By Ross Engel –
A wise and experienced pastor once told me, “Preaching the Law of God to a Congregation is like throwing a brick into a pack of dogs. The dog that yelps is the one that got hit with the brick.” Now, before I go any further, I want to make a few things perfectly clear. I am not advocating that anyone tests this theory by throwing bricks into packs of dogs, for that would be inhumane and cruel, nor am I advocating that pastors view their congregations like a pack of wild dogs, for that would be degrading and would not profit anyone. Scripture speaks of the people of God as beloved sheep, cared for by the Good Shepherd and served by under-shepherds. Personally, I have always appreciated the imagery of the congregation as a flock of sheep who are cared for by a sheepdog, for both sheep and sheepdog find their rest under the Good Shepherd.
Preaching God’s Law to sinful people is never an easy task. It would be easier to just tell everyone that Jesus loves them, forgives them, and doesn’t care about their sins. But to do such a thing would not be faithful proclamation of God’s Word. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” – 2 Tim 3:16-17.
God’s Word contains both threat and promise, Law and Gospel, and those two words need to be rightly distinguished and then applied to God’s people. The Law is proclaimed to unrepentant, arrogant sinners, and the Gospel to contrite and repentant sinners. C.F.W. Walther illustrates it so beautifully in his lectures on The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel,
According to God’s Word, not a drop of evangelical consolation is to be brought to those who are still living securely in their sins. On the other hand, to the brokenhearted, not a syllable containing threat or rebuke is to be addressed, but only promises conveying consolation and grace, forgiveness of sin and righteousness, life and salvation.”
When someone is already filled with guilt and remorse, dread and shame for their sins, the Law has already done its work, and that person is in need of the consolation of the Gospel. They need to know that Christ died for them. They need the reminder that in Baptism they are united with Christ and that since they are in Christ, nothing can separate them from God’s love. The brokenhearted are ready to be restored into the family of God, reminded of His mercy, grace, and forgiveness. They are ready to confess their sins and be absolved with God’s promises, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” – Ps 103:12, or “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.” – Is 1:18, or “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” – 1 John 1:9.
But the proclamation of God’s Word of Law doesn’t always cause sorrow or repentance to take place. Not everyone hears God’s Word of threatening Law and drops everything to repent. Most people don’t respond like the people of Nineveh did in Jonah 3. More often than not, we typically don’t like to have God’s Word of Law applied to us, and we’d rather not think that we need to repent. So, when we hear that Word of Law and find ourselves confronted by our sin, we choose instead to believe that the proclaimer of that Law is picking on us, attacking us personally, or singling us out. If it’s a pastor preaching, we forget that God has given him the authority to declare His Word of Law and Gospel to sinners and that he is to serve as a watchman for the care and nurture of the flock. Instead, we take it personally. We get mad. We pout. We stomp off. We run away.
Confronted with the Law and our own sinfulness, we are far more likely to yelp, snarl, and bear our teeth than to repent and be forgiven. After all, the Law hurts! No one wants to get hit by the brick.
“He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” – Heb. 12:10b-11
It is just as God declares to the prophet Ezekiel, “I have sent you to them who should listen to you; yet the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, since they are not willing to listen to Me. Surely the whole house of Israel is stubborn and obstinate.” – Ezek. 3:6b-7 and “Yet your fellow citizens say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right,’ when it is their own way that is not right.” – Ezek. 33:17.
But this is not how it should be among the people of God.
In Acts 2, St. Peter preaches his first sermon, and it contains some pretty pointed Law. Upon being confronted with the truth that they crucified Jesus, his hearers were pierced through the heart and responded with, “What shall we do!?” To which Peter responds, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 2:38
So what do we do when we find ourselves confronted with the Law and our own sinfulness? What do we do when the brick hits us?
The people of God are called to repent and believe the Gospel! They confess sins and receive forgiveness! Period! It is not the time to yelp about being singled out or being picked on (unless you’ve been called out publicly by name, but that’s another topic for another time). It’s not the time to bear your teeth and begin a smear campaign to try and destroy the preacher or make their life a living hell. It’s not even the time to pout because it was one of your sins that was addressed in the proclamation of God’s Word.
No, when we get hit with the brick, it’s time to repent. It’s time to swallow our pride and realize that the one who proclaims that Word of Law actually cares about us and is doing the task which they were sent to do.
So Pastors, don’t be afraid to chuck that brick of God’s Law into the pack, just be ready for the yelp. And hearers, if you get hit by the brick of God’s Law, repent and hear the Gospel!