Preaching the Gospel about the Law
Rev A van Delden - 2 April 2011
"What is the focus of your preaching?" That question, in those or similar words, was posed to me a while ago. I answered with the classic answer: "My focus is on the work of Christ." The asker was pleased to hear that, because he had heard via-via that I focus too much on what we must do, and not enough on what Christ did for us. In other words, I preach too much law, and not enough gospel! This lead me to examine and reflect on both my preaching and the relationship between the law and the gospel, or if you will, the relationship between the law and Christ. I went back to one of the great Reformed theologians, Herman Bavink who had something worthwhile to say about this. I'd like to share with you what he wrote. In the context he was writing about the normative use of the law, that is, the law as a rule and standard for our daily living.
The law, after all, is an expression of God's being. ...Before the fall the law was inscribed on Adam's heart. In the case of the believer, it is again engraved on the tables of his heart by the Holy Spirit; and in heaven all its inhabitants will conduct themselves in accordance with the law of the Lord. The gospel is temporary; the law is everlasting and precisely that which is restored by the gospel. Freedom from the law, therefore does not mean that Christians no longer have anything to do with the law, but that the law can no longer demand anyth8ing from them as a condition for salvation and can no longer judge and condemn them. For the rest, they delight in the law in their inmost being [Rom 7:22] and meditate on it day and night [Ps. 1:2]. For that reason that law must always be proclaimed in the church in the context of the gospel.
The origin of the law
The law has its origin in God, and more specifically, in God's being and in His work. The law reflects who God is, and what God does. The law is a display of God's uniqueness and His jealous, His desire to be worshipped, but never manipulated, His glory and praise-worthiness, His sovereign authority (His right to command and rule), His love, His covenant faithfulness, His goodness and providential care, His truthfulness, His purity and holiness. We might even be so bold as to venture to say that the law is a reflection of God, or as Bavinck writes, "the law is an expression of God's being."
The law and man in God's image
God created man in His image. Our catechism describes this in terms of true righteousness and holiness. In light of what we just ventured to say, we could also say that man was created in God's image insofar as the law was written on His heart. To the degree that man lives in obedience to God's law, man bears God's image and is himself "an expression of God's being."
With this in mind, we discover the first function of the law—it's initial and eternal function. The eternal purpose of man's life is to bear God's image, and so glorify God. Therefore the law will forever function as the norm or standard for man's daily living. On this earth, and on the new earth the redeemed of the Lord will "conduct themselves in accordance with the law of the Lord."
Redemption and the law
Though man was created in God's image, with the law of God written on his heart, he chose to bear the image of the devil and disobey the law of God. In so doing, man robbed himself many of the qualities and virtues with which he was created as bearer of God's image. Only faint vestiges of the law remained imprinted on man's heart. For the larger part, sin perverted man's heart, and man's desire was to do evil. He was no longer able to fulfil the law's demands, and consequently, he could he attain eternal life which would have been secured by his obedience.
a) What Christ does for us
But God, in His unfathomable grace, was pleased to redeem man. This redemption would have various elements.
Man would be redeemed from the curse of the law. Jesus Christ would graciously assume the guilt for our transgressions of the law, and would make payment to satisfy God's justice for us and in our place. He would do so especially on the cross. This satisfaction of Christ would be imputed to us who believe.
Man would be redeemed from the requirement of fulfilling the law to secure eternal life. Jesus Christ would assume our obligation to perfectly obey the law. He would live a life of perfect obedience during the thirty-three years of His life, and fulfil the law's demands for us and in our place. The righteousness of Christ would also be imputed to us who believe.
These are two precious merits on which our redemption is based. But there's more to redemption that this.
b) What Christ does in us
redemption includes more than what Christ did for us. It also includes what Christ does in us.
Man would be redeemed from the corruption of sin. The qualities of which he robbed himself at his fall are restored to him through the recreating work of the Spirit. The law of God is once again written on man's heart so that he delights in God's commandments. With a willing heart, he begins to live in obedience to all of God's law.
This is the glorious gospel that Paul spoke about in Romans 8:4. Christ condemned the power of sin that dominated our flesh (that is, our old nature), with the purpose of enabling us to fulfil the requirement of the law. This is possible because we no longer walk (or conduct ourselves) according to the flesh (again, our old nature), but according to the Spirit. The Spirit who regenerates us enables us to live in obedience to the law of God. And since the law is the expression of God's being, the Holy Spirit enables us to bear God's image again, which is our created purpose. This, too, is a part of the redemptive work that Christ does in us.
Applied to the Preaching
We must hear what Christ has done for us, in our place. For we must learn to rely entirely upon the substitutionary work of Christ for our salvation. And so we preach the good news about Christ's work for us—His satisfaction that atones for our sins of commission, and His righteousness that atones for our sins of omission.
But if we only hear what Christ does for us, we have not heard the whole counsel of God concerning our redemption. We must also hear the good news of our redemption from the corruption of sin, and the renewing work of the Spirit—the work that Christ performs in us, and the good fruits of obedience that Christ works in our lives. We must also hear that through the indwelling Christ we can do all things (Phil 4:13, Eph 3:20). We must be encouraged to work out (not for) our salvation through the power of God who is at work in us, empowering us so that we are willing and able to do what pleases God (Phil 2:13). To refer again to Paul's words in Romans 8:4, Christ has destroyed the power of sin that once ruled us, and now we who walk by the Spirit begin to fulfil the requirements of the law. And in so doing, we bear God's image, fulfilling our created purpose. That's preaching the gospel about the law.
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol 4, (translated by John Vriend), Baker Academic, 2008, p. 455.