Preaching the Law in My Pastoral Setting

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them ... and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

- Matthew 28:19–20

[1] Jesus commissioned his apostles to carry on his mission to the ends of the earth. That mission includes bringing people to new life through the sacrament of baptism, and teaching them to live a new life of obedience. In other words, it includes both Law and Gospel: the Gospel of salvation through Christ, the Law of obedience to his commandments. We Lutherans tend to have a good idea of what it means to preach the Gospel, but what does it mean to preach the Law? What would that look like? In this article, I give three examples of what preaching the Law looks like in my particular setting.

Preaching the Law in my Pastoral Setting by Eric Waters

[2] Upper Arlington Lutheran Church is a large church (6000 members, average weekly attendance of about 2100) in central Ohio. It is a suburban and rather affluent congregation. It is also a multi-site congregation; I serve at our Mill Run location, a 120,000 square foot church right off the interstate bypass which loops around the city of Columbus. I preach twice each Sunday morning at our Contemporary service. In the fourth quarter of 2009, our Contemporary services saw 2064 unique visitors, with an average weekly attendance of 598. The average age of attendees is 47. I would estimate that about 40% of people in attendance have some sort of Lutheran background, while the other 60% come from different Christian backgrounds (primarily Catholic, Pentecostal, and Evangelical) or no Christian background at all.

[3] Let me show how I preach the Law in my particular setting by sharing from a sermon I preached this past December on Luke 3:7–18.

[4] First, preach the text. If the lesson of the day is Law, then preach Law; if it's Gospel, then preach Gospel. Jesus commissions us and our congregation calls us to preach the Word; so whatever the Word of the day is, that is what we preach. John the Baptist thunders, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath the come?" (Lk 3:7). Here's how I started my sermon that day:

  • Odd way to begin preaching the Good News, don't you think? But John the Baptist was not a man to beat around the bush. He cut right to the heart of the matter, got right down to the root of the problem. And the problem is us. "You! Brood of vipers!"
  • The problem is not outside us: as if we could just read another book, or go to another conference, or make another resolution and everything would be better.
  • No, the problem is within us. We are poisoned by original sin and poisonous to others. The problem is us. We are born sons and daughters of the Serpent. We do not love the Lord our God or our neighbor as ourselves. Not too deep down, frankly, we hate them both.

[5] A related sub-point is don't avoid the hard parts. If something is shocking, offensive, or scandalous in the lesson, that's the thing people will remember and the thing they'll want to hear about. If you avoid it, they'll know it. If you tackle it, even if they don't agree with you, they will at least give you credit for dealing with the issue and respect you as a servant of the Word.

[6] Second, preach the Law to drive people to the Gospel. Just as the Cross without the Resurrection is a picture of condemnation and failure, so too the Law without the Gospel will simply convict people that they have failed to walk in God's way and condemn them to his wrath. Your people need to hear of mercy and grace, especially after you've told them about sin and judgment. Here's how I moved from John the Baptist's Law to Jesus' Gospel:

  • "I baptize you with water," says John. "Water can wash the dirt off your body, but it cannot touch your soul," says John. "I can exhort you, I can persuade you, I can put the fear of God into you ... but that's all I can do. I cannot change you. I cannot save you," says John. "But Jesus can."
  • John and I, we can warn you about sin, but the Holy Spirit can convict you. We can exhort you to repent, but the Holy Spirit can convert you. We can pressure you to turn away from sin, but the Holy Spirit can purify you like fire from within, burning away the sin, roots and all.
  • And that's Good News. The Holy Spirit can do what we cannot. He can change us from the inside out. He can make a bad tree good. I can tell you that for myself because he's changed me.

[7] Third, include yourself under the Law. No one likes to be told that they're sinning, and they especially don't like to be told by someone who seems "Holier Than Thou." Put yourself next to your people instead of above them. Present yourself as a fellow sinner in need of redemption, as a messenger unable to live up to the Message:

  • The Holy Spirit can do what we cannot. He can change us from the inside out. He can make a bad tree good. I can tell you that for myself because he's changed me. I am a better man now than I was last year, and 5 years ago, and certainly 15 years ago. I am more patient, more loving, more gentle, more pure in my thoughts.
  • I've still got a long way to go, but I see the fruits of repentance in my life, and I know it's the fruit of the Spirit, because I know only too well how weak, and unable, and frankly unwilling I am to change myself.

[8] Preach the text, don't avoid the hard parts, drive to the Gospel, and put myself beside my people: that's how I preach the Law in my setting at Upper Arlington Lutheran Church.

Eric Waters is an Associate Pastor at Upper Arlington Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Divinity School, and earned his Doctorate of Ministry in Biblical Preaching through Luther Seminary. Eric and his wife Michelle have been blessed with five children.



© August 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 8