PREACHING THE GOSPEL AND THE LAW

To evangelize is to make known to sinners the good news of the gospel. It is to tell them that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to die upon the cross, that those who believe in him should not perish for their sins, but instead receive everlasting life (John 3:16). Gospel preaching properly focuses upon the death and resurrection of Christ, because without these there is no atonement for sin, no justification, and thus no gospel. It was the love of God that made the cross possible. But it is the holiness of God that makes the cross necessary. If God were not holy he could treat sin as casually as we do, but his holiness demands that sin be punished legally and fully. The character of God demands that he must be just as well as the justifier (that is, the one who justifies the ungodly).

The law that God gave to Israel at Sinai, by the hand of Moses, is a verbal expression of the holiness of his character. It puts into words what God is, and what God expects. Thus when the law says, ‘You shall have no gods beside me,’ it is not evidence of petty resentment on the part of God, but of holy jealousy. God demands our sole obedience because all other gods are false gods and will lead us astray. The law, then, is restrictive only in order to be protective. It is for our good, or to put it another way, it expresses both God’s holiness and his love. It is impossible to preach a full gospel without both these ingredients being present.

The aim of evangelism is to bring sinners to a saving experience of Christ. But how are sinners saved? The answer to that will determine whether or not there is any relationship between evangelism and law. If salvation is only a decision that the sinner makes in response to the offer of salvation; if it is simply ‘deciding to accept Jesus as my Saviour’, or merely ‘giving my heart to Jesus’ – then there will be no place for preaching the law, because there will be no place for either conviction of sin or repentance.
Much of modem evangelism has bypassed the call for repentance because it has reduced salvation to an act of human will. It couches the offer of the gospel in language such as, ‘To be happy you need Jesusí; ‘You need Jesus to mend your marriage’, and so on. In such ‘preaching’ the law of God would be an inappropriate intrusion. But if salvation is impossible without conviction of sin and repentance, then the law is crucial. For it is the very purpose of the law to convince us of our sin, and only such conviction leads to repentance.

What is conviction of sin?

It is not ‘conviction of sin for a man to feel bad because he is drinking too much or generally making a mess of his life. Sin is not just a violation of socially accepted standards. To see sin only in social or moral terms will not lead people to conviction. Sin must be seen in the light of the law and holiness of God. The gospel is not an aspirin for the aches of life, to soothe and comfort man in his misery. It is a hoIy God’s answer to the violation of divine law by human beings whose very nature is to rebel against Him. So, says Dr Jim Packer, we are not preaching the gospel, ‘if all we do is to present Christ in terms of a man’s felt wants. (Are you happy? Are you satisfied? Do you want peace of mind? Do you feel you have failed? Are you fed up with yourself? Do you want a friend? Then come to Christ…… To be convicted of sin means … to realize that one has offended God, and flouted his authority, and defied him, and gone against him, and put oneself in the wrong with him. To preach Christ means to set him forth as the one who through his Cross sets men right with God again. To put faith in Christ means relying on him, and him alone, to restore us to God’s fellowship and favour.’

Most people think salvation is the product of morality and religious observance. In spite of the clarity of the New Testament message, they still cling to their own efforts to save themselves. But salvation by works never creates conviction of sin because it fails miserably to take into account the holiness, purity and justice of God. It sees sin only as a moral or social blemish and not as an affront to the Word, law and character of God. It is the law of God which produces conviction because it shows us our sin in relationship, not to society and people, but to God. It shows us that we have failed to meet God’s requirements.  Salvation remains impossible as long as God’s demands remain unsatisfied.

What are God’s demands?

God requires from us a righteousness equal to his own. We may think that is unreasonable, but it is not. God created man sinless, and he wants us to be the way he intended us to be. That is not unreasonable, but it is impossible! Our sin makes it impossible. We cannot satisfy God’s reasonable demands. So where does that leave us? It leaves us unable to save ourselves and needing a Saviour. And this Saviour will have to provide for us a righteousness as good as God’s. Where can such a righteousness be found? In Christ, says the Bible. ‘God made him [Christ], who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor. 5:21). And it is this righteousness, Christ’s own perfect righteousness imputed to the sinner, that is revealed in the gospel ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of every one who believes … For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed … ‘ (Rom. 1:17). Thus the gospel makes known to us God’s solution to the problem: in Christ, God provides for us the very righteousness that He demands. That is the gospel. There is a righteousness from God that comes to us through faith in Jesus Christ.

A sinner can hear all this and not make head or tail of it unless he is convinced of sin, unless he first sees his own helplessness and hopelessness. He must see that he is not meeting God’s demands and that he can never meet them. He must see his sin in relationship to God and the function of the law is to show him just that. The law makes no attempt to compare one man with another; it takes us all to the yardstick of the holiness of God and there we all fail miserably.

The purpose of the law

Writing to the Galatians, Paul asks, ‘What, then, was the purpose of the law?’ (Gal. 3: 19). A few verses later, he answers his own question: ‘The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ’ (Gal. 3:24). This is the role of the law in evangelism.

When we are talking of evangelism and the law of God it is the moral law we have particularly in mind, that is, the Ten Commandments. This is not to say that other parts of the Law of Moses have no application in preaching the gospel. For example, the death of the animal sacrifices reminds us that death is the penalty for sin. It also foreshadows the substitutionary work of Christ. But the Decalogue has a particular place in evangelism, because it is through these commandments that men are made aware of their sinful state. That being the case, we have to ask, what is the relationship of man to the moral law? The answer is twofold. Before Adam sinned, he had a wholly positive relationship to the law of God. But after the Fall, that relationship changed dramatically.

W. G. T. Shedd, in his Sermons to the Natural Man, says, ‘The moral law in its own nature, and by the divine ordination, is suited to produce holiness and happiness in the soul of any and every man. It was ordained to life. So far as the purpose of God, and the original nature and character of man, are concerned, the Ten Commandments are perfectly adapted to fill the soul with peace and purity. In the unfallen creature, they work no wrath, neither are they the strength of sin. If everything in man had remained as it was created, there would have been no need of urging him to “become dead to
the law”, to be “delivered from the law”, and not be “under the law”. Had man kept his original righteousness, it could never be said of him that “The strength of sin is the law.” On the contrary, there was such a mutual agreement between the unfallen nature of man and the holy law of God, that the latter was the very joy and strength of the former. The commandment was ordained to life, and it was the life and peace of holy Adam. There is nothing wrong or lacking, therefore, in the law. The fault lies in ourselves, that we are sinners. It is our sinful state that puts us under ‘the curse of the law’ (Gal. 3: 10) and makes us rebel against it because we are sinners the law of God is obnoxious to us, and that for two reasons.

The first reason is that the law is law, and the sinner does not like being told he is wrong. He does not like absolutes; he prefers standards that are relative, because he can manipulate such standards to serve his own convenience. The absolutes of God’s law defy such human ingenuity: they will not appease his conscience and they leave him forever uncomfortable in the presence of God.

The second reason is that it is the law of God. There is a holiness about the law that will not yield an inch to man’s sinfulness. It makes no allowances and accepts no plea in mitigation. It is the unchanging law of an unchanging God and is thus as holy and pure as God himself. There are two ways in which man could come to terms with God’s law. The first is if the law could be altered so that it could agree with man’s sinful inclination. He would then be happy in his sin because the law would become like his own heart and there would be no conflict between man and law. The second is if man could be changed so that the inclinations and desires of his heart would be in accordance with divine law. Then again there would be no conflict.

The first of these two ‘options’ is not on. The second is made possible by the gospel of God’s grace. But if the gospel is to have this effect, it must be presented in a way that makes clear where man’s problem lies. The prime purpose of the gospel is not to make men happy, but to make them righteous in the sight of God. Therefore there is no way the gospel can be preached without the law also being preached. It is only the preaching of the law that shows man what his problem really is, since it is through the law that we become conscious of sin (Rom. 3:20). The law presents us fIrmly and forcibly with the fact of our own personal sin and guilt (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:13) and having done that, it can lead us in repentance and faith to Christ.

Shedd asks, ‘Of what use is the law to a fallen man?’ He answers, ‘It is preached and forced home in order to detect sin, but not to remove it, to bring men to a consciousness of the evil of their hearts, but not to change their hearts.’ In other words, there are limits to what the law can do for us. It forgives none of the sin it reveals; it cannot change the heart it convicts of vileness and depravity; it saves no lost sinner. Therefore the gospel preacher’s responsibility is to use the law for its prescribed purpose and then move on quickly to the grace of God in Christ to heal the wound the law has exposed. The purpose of the law is to lead us to Christ.

Misuses of love and law in gospel preaching

There is a preaching of the love of God that can encourage people to continue in their sin. A woman who had been having psychological problems, and was being treated by a psychiatrist, began to attend an evangelical church. She came under conviction of sin as, through the preaching, she saw her sin and guilt. She told her psychiatrist and he was angry and told her to stop attending that church. She did so, and attended another so-called evangelical church. She told them of her experience and of her psychiatrist’s anger at her feeling guilty. They said that would not happen in their church because they would surround her with the love of Jesus.

To be surrounded with the love of Jesus sounded very spiritual but sadly, in reality, it meant in this case that that church never preached sin or repentance and sinners were never confronted with their real need.

If we are not guilty of this mistake, consider something else that we may well be guilty of. There is a preaching of the law that can discourage sinners from ever seeking Christ. The law is meant to expose the wound so that the balm of the gospel can be applied, but many preachers use the law not so much to expose the wound as to mutilate the body. What I mean is that too often our gospel preaching lacks balance. It is 95% sin, judgement and hell, while the element of good news becomes a two-minute postscript added at the end. You cannot preach the gospel without the law, but the law cannot save. The purpose of preaching the gospel is to save; therefore gospel preaching should be pre-eminently a preaching of Christ and the cross. To reduce that to a postscript is not to preach the gospel at all.

In preparing a gospel sermon we should give a great deal of thought to its balance. It needs both law and grace, and the balance between these is very important. What is the correct balance? It may be that in our days there needs to be a stronger emphasis on God’s holiness and law than is common. This aspect has been neglected for so long that men no longer blush at their sin. But having said that, our purpose is not to leave men with a sense of guilt. It is to lead them to the Lord Jesus Christ who in his love and mercy can deal with that guilt.

The correct use of the law in gospel preaching

How, in conclusion then, should we use the law in preaching to the lost? What is the correct use of the law in evangelism? By correct I mean biblical. Romans 3:20 and Galatians 3:21 tell us clearly that the law cannot save, bµt it is essential in turning a sinner to Christ for salvation.
This is because it teaches three things that a man must understand if he is to be truly converted.

1. The law must be used to teach the sinner the holiness of God
One of the basic problems with man is that he does not take sin seriously and this is because he does not take God seriously. There is always the tendency to reduce God to manageable terms. Every system of religion apart from biblical Christianity does this. Tozer wrote, ‘Among the sins to which the human heart is prone hardly any other is more hateful to God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel on his character. The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than he is – in itself a monstrous sin – and substitutes for the true God one made after his own likeness. Always this god will conform to the image of the one who created it and it will be base or pure, cruel or kind, according to the moral state of the mind from which it emerges.’

It is this thinking that lies behind the saying: ‘The God I believe in would never send people to hell’.  The only answer to such unbiblical nonsense is to see and appreciate God as the Holy One. As we understand more of God’s holiness, we shall inevitably also understand more of man’s sinfulness and the necessity of Christ’s atoning death. God’s holiness is revealed gloriously in the law and the cross. God is holy and everything he does and instigates is holy. This is seen clearly in the law; its commandments, says Romans 7:12, are ‘holy, righteous and good’. The law forbids sin in all its forms, whether it be the vileness of idolatry, murder or adultery, or sin in its more subtle forms of pride and covetousness. God forbids sin because it is repugnant to his holiness and it pollutes and harms his creation. If the law cannot restrict sin then God will destroy sin. God’s wrath and justice are direct consequences of his holiness. God hates sin, as a mother hates a disease that is killing her child.

In preaching the law we must not put before the sinner vague and tentative suggestions as to what God thinks, but clear and precise statements of his attitude to the issues that confront men every day. The law leaves us in no doubt as to the holiness of God, and this confronts the sinner with a huge dilemma. What can he do? His sin condemns him and the holiness of God leaves him with no escape. The law has pushed him into a corner and kicked away the crutches he was depending on. He feels useless and hopeless. But this is the point at which he must arrive if he is to embrace by faith what Christ has done to redeem lost sinners such as he. As Spurgeon said, ‘A man is never so near grace as when he begins to feel he can do nothing at all.’

2. The law must be used to show the sinner the reality of his sin
Sin was a fact long before the law was given by God and it reaped its grim harvest of death from Adam to Moses. It was while mankind languished in that terrible condition of sin, condemnation and death, that God added the law (Rom. 5:20). ‘It was not’, says Leon Morris, ‘concerned with preventing sin (it was too late for that). Nor was it concerned with salvation from sin (it was too weak for that). The law can only condemn (Rom. 4:15). It was concerned with showing sin for what it is, and it certainly showed magnificently that there was much sin.’

The law shows up sin and prevents man justifying it with pathetic excuses. So when a man excuses his temper as a temperamental weakness, the law of God says, ‘No, it is sin.’ When a man excuses his sexual lusts as being natural in any red-blooded man, the law says, ‘No, it is sin.’ Thus the law defines and pin-points sin. The meaning of ëYou shall not commit adultery,’ cannot be misunderstood. Men can wriggle all they like in discomfort under such a command, but they can never say it was not clear. They can argue all day that such teaching is old fashioned, and that we must be modern, but they know in their hearts that the commandment is right, especially when it is their own spouse who commits adultery.

The function of the gospel preacher is to use the law to make people see their sin as God sees it. It is to make the sinner think in terms of God’s absolute standards, not the ever-changing whims of society. The preacher is always up against fluctuating standards of morality and changing views of what is right and wrong. This fluctuation makes the sinner feel comfortable because what he was doing wrong ten years ago may well now be considered right in the eyes of society. What he is doing wrong now may well be acceptable in five years time. So he thinks, ëWhat is the problem? I am free to make my own rules.’  We must show him that his problem is with the unchanging standards of God; that he will be judged by God, not by trendy TV producers or the editors of tabloid newspapers.

3. The law must be used to point sinners to Christ
We often quote Romans 3:23: ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ But Paul does not put a full stop after this statement. He continues, ‘and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 3:24). The whole point of bringing the sinner to a realization of his sin is that he might forsake his works and flee to Christ for deliverance. Thus we should never preach the law without also preaching the redemption that is in Christ. This work of redemption, says the apostle, justifies the sinner in the sight of God. Christ has borne the curse of the law, ‘becoming a curse for us’ (Gal. 3:13), that we might be declared righteous before God.

This imputed righteousness, Paul continues, is free. It cannot be obtained by anything we are or do, for Christ has already paid the whole price. He has ‘bought [the church] with his own blood’ (Acts 20:28). He has purged our sins ‘by himself’; that is, without our aid or cooperation (Heb. 1:3, NKJV). Any attempt to tender our good works or religious offerings to secure our salvation is a negation of the gospel and a rejection of Christ’s finished work.

Finally, this redemption is by grace. It is the outcome of God’s eternal purpose, motivated by God’s eternal love and carried to certain fruition by God’s eternal Son. Grace is God’s propensity to give eternal riches to those who deserve eternal condemnation, that he might receive eternal glory. The law exposes our devastating poverty so that we might find unsearchable riches in Christ. Let us be warned, therefore: if the law of God is on our lips, the love of God must be in our hearts and the compassion of Christ in our minds. This is how we should preach the law, for only thus will God be honoured.