David Lose: Law, Gospel and Participatory Preaching


One of the comments to a recent Dear Partner in Preaching raised a great question: is inviting people to practice sharing their faith law and, if so, where is the Gospel?

I ask this kind of question myself all the time. But to help you ask and answer it with me, I'll offer a little bit of background.

I am a Lutheran preacher. And when it comes to preaching, the most important thing for Lutherans is to distinguish rightly between law and gospel. (Actually, it's not only Lutherans who focus on this distinction, but we certainly talk about it a lot!)

In short, law stands for all those things that come to us as commands from God. Law represents the "shoulds" and "should nots" of our lives.

Martin Luther further distinguished between two kinds of law or, really, two functions (or impacts) of the law in our life. The first was to tell us what we should or shouldn't do in order to help us get the most out of life in this world together. And "together" matters, as the "first use" of the law is oriented to the needs of our neighbor. Luther's logic - actually, he would say this is God's logic, particularly captured in the Ten Commandments - is that if we are looking out for each other life goes a lot better. When you only look out for yourself you a) see others as competitors and b) can count only on yourself to look out for yourself. But when you look out for your neighbors, and your neighbors reciprocate, then a) everyone around you is a potential collaborator and partner and b) you've got tons of people looking out for your welfare even as you are looking out for theirs.

So that's the "first use" of the law, something Luther also called the "civil use" of the law because it helps us create and maintaining flourishing civilization. (Some time back I posted a great bit by Louie CK that illustrates the first use in a rather humorous way; you can find it here if you're interested.

But there's a "second use" also, and that function of the law kicks in when you don't follow the first. This function or work of the law is to make you aware that you've fallen short. It points out where you broke or ignored the law. And it creates in you a recognition that you need forgiveness. This second use of the law is sometimes also called the "theological use" of the law because it makes us aware of our brokenness and sin and consequent need for grace and forgiveness. This use of the law drives us to Christ, the source and embodiment of God' grace, love, and forgiveness.

(In a sense, you can think of the first use of the law as the speed limit sign on the highway - put there to keep us safe and protect us and other drivers from our unwarranted belief that the place we need to go is a little more important than the places everyone else wants to go - and the second use of the law is the state trooper who pulls you over with lights flashing and sirens wailing when you've been speeding.)

The gospel, in contrast, represents the good news that God loves us and wants nothing more than to forgive us, shower grace upon us, and return us to a joyful life of service with and to our neighbor. (It probably stretches the analogy too far, but the gospel would then be the magistrate who forgives you the speeding ticket, wiping it clean from your record, and sends you off in every confidence that you will drive safely.)

So preachers of many traditions, but especially in the Lutheran tradition, want to make sure that their sermons distinguish between what is "law" and what is "gospel." More than that, Lutheran preachers want to move from preaching the law (in its second use) that makes manifest our need for grace to proclaiming the gospel that makes equally manifest God's grace to us in Jesus.

The concern for distinguishing all of this correctly is simply that bad things happen when these two are confused or unduly separated. I'll take the problem of separating law and gospel first. Law - our need for grace - when it is not followed by forgiveness only leads to despair. And gospel apart from law makes little sense and even is rather insulting. I mean, absent the belief that you've done something wrong, me offering you forgiveness is pretty offensive. ("I forgive you." "What the heck did I do?!")

Confusing the two can be equally problematic. For instance, if I tell you that I will forgive you if you do such and such for me, you'll probably be quick to realize that I haven't actually forgiven you at all, I've just set conditions on our relationship. It would be kind of like a loved one saying that he/she loves you just the way you are, but would love you even more if you lost ten pounds or were willing to help out around the house more. Do you see what I mean? Adding a condition to a promise undermines, if not betrays, the initial promise.

It's this particular concern - that the gospel I preach is actually the law - that most haunts Lutheran preachers. God's grace is meant to be free, and when I encumber it with conditions I've nullified the gospel for which Jesus died and was raised again. Sometimes that confusion is clear, as when preachers in particular traditions say that God loves you but that if you don't accept Jesus into your heart you're going to hell. (This is what Karl Barth called "the gospel at gunpoint" - it's offered as a promise, but really it's a threat.) But more often, this confusion of law and gospel happens in a well-intentioned kind of way. Once I've identified our need for forgiveness and then proclaimed God's grace, I might then suggest that we should now love our neighbor. True enough, of course, as forgiveness frees us to love and serve each other. But is that "suggestion" really a command? And if I as the hearer take that command seriously won't I just end up falling short and feeling condemned by the law? These are the kinds of concerns Lutheran preachers agonize over. (And, if you're reading this as a hearer of sermons, it gives you an idea just how hard your preacher works!  :) )

(I should also add here that several traditions, especially those that connect to Calvin but also some Lutheran traditions, think this is exactly what preachers should do, ending their sermon with a "third use" of the law, but that's another question altogether.)

Okay, so that was a longer and somewhat stream-of-conscious "bit of background" on law-and-gospel than I'd imagined. But if you're still with me you can perhaps imagine how this relates to participatory preaching. In short, is inviting people to participate just another way to create a burden for people? That is, are we telling them they have to do something and therefore making the gospel conditional? So, this week for instance, when I suggest that we might give people a chance to practice sharing their faith - or even ask them to think about that - is that law or gospel?

I don't yet have an answer. But I do have two thoughts that I'll share and then invite your response in the comments below.

First , I think it's incredibly important to remember that Luther actually didn't insist on distinguishing between law and gospel per se but rather between the function of the law and the function of the gospel. That is, you can best tell the difference between law and gospel not simply from what your words say (content) but from what your do (impact). Language is both contextual and forceful, and we only know what someone means by the impact of those words on us.

We know this from everyday experience. When I say "you're welcome" after you've said "thank you" those words mean one thing. When I say "you're welcome" after you - or, more likely, my kids - forgot to say "thank you" those words mean something quite different. Same words, but different impact and so different meaning.

This is true of theological language as well. For instance, is "Jesus is coming soon" meant to encourage ("hang in there, Jesus is coming soon to redeem and save"), comfort ("Jesus is coming soon and all will be well"), warn ("get your act together because Jesus is coming soon") or threaten ("Jesus is coming soon, and boy is he pissed off")?

So law and gospel are about impact. Which raises for me the question, is an invitation the same as a command? When you are invited to a party is that the same as when you're told you must be at a meeting? (I know some invitations are veiled commands, but I mean when it's a genuine invitation.) Similarly, when I invite someone to participate, to practice sharing their faith, does that create for them a burden of the law or does it create the sense of new possibility of the gospel? This is a real question for me and I suspect that other things - including the rest of sermon, my tone and tenor in making that invitation, and my general relationship with people - all affect whether they experience that invitation as law, gospel, or something else.

Which brings me to a  second  observation and question: can we - should we - divide everything into only law and gospel? Law and gospel ultimately is a way for Luther to describe what happens when God gets involved in our lives. The manifest example throughout Scripture is that God's involvement creates two experiences for us, the first of recognizing that we are not God and cannot live in God's holy presence and second of hearing and receiving God's promise of love, healing, forgiveness and redemption. That first experience is one of death; the second of new life. And that movement from death to life is an incredibly important, even central, dynamic of the Christian life.

But does it describe everything about the Christian life? Are their aspects of our faith and life in the world that don't fit into these categories? And if faith formation or catechesis one of those things? That is, what if practicing our faith isn't imagined as either the promise of the Gospel - it's not - or a law that we should follow - it's not that either. What if, again, it's just an invitation to live more fully into, or even sense more three-dimensionally the reality of, the promise God has made and keeps apart from all of our efforts. God makes the promise. God keeps the promise. But we're invited to hear it and live into it more fully.

When I think about it this way, it reminds me a bit of Holy Baptism. I mean, the genius of infant baptism is that we can't do anything for ourselves as infants and so infant baptism highlights and safeguards the promise that Baptism is all God's doing. And yet the rest of our life we're invited to claim our baptism, live into it, trust it. Luther was fond of telling people to remember their Baptism, that every encounter with water was a chance to remember and live more fully into God's baptismal promises. Is that law or gospel? Or neither? Or something else?

Well, that's some of what I've been thinking. Long entry, I know (sorry!). But I'd definitely be interested in your thoughts - both preachers and listeners! - as these are genuine and pressing questions for me. If you are willing share your thoughts and insights in the comments section below, others can chime in as well and we can talk about all this together.

From David's blog, "...In the Meantime"