Thursday, April 25, 2013

On the Preaching of Law-Gospel-Law and the Epistles

In the land of the Lutheran interweb in the last few years there has been on-going debate on whether pastors should stick with a Law-Gospel format or preach some form of Law-Gospel-Law (the last "Law is sometimes replaced with instruction/Mystical-Union/Third Use of the Law/Exhortation, etc.). This debate is closely tied to Lutheran debate over the doctrine of sanctification. I think both sides have some legitimate concerns.

Those in support of the Law-Gospel-Law paradigm direct us to Paul's letters where Paul seems to use this paradigm as well as to selections from the Book of Concord, sermons of Luther, and elsewhere. They perceive an antinomianism among the strict Law-Gospel advocates.

Those in the strict Law-Gospel camp are concerned that Law-Gospel-Law will lead to an unlawful use of the Law. They perceive a legalism among the Law-Gospel-Law advocates and regard the charges of antinomianism against the strict Law-Gospel law defenders as proof. They claim that if you have already preached the Law to convict people of their sins, people already know what they should be doing and don't need you to circle back around with the Law again. Those in the strict Law-Gospel camp believe that those in the Law-Gospel-Law camp are trying to preach a specific third use of the Law which those in the Law-Gospel camp say is impossible to do. They believe that those in the Law-Gospel-Law camp are looking to the Law for their sanctification (and some in the Law-Gospel-Law camp have made some contradictory statements regarding this issue).

The letters of Paul were originally written to be read as entire sermons and it's difficult to escape the fact that they don't follow a strict Law-Gospel paradigm. However, they also don't quite do what at least some of the Law-Gospel-Law advocates are doing. Some of the Law-Gospel-Law advocates breeze through the Law in a generic way, quickly mention that Jesus died for your sins, and then spend the rest of the sermon instructing in "holy living." Paul doesn't do this. Paul hammers us with the Law, gives us the wonderful sweetness of Jesus in the Gospel, and then exhorts us in a Christocentric way. I think Will Weedon actually does a good job of this with his Law-Gospel-Mystical Union model. In some other examples I've seen, the Law is weakened, the Gospel is weakened, and even the exhortations are weakened as people turn Paul's imperatives into subjunctives.

I've heard some pastors who do good job of preaching the Law-Gospel paradigm when preaching the Gospels but then attempt to switch to Law-Gospel-Law when preaching on a section of the Epistles and often the Law, Gospel, and exhortation all get softened and lack the force found in the original text. I think at least part of this may be due to the difficulties in preaching on a section of the Epistles. The Epistles were originally written as whole sermons and so if you break them up into smaller sections and you are preaching on a section of exhortations the temptation is to put all the force behind the exhortations. My suggestion as an armchair sermon hearer is to follow the general outline for your sermon structure of the entire Epistle even if you are only preaching a section that has exhortations. The exhortations can still be preached as Law and Gospel. I think this would even work more naturally on a Gospel reading where you are not preaching on one section of someone else's sermon.

But rather than the continuous debate, I really think that actual examples and critiques from each party would be the most beneficial. It often seems that people are talking past one another and creating caricatures of one another. I think pointing to specific examples of both good and bad preaching would be less divisive.

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