention to their favorite subject - which is always themselves - either. In a Christian sermon the hearer is cracked wide open by God’s Word of Law and pieced back together by the Gospel.
Instead of the preacher’s tales of spiritual victory or his exhortation to the congregation to turn their attention toward moral reform, God’s Word announces “God’s fulfilling of his own law in Christ and the freedom which is now given the Christian in Christ” (David Scaer, On Law And Gospel As A Homiletical Device). All the Bible has to say about the Law’s requirements, demands, and penalties have been satisfied by God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The Old Covenant has been annulled. The New Testament invites all to come, receive their inheritance. Spiritual and moral failures are made heirs of the kingdom of God. Sinners are welcomed to the Lamb’s feast.
The Christian sermon declares first, that the Law and its penalties will not be reinstated by God. Second, the Gospel can never be cancelled out. God’s preachers announce this reality to those who struggle to believe it, can’t remember it, or need to be reminded of it over and over again, every day, every minute if possible. God’s preacher declares to His hearers that they’ve failed to do what God’s Law demands of them. God’s Word of Gospel then announces that these same people are now accepted by God for Christ’s sake. Those who reject this message, this free gift held out to them, whether pastor or hearer, are condemned. Those who receive the gift are saved.
Even after all this the subtle temptation still remains for pastors and preachers not to proclaim Law and Gospel, but use their sermon to explain the difference between Law and the Gospel. They will talk about the Law and talk about the Gospel. But talking about Law and the Gospel is like talking about what it means to be in love. That’s fine, but who wouldn't rather hear “I love you” from their beloved than to listen to someone explain what love means? The same goes for God’s Word of Law and the Gospel. The biblical text that is preached is either Law - what hinders the deliverance of all God’s promises in Christ Jesus - or it is Gospel- what gives Christ Jesus and his gifts. There is no other method. No better way to interpret or preach Scripture. There’s God’s Word of Law and the Gospel. What is preached is one or the other. That’s it. There are no more options.
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.