23 October 2007

Everything Is for the Forgiving of Sinners

Persists, it does, the perennial challenge of preaching. I'm constantly striving to be more faithful in that task, which is a solemn trust and sacred responsibility. Lately, I've been focusing on how best to preach the Law in such a way that it strikes home and cuts to the heart and leaves every one of my listeners aching for the Gospel. I know that the actual work of the Law is the Lord's divine prerogative, not mine. Yet, He has called me to be a shepherd of His sheep and the bishop of their souls in this place, and that means that I must be solicitous of what they really need. Not their "felt needs," but their need for the preaching of repentance unto faith in the forgiveness of their sins. That means preaching the Law and the Gospel, the sharp two-edged sword by which the Holy Spirit divides between bone and marrow, chastens and heals, kills and makes alive. In my own limited capacity, I understand how this works, and I know what I am given to do; and to that same extent I recognize my weaknesses, my failures, and my need for both the forgiveness of my own sins and a greater faithfulness in my preaching of the Word.

I've been focusing on how to improve and hone my preaching of the Law, which ultimately comes down to speaking what God commands and what He forbids with greater clarity and precision, yet still broadly and comprehensively enough that no heart or spirit is left unscathed. I believe it is important, even necessary, that I challenge myself and push myself to do this more faithfully and more consistently. Not as though preaching finally depends upon me; for in that case it would be for nought and utter ruin. But because it is the vocation entrusted to me by Christ for the sake of His people, and in His foolish wisdom He desires to manifest His power in my weakness. I am taught by His school of the Cross to know my own sins more fully and deeply, so that I am brought to repentance myself, unto forgiveness, and so that I may preach this same repentance and forgiveness to His dear sheep and lambs. It is toward that goal that I preach, not only because it is what I desire for the people of God under my pastoral care, but especially because it is what the Lord desires for them and requires of me, His steward, for their sake.

What I have found, to my chagrin and frustration, is that my focus on preaching the Law has caused my preaching of the Gospel to suffer somewhat. That is not the fault of God's Law, but a consequence of the fact that I am not only a finite creature but a flawed and frail sinner. When I have given too much of my limited time and energy to preaching the commands and prohibitions of the Law, I have neglected to give sufficient attention to the preaching of the Gospel, which is the forgiving of those very sins the Law so effectively exposes. Which is no different than a heart surgeon cutting into a patient and then leaving him to die on the operating table with a gaping wound in his chest. Actually, it is far worse than that, because the death of the soul is a matter of eternal consequence, as compared to the temporal death of the body. It is only because a pastor is ordered by God to preach, that he should ever dare to ascend the pulpit at all.

The pastoral office is the Office of Christ, first of all, and it is defined by and for His Gospel. The preaching of the Law is God's alien work, which has always for its purpose the saving of sinners from death and damnation. Everything is for the sake of the Gospel, the forgiving of sins and the giving of life. That is the precious treasure that I have learned and received from my own pastors, and I have always been determined to keep that as the focus and the goal of my preaching and pastoral ministry. For that reason, to the extent that I am shaped by my office as a pastor—and so also as Christ Jesus lives in me, and I in Him—I preach the Law only because I must, for the sake of love, and always with an eagerness for the Gospel.

To my great sorrow and regret, there is still the old Adam in me, according to which I insist upon living under the Law, while at the same time I hate God because of it, and buck and kick and resist and fight. That is why I too must have the Law preached to me; not to make me better-behaved, but to crush and destroy me, to pulverize and kill me, that I would be raised to new and real life by the Gospel. That is what my preaching of the Law must also do for the members of my congregation. The goal, for them as for myself, is always the life of the Gospel.

The problem and the danger I have sensed is that, according to the old Adam in me, I revel in the killing strike and lose sight of the Gospel. Or, what may be worse, I forget that the Law really is a killing strike, and proceed as though the Law will bring about the new and real life that only the Gospel bestows. I know better than that, and I certainly intend nothing of the sort. But I also have observed that my well-intentioned effort to preach the Law more faithfully, for the sake of repentance, can also become a death-trap of sorts, because it distracts me from preaching the Gospel with the predominating clarity, specificity, particularity and vigor that I must. That dare not happen. To whatever extent I am able to sharpen my preaching of the Law, I must sweeten my preaching of the Gospel ever so much more so.

Of course it is true that I get frustrated, discouraged and upset. The people of God are also sinners like myself, and sometimes they hurt and disappoint me. As their pastor, and as their brother in Christ, I forgive them, and I bear with them in love, as they forgive and bear with me. But as their pastor, I am also required to preach the Law to them, and this is where I find that I must be all the more vigilant and on my guard against that old Adam in me. I cannot allow my personal frustration and disappointment to creep into my preaching of the Law, not in what I say, nor in how I say it. When I preach, I speak not for myself but for Christ Jesus. And the Lord Jesus Christ speaks to His people, never in frustration, but always and only in love. Even when He speaks with the thunder and lightning of His divine Law, He speaks in love. He speaks always for the sake of the Gospel, for the forgiving of sins, for the giving of eternal life.

Preaching is a perennial challenge. Not least of all because it is always an evangelical task, with an evangelical thrust and purpose, and yet it does necessarily include the preaching of the Law. Hence there is this ongoing process of trial and error, by which I seek to be more faithful in the preaching of the Law, while not losing sight of the Gospel for which everything else is arranged. It is not a matter of "balance," but everything else must bow before the Gospel and serve the Gospel. There can never be any other alterior motive or agenda at work. There is no other purpose or goal. The Gospel is not a means to some other end.

The Gospel is the reason for the Church. Not just for those people still "out there," but precisely for those people who have been gathered together in the Name of Jesus within His Church on earth. They never do outgrow their need for the Gospel. There is no moving onward and upward to better things than this. Everything in the Church is so arranged and ordered for the forgiving of their sins. Every service. Every sermon. The Law is never to be preached as an end unto itself. The Holy Spirit will instruct and guide His Christians with the Law, because it is the good and acceptable will of God. But just so, in His love for them, He will also and always be using that same Law to strike dead the old Adam in them with his unbelief and idolatry. Then must come the preaching of the Gospel, which is nothing less than the coming of the Redeemer with His forgiveness of sins. It is not once-upon-a-time, over-and-done-with, but always here and now, the day of salvation, the forgiving of sinners in this place with this Word, this preaching of Christ.

There is never a place for any sermon that would instruct, rebuke, admonish or exhort, but that does not have the forgiveness of sins as its driving goal. Preaching must absolve the sinner. That is the point. The good doctor must repair the damage and close the wound with the healing balm of Christ. Forgiveness is never simply a layover on the way to something else. The Gospel is not the "motivation" for trying harder and doing better next time. The Gospel is forgiveness and life for those who have tried and failed, as well as for those who have done better and become proud. That is what true preaching is and does.

Where the Gospel (the forgiving of sinners) is kept clearly in focus as the goal of preaching, I expect that the preaching of the Law will happen as it must (notwithstanding the need for ever greater faithfulness in how this is carried out). But I am even more convinced and certain of this: Where the forgiving of sinners is not understood to be the point and purpose of preaching, then no amount of striving or effort will bring about a faithful preaching of the Law. The Law must always be handing everything over to Christ and His Gospel of forgiveness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very well said! Thank you.