By Bob Hiller –
Our vocations demand that we focus on particular responsibilities that have been granted to us by the Lord. As a husband, I am to focus on my wife, providing for her, protecting her, making sure she is cared for and knows that I love her. As a father, I am to be a gracious picture of forgiveness and freedom for my children (see Scott, I read and plugged your book!). As a Broncos fan, I am to cheer for Brock Osweiler as if he’s Peyton Manning. And, as a pastor, particularly a Lutheran pastor, I am to preach Christ to sinners. This means that every week as I am immersed in God’s Word and in the company of His church, I am to be prayerfully/meditatively/agonizingly figuring out how to preach God’s Law and His Gospel to His church for His and their sakes. The vocation of a pastor is one of preaching Law and Gospel faithfully.
Spend a little time on Lutheran blogs and social media and you will find that we are a group that takes this task quite seriously. Though our confessional documents are clear on both what the Law is, what the Gospel is, and what they both do, we still find ourselves embroiled in discussion and debate on how to properly preach and apply these two words of God. Much like a skin disease, these debates flare up from time to time. Names are called, accusations made, orthodoxy is questioned. Lutheran social media is truly the church at her finest.
One of the points in the argument that has been sticking in my craw over the past few weeks is a question that pertains to the Law. Some authors are accused of overemphasizing the Law’s role as accuser. When the Law is “reduced” to nothing more than accusation, it makes it sound like God’s Law is a bad thing. But, God’s Law is a good thing because, after all, it is God’s. So, it is argued, we must work hard in our preaching to uphold the Law as good, just as the Gospel is good, though we recognize they serve entirely different functions.
I don’t know if anyone actually believes the Law is bad. I know I don’t. I recognize that the Law accuses me, not because the Law is a problem, but because I am the sinner. I am the accused and guilty one in the eyes of God’s Law. So, the Law is not the problem. I am. As are you. I need it to kill me so that someone can sing Jesus into my ears and put His body in blood in my mouth to raise me to a new life. And, in this new life, because that old, sinful nature is just so persuasive, I still need the Law to expose the Old Adam’s lies and guide me back to my need for Christ. (I know we speak of the Law as a guide, but whenever I hear that, as with any guide, I want to know, “where exactly are we going?”) Now, I am sure I’m leaving a lot out here that any fine-tooth comb theologian will happily point out to me. But, it’s a blog, not the Formula of Concord. So, I think it is a pretty fair assessment of how Law and Gospel work.
The problem, then, isn’t the Law. But, I do wonder then, why do we have to work so hard at distinguishing the two? Why do we have to fight tooth and nail over how they are preached? Why, specifically, so much care over how the Law is proclaimed? Then, it struck me! As I watched some of the most absurd officiating from the Bills/Patriots Monday night game, it dawned on me: the problem is not God’s Word of Law or Gospel, it’s not even necessarily the sinners in the pews (though, there are problems there). No. The problem is the preachers!
In case you missed the game, it was apparently one of the worst officiated games in recent history. Though, the officiating hasn’t been stellar this year, this game took the cake. It got to the point that even the play-by-play man, Mike Tirico, said on the broadcast, “What a screwed up night of plays and officiating this was.” At one point, a referee inadvertently blew his whistle in the middle of a play, bringing the game to a halt. There was no actual penalty on the play and the Patriots (who ended up winning the game) lost the first down and had to re-do the play.
Now, it’s not that referees blowing whistles is a bad thing. It’s not that making sure the players play by the rules is a bad thing. But, it is a bad thing when blowing the whistle in the middle of a play interrupts the flow of the game. It causes unnecessary confusion and questioning and it hurts the player’s ability to win.
Now, it may be a bit ham-fisted (but you should be used to that on my blog), but it seems to me that there is an analogy here between the referees and the way pastors use the Law. The Law is there to be preached when the flesh is secure in sinning or when people are trying “to perform services to God on the basis of their pious imagination in an arbitrary way of their choosing.” (FC VI) It compels us against our will with God’s will. But, when the Gospel is being preached and the fruits of the Spirit are being produced, too often preachers start blowing the whistle, causing confusion in the lives of the saints, using the Law to turn people back in on themselves and away from Christ. “Fruit inspecting” referees force them to ask, “What went wrong? What have I done now? Is there any hope for me?”
What I have seen in many churches (certainly in many evangelical ones) is a sort of preaching that effectively slays sinners with the Law and then, instead of singing songs of resurrection into dead ears, they begin to blow the whistle some more. The Law having sufficiently killed sinners is then made into the means by which they are to raise themselves. It is not easy for dead sinners to walk around with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, or goodness in their hearts. But, it is said, if they want to prove they are Christians, if they want to prove they are not lukewarm, if they want to earn heaven points and advance down the field, they’d better get walking. Just when God’s Law got the sinner right where God wanted them, just as He was ready to advance the Gospel into the heart, the referee-pastor stepped in and guided the sinner right back into his or her own doing. The preacher blew the whistle and stopped the game.
I believe, teach, and confess that there are three uses of God’s Law. The trouble is when this sort of preaching is excused by saying: “Oh, I was just preaching the third use of the Law” as though one could control which use was taking place. God doesn’t give us a theory on how to use His Law and Gospel, rather, He surrounds us with people who need to die and be raised. And, He gives us the words that accomplish that. See, the Law isn’t the problem. Nor is the Gospel (is there really a problem preaching too much Gospel?). The problem is pulpit referees who blow the whistle and prevent people from hearing the Gospel by using (misusing/abusing?) the Law in order to raise the dead.