There stands the messenger of truth; there stands
The legate of the skies! – His theme divine,
His office sacred, his credentials clear.
By him the violated law speaks out
Its thunders; and by him, in strains as sweet
As angels use, the Gospel whispers peace.
William Cowper, The Task (1785)
Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. Romans 3:31
Context determines content
The “messenger of truth” declares the Word of God within a vertical and a horizontal context. He stands before God, in His Spirit, by His Word, and for His King. He is very much, therefore, the “legate of the skies.” His message is not his own, but God’s, and he is accountable in all his preaching, first and foremost, to Him Who called, commissioned, and equipped him for the work. The word the preacher declares must in every respect faithfully represent the interests and instruction of Him Who has appointed him for this task.
This “vertical” context will therefore play the commanding role in determining the content of any message. While every text of Scripture has its own meaning and message, that meaning and message is ultimately about God; Scripture is, after all, divine revelation.
Moreover, each passage of Scripture shares certain things in common, namely, two: Every passages of Scripture “grows” out of the Law of God, as illustration, explanation, or fulfillment of that Law. And every passage of Scripture proclaims the Gospel of the Kingdom as fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Thus, regardless of the text before him on any given day, the preacher must take care to lodge the content of his message squarely within the framework indicated by the Law of God, and he must direct his preaching to bear fruit for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Law and Gospel will be important components in the content of every message, for unless this is the case our preaching runs the risk of being both wrongly root and fruitless.
In this installment I want to explore some reasons for bringing the Law of God into the content of our preaching. In the next installment I will consider the place of the Gospel in the proclamation of the Word. These two installments will demonstrate the controlling power of the vertical context for preaching. Then we will consider, in two installments, the role of the horizontal context – the people of God and the times in which they live – for shaping the content of our messages.
“Preach the Word!”
These days it must not go without saying that the task of preaching is the ministry of the Word of God (2 Tim. 4:2). Only the Word of God is powerful to convict of sin, bring life and sanctification, draw us into the presence of God and His glory, and transform us, in the hands of God’s Spirit, into the image of Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:12; Jn. 17:17; 2 Cor. 3:12-18). If these are not the overarching objectives of our preaching then whatever we are doing in that pulpit or on that platform may be interesting, amusing, or somewhat helpful, but it will not be the ministry of the Word of God.
Preaching the Word begins with the Word, in careful study and detailed preparation (2 Tim. 2:15). The preacher’s goal, as he pores over the Word line upon line and precept upon precept (Is. 28:9, 10), is to discern the Spirit’s insight to the mind of Christ and God (1 Cor. 2:12, 13), so that he might translate that insight into meaningful instruction for the people of God. The preacher’s only message is that which God discloses to him through His Word. We are faithful in the task of preaching only to the extent that our preaching derives from and declares the intentions and instructions of the Lord for His people.
At the same time, every text of Scripture grows from earlier epochs of revelation. This is clear by the New Testament’s abundant use of the Old Testament in arguing for the truth and implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The New Testament does not lay the Old Testament aside, as though, Christ having come and fulfilled His work, the Old Testament now has no more significance for the life of faith. The USB New Testament’s indices of Old Testament quotations and allusions run to 13 pages and include hundreds of references. New Testament writers, and apostolic preachers like Paul, were keenly aware of needing to root their teaching in the revelation of God in the Old Testament, beginning with the Law of God. Jesus Himself was keenly mindful of the fact that His ministry and teaching were intended, not to do away with the Law of God and the prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Christ Jesus (Col. 2:3), and in Him is the upward prize of our high calling from the Lord (Phil. 3:14). We must expect, therefore, that as we pursue that calling and grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18), we will reflect in our own lives that same fulfilling of the Law and the prophets that Jesus came to accomplish.
Preaching, therefore, that fails to root in the Law of God cannot hope to lead hearers farther along in the path of sanctification toward the upward prize for which God has laid hold on them. We must preach the Word, according to the demands and distinctives of each text, but we must root our study, exegesis, and exposition of every text in the teaching of God’s Law.
Let’s consider some further reasons why this is essential for the content of our preaching.
The Law speaks out its thunders
Paul insisted that the Gospel of Christ and the free offer of salvation, received by faith alone, did not do away with the need for the Law. Indeed, he explained, the Gospel establishes the Law as essential for the full benefits of saving grace to be realized.
By “Law” here I mean the Torah of the Old Testament as framed in the books of Moses, declared in the commandments and statutes of the Law, and elaborated and proclaimed by prophetic writers throughout the Old Testament. The Law of God, thus understood, must have a defining role in our preaching from any text of the Scriptures.
Why is this so? Allow me to outline six reasons.
The Law is holy. The Law of God is essential for preaching and disciple-making because, as Paul explained, the Law of God is holy and righteous and good (Rom. 7:12). How can we expect the people of God to lay hold on the Kingdom of God, the character of which is righteousness (Rom. 14:17), if we do not explain to them the ways of righteousness as set forth in the Law of God? All believers are commanded to bring holiness to completion in the fear of God, language which itself is rooted in the Law of God (2 Cor. 7:1; cf. Deut. 10:12, 13).
All Scripture is given to sanctify and equip believers for holy lives of good works (2 Tim. 3:15-17). By demonstrating the rootedness of every text we preach in the holy and righteous and good Law of God, we strengthen the message of that text, even as New Testament preachers and writers – such as Paul – strengthened their own messages by rooting them in the Law and prophets of the Old Testament.
The Law is the Spirit’s curriculum. The Lord intends the Law of God as a kind of “core curriculum” for discipleship. God promised that, when He poured out His Spirit into His people, the Spirit would enable them to understand and do His commandments (Ezek. 36:26, 27; Phil. 2:13). As we lead the people entrusted to our care in working out their salvation, therefore (Phil. 2:12), we must be careful to keep before them those foundational “spiritual things” which the Spirit intends to use in bringing them to holiness in the Lord (1 Cor. 2:12, 13, ESV margin).
The Law convicts of sin. We need to keep the Law of God in our preaching because the Spirit intends to convict us of any sin in our lives, and the Law of God is given precisely for this purpose (Jn. 16:8-11; Rom. 7:7). The Law of sin continues to operate in the hearts of believers, and we are called to resist the devil, confess and repent of our sins, and lay aside every sinful weight that keeps us from making progress in our journey unto the Lord (Jms. 4:7; 1 Jn. 2:8, 9; Heb. 12:1, 2). The people of God will be much more efficient in dealing with their sins if preachers are careful to define the sins toward which we are inclined or may be tempted. The Law of God is able to help us in this part of the preaching task.
The Law defines the way of Jesus. Jesus walked the path of righteousness framed out in the Law of God, and all true disciples must walk that path as well (1 Jn. 2:1-6). This is the path of love for God and neighbors, as Jesus explained (Matt. 22:34-40). Love is the greatest and enduring gift and calling of the believer (1 Cor. 13:13); thus, unless we are well practiced in the Law of God, we will not be able to fulfill our calling as followers of Jesus Christ.
The Law is the path of Kingdom greatness. But if we do follow in Jesus’ steps, understanding, obeying, and fulfilling the Law of God – not as the means of salvation, but in order to realize the fullness of the salvation we have freely received – we will be on the path that leads to Kingdom greatness (Matt. 5:17-19). Kingdom greatness is defined in terms of serving others, and of fulfilling those opportunities for service in imitation of the Lord Himself (Matt. 5:19; Mk. 10:42-45; Jn. 13:1-15). The Law of God offers many helpful guidelines in thus learning to love our neighbors as ourselves (Lev. 19:18).
The Law is the basis of our witness. Finally, the Law of God is the basis for our witness to the world, both lived and proclaimed (Mic. 4:1-5). Jesus has called us to be witnesses in the power of His Spirit. His Spirit teaches us the Law and forms us into the image of Jesus Christ, so that we may show the righteousness of Christ to the watching world. And His Spirit empowers us to use the Law, in explaining the reason for our hope, to help others confront and confess their sins as we have done (1 Pet. 3:15).
The Law of God must feature in our preaching, no matter what our text or topic. Without firm rooting in the Law of God our preaching will be wanting in the power of God’s Word and Spirit to accomplish the ends for which He sends it forth.
Keeping the Law in focus
How can we do this? How can ministers include the Law of God as part of their ministry of the Word, in each sermon they preach? Three suggestions:
First, become familiar with the content of the Law of God. The righteous person meditates regularly in the Law of God (Ps. 1). If we hope to draw from the holiness, righteousness, and goodness of God’s Law to strengthen our preaching in the ways outlined above, we will have to spend more time reading and meditating in the Law as part of our regimen of spiritual disciplines.
Second, discover the connections of your text to the Law of God. How does your text assume the Law of God? Build on or depend on it? Fulfill or complete it? By connecting your text with the Law you will begin to see ways you might bring the Law into your preaching more consistently. Take the example of Paul’s call to holiness in 2 Corinthians 7:1. This text connects to the law by specific language, as we have seen. It also connects through Paul’s general description of the Law as “holy” and through the text’s context, which is an exhortation to pursue sanctification in the Lord. Sanctification is the work of God’s Spirit Who, as we have seen, employs the Law of God as His core curriculum. The problem, with any text, will not be in discovering how that text connects to the Law. It will be in deciding which connection to the Law is most appropriate for the specific preaching situation before you at any time.
Finally, always use the Law to edify, never to condemn. It is not our place to condemn people. The Law of God can indict people because of sin, but we must not leave them there. The Law is the Law of liberty, as James explains (Jms. 2:8), and we must always use the Law to point people forward in their walk with the Lord, even if we must first arrest their journey for a season of introspection leading to conviction of sin.
Given the context in which preaching goes forth, we will be faithful in the work of preaching to the extent that we allow the Law of God to contribute to our understanding of God’s Word and the message we bring in His Name.
Next steps: How do you feel about your own preaching? How do those you serve regard your ministry of the Word? Facile complements and grumbling complaints come easily. What a preacher needs is someone who will help him evaluate his work and needs in this area. Write me at email@example.com and I’ll send you a brief questionnaire which you can use to discover just where your preaching stands, here at the beginning of our “semester” in Paul’s school of preaching.
John Stott’s Between Two Worlds is one of my favorite books on preaching. Order your copy from our online store today. You might also read the article, “The Crisis of Evangelical Preaching,” by S. M. Hutchens.