Law Without Gospel Unfortunately Produces Pride And Despair

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I just read a Resurgence blog article titled, "Law Without Gospel Makes People Give Up."  It is an article that has been tailored from a Tullian  Tchividjian blog posting.  The basic idea of this article is that a message of Law without Gospel is often used to prohibit licentious living.  However, Law without Gospel essentially makes things worse, not better.  It makes people want to simply give up.  Let me flesh this out a little more with a very personal example.

In a previous church that I was acquainted with the Pastor's sermons existed of 90% Law, 5% Gospel and then another 10% Law.  "But Pastor Matt, that adds up to 105%."  Yes, I know.  It was a lot of law.  It isn't that the Law is bad, for Paul says that it is good.  The Law is good when it is used properly.  You see, this pastor preached Law to convict the congregation of sin, this is a good thing.  Then he ushered in a very weak Gospel that relieved a bit of the conviction of sin only then to place the church back under Law by giving them lists, commands, imperatives, etc...  Law, Gospel, Law. Crushed, Relieved, Burdened.  This was the pattern each and every week.  Not only did the pastor error in not letting the Gospel have the dominate position in the sermon and life of the church, but the third point of Law in his sermons undercut and displaced the little Gospel that was preached in his second point.  As a result this small church didn't have access to the Gospel, they were faced with the reality of their sin each and every Sunday with essentially no solution to this sin problem except to try harder and do better.

In Tullian  Tchividjian's blog post he shares a letter from a layperson who states, 
"When mainly law is preached, in my opinion, that leads to the realization that I can't follow it, so I might as well quit trying.  When the remedy to the law is not presented, the hearer is left without any power to perform good works."
It was very apparent in this church as attendance slowly dwindled that despair had set in.  "Why go to church to hear about sin and never hear a solution?  It's pointless.  Ahhh."  Despair had set in and many people began to simply stay home.  In the words of Rod Rosenbladt people began to essentially say, "It is better to live a life of a Pagan in freedom and be damned than go to church and be damned anyway."  Sadly though, this isn't the whole story.  On the other end of the spectrum another group emerged.  This group didn't resort to despair but their intensity increased with a rugged determination that they were totally able to fix this problem of sin.  They resorted to pride.  "Sin and struggles?  Bring on the lists, rules, challenges and imperatives for we are capable of fixing things!"  

As a result of this tragic mishandling of Law and Gospel the church lost people to despair and the church lost people to pride (i.e. hypocrisy).  Law without Gospel yields one of the two; despair or pride.  According to The Lutheran Study Bible
"If we think we are living a fairly good life--not like the people we read about in the papers--we become proud and self-satisfied.  This was the attitude of the Pharisees in Jesus' day.  On the other hand, if we realize the true enormity of our sins--how they daily color our thoughts, words and actions--we can easily fall into complete despair."
If this isn't tragic enough, as new people would visit they were met with militant and prideful people that supposedly had their life together and were, in theory, successfully making things work!  For a newcomer they were faced with a crossroad.  They either saw the large burden of the Law and left or they rolled up their sleeves and tried to assimilate into working hard with others to overcome the problem of sin by the way of human effort.

This is tragic and way too common.  Tullian  Tchividjian helps us in properly understanding the Law saying,
"...the law and the gospel do very different things.  The law reveals sin but is powerless to remove sin. It points to righteousness but can't produce it.  It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly.  As Martin Luther said, 'Sin is not canceled by lawful living, for no person is able to live up to the Law.  Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God.'  The law is impotent--it has no strength, it has no power, it offers us nothing.  Sinners already are powerless to obey the demands of the law, and the law offers them no assistance--absolutely none."
So if Law-Gospel-Law preaching produces despair and pride what is the solution?  We don't answer the proclamation of the Law with the solution of more Law.  Law does reveal sin, but it doesn't absolve it.  Law does show what Godly living looks like but it can't motivate it.  That belongs to the blessed and divine Gospel!  The Gospel absolves.  The Gospel forgives.  The Gospel justifies.  The Gospel motivates.  The Gospel sanctifies.  Law-Gospel-Law?  No way.  Rather, Law-Gospel-Gospel!  

The Christian life is not Law-Gospel-Law but simply Law-Gospel.  The reason being, Jesus alone is the antidote to sin and the fulfillment of the Law.  What hope we have in Law-Gospel preaching; freedom from pride and despair and freedom in the full saving grace of God!


Anonymous said…
Well said but now.....

Do a search of Tullian's blog using the word "homosexual." (or the majority of Lutheran pastors' blogs. Can you find a predominance of Gospel?

Now imagine being a 14 year old boy who is finding he is attracted to other boys and is ashamed and afraid. So he has done this search wondering what the church has to say about his situation.

Hmmmm...I wonder if there is a reason we are losing the battle against approval of homosexual behavior in our culture.
It seems to me that within our culture the fight is not on how a person struggling with homosexuality can find rest in the Law versus the Gospel. In other words, I don't see a big argument in the church over the application of Law versus Gospel with a person who has confessed their sins of homosexuality. The issue with homosexuality is a much more fundamental issue, a very basic question of whether or not homosexuality is a sin or not.

Take this 14 year old boy for example. If he goes online what is he going to see? He is going to see a fight on the issue of whether or not he should feel ashamed or not. Should he consider his situation as a struggle or should he consider it o.k? How does he make sense of his conscience and all the talk? Are the inclinations and his actions is wrong or not? That is the debate.

The sad reality is that many churches and groups that would consider themselves to be 'strong on the Gospel' in the area of homosexuality would actually deny him the Gospel. They would appeal to a generic 'love' and would deny him the Gospel because they would say that he has not sinned. Furthermore, they would deny him the Gospel because they would say that he has nothing to be ashamed of or be afraid of. According to some churches, why give the Gospel and why look for absolution when homosexuality is not a sin nor a breaking of God's Law?

We always need to keep in mind that the essence of the Gospel is not a fluffy abstract love feeling. The Gospel is the "forgiveness of sins." When know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us. (1 John 3:16) Jesus laid down his life as a substitutionary atonement. He took our sin upon himself and gives us his righteousness. It is done... forgiveness accomplished.

In the summary: Can the Gospel be sweet without Law. Can there be forgiveness of sins without their being sin?

We are losing the battle for two reasons:
1) Those of the Liberal persuasion have lost their moral compass in realizing that homosexuality is a sin. No sin, no need for the Gospel.
2) Those of the Conservative persuasion fail many times to grant absolution to those who have been crushed by their sin of homosexuality. They point out sin by the Law but then fail to pronounce the Gospel.

It is an issue of Law 'and' Gospel. Law to convict of sin. The Gospel to absolve the sin. The Gospel to sanctify. This would be the same solution and approach to heterosexual sins that are also so common and just as much a problem.
Anonymous said…
Ah, and you gave the same basic reply so many pastors do when I ask why I see so little Gospel in pastors' writing about this subject.

I almost always get a similar response explaining why we need to defend the Law to prevent fluffy Gospel

But, if you notice, I did NOT make any objection to the proclamation or defense of the Law. My objection is to the absence of the Gospel - and no, I am not talking about the fluffy Gospel of liberal churches. I'm talking about a real proclamation of forgiveness of sins.

For instance, in your response, you referenced the Gospel twice. But neither was a direct application of Gospel. The first was in defense of why we must proclaim Law the second in critiquing those who fail to grant absolution. Yet, in this, you were miles ahead of Tullian. The closest he came to proclaiming Gospel on a post about homosexuality was to say we need to be sad about it as well as angry.

I brought up homosexuality because it is the most clear example of this but I suspect there are other sins out there we frequently apply Law to while neglecting the Gospel. But it is also clearly an area in which the Gospel is needed. I know many Christians who struggle with homosexual temptations and who have rejected homosexual activity. Nearly without exception they arrived at that point through hearing the Gospel. In some cases they heard the Gospel after being convicted by the guilt of homosexual sin. In other cases they received faith through the Gospel first and then asked "how does God want me to handle my sexual temptations." But I do not know a single one who rejected homosexual intercourse on the bases of the Law alone or even predominantly.

My main point is, why are we so parsimonious with the Gospel? Are pastors charged by the letter when they write their blogs so that they have to choose between a proper defense of Law or the full proclamation of Gospel? I hardly think so. Is it because they are not "in the pulpit" and are not thinking in Law/Gospel terms? Yet I hear many sermons from Lutheran pulpits in which the Gospel is weakly dispensed or entirely absent.

For over 30 years now society has seen churches and para-church organizations like Focus on the Family or the Ruth institute deal with this issue and other similar moral issues from a strongly Law perspective. How has that worked out for us? Are we a more moral society now than 30 years ago? Have you had many homosexuals come to your office seeking confession absolution? Have you had even 1?

And that is why I chose a scenario in which a 14 year old boy is ashamed and afraid of his same-sex attractions. I specifically wanted a scenario in which the subject was repentant or, at least, remorseful.

What can the pastor say in his blog so such a boy does not walk about from his computer thinking, "It is better to live a life of a Pagan in freedom and be damned than go to church and be damned anyway"?
Couple of pithy thoughts (short on time this morning):

-We don't need to defend the Law. Rather, we need to 'proclaim the Law to everyone' and we get to 'proclaim the Gospel to everyone.' The Spirit through the Word brings about contrition and absolution. The Law breaks the proud and the Gospel absolves the sorrowful.

-Real Proclamation of Forgiveness? Today's blog posting covers this:

-You asked, "What can the pastor say in his blog so such a boy does not walk about from his computer thinking, "It is better to live a life of a Pagan in freedom and be damned than go to church and be damned anyway"?" I would simply say that a pastor can proclaim Jesus for the forgiveness of sin. The same Jesus and the same message of forgiveness of sins is for the contrite homosexual as well as for the contrite heterosexual. Gospel resolution begins with finding sin and confronting it, applying the gospel and leaving the rest up to God. Sin is sin no matter what commandment is involved, no matter what flavor of sin and no matter who commits the sin. The law addresses that. Likewise, forgiveness is forgiveness. The only forgiveness we have to offer is the complete forgiveness Jesus won for every sin. Gospel resolution occurs only when guilt of specific sins is washed away by the forgiveness Jesus won. That way we are not just saying "all sins have been forgiven," we're saying, "your sins have been forgiven. That sin has been paid for. (Partial Quote from Curtis Lyon)

What I appreciate about confession of sins in churches is that it brings the church to a common point as sinners together, regardless of the flavor of sin. The Gospel then is applied to the whole body... all are forgiven for Christ's sake.

Off to preach and teach... more later.
Anonymous said…
Cool looking forward to discussion more.

And, by the way, I didn't start this discussion to accuse you of forgetting the Gospel or to sidetrack the post. You posts often proclaim very solid Gospel and, as far as I can see, you have only addressed homosexuality one time and, though you yourself did not address Gospel you did included Pastor Fisk's video which was fairly decent and had a pretty good approach of both Law and Gospel.

It's just that I read your post based on Tullian's and because I loved the concentration on Gospel so much, I decided to read the original that he wrote. After I read his post I did a test I often do of pastors' blogs and entered a search for posts linked with the word "homosexual" just to see if that pastor is really serious about the Gospel being central.

In Tullian's case I found 5 posts dealing with the topic going back to 2008 and none of them included any discussion of the Gospel at all.

It was unfair of me to vent my frustration at his blogging in response to your post. But the question still remains - why do pastors, like Tullian, who seem to have an excellent grasp of the whole Law/Gospel Dichotomy in the general run of things suddenly develop Gospel amnesia when dealing with certain topics like homosexuality?

I know to some extent it is because many pro-gay churches have chosen to make the argument about the Law, claiming the Bible doesn't say what it says. But why do so many conservative pastors fall for that instead of redefining the debate to a full Law/Gospel approach - which would seem to be the true approach to these issues?

That is what is frustrating me.
To Anonymous,

I totally understand your frustration and it makes sense.

Some simple thoughts...

There are many churches in America that have fallen to moralism and have forgotten the Gospel. The Gospel has been reduced to mere moral principles for living. As a result, this moralistic-gospel is threatened by licentiousness. Therefore, to combat licentiousness, more law is applied so as to push back against licentiousness.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the following article that I wrote last year. I think this is what you were hitting on up above:

Take care my friend.