Without the preaching of the law, there will be no knowledge of sin, no understanding of God’s wrath, and no need to run to Christ as the Saviour. However, the problem with modern evangelism and evangelicalism is that the law is left out.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2006. 2 pages.

First, the Law With No Sense of Sin, the Gospel is much Diminished

We live in seeker-sensitive days, where human self-esteem is more sacrosanct than the law of God. Hence we read Robert Schuller, from his book Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, that,

positive Christianity does not hold to human depravity, but human inability. I am humanly unable to correct my negative self-image until I encounter a life-chang­ing experience with non-judgmental love bestowed upon me by a Person whom I admire so much that to be uncondition­ally accepted by him is to be borne again.

This sounds somewhat evangelical, in some of its language at least, but the prob­lem of humanity is identified as negative self-image rather than sin, and God’s love is said to be non-judgmental when the Bible speaks often enough of His wrath against sin. In addition, Christ is admired rather than worshipped, and the rebirth is the result of our realisation that God loves us unconditionally rather than through the Holy Spirit’s granting us a new dispo­sition and new life.

How do we respond to this? The Bible gives us plenty of encouragement to be flexible in how we present the gospel to various people. We are to become as a Jew to win Jews, as a Muslim to win the Muslims, as Buddhist to win the Buddhists, and perhaps even as a liberal to win the liberals (see 1 Cor. 9:19-23). There is not much future, for example, in trying to evangelise Jews and Muslims by serving bacon and egg rolls at a men’s breakfast.

Yet for all that, there is a great gulf between the evangelistic practices of moderns evangelicalism and those of a pre­vious era. The divergence in practices actually reflects divergences in theological belief. For example, John Wesley’s prac­tice was to preach law and more law in preparation for the gospel. In fact, he said that his method was to preach the law in “the strongest, the closest, the most searching manner possible”. “I would not advise to preach the law without the Gospel any more than the Gospel without the law,” he wrote, and added: “Undoubtedly both should be preached in their turns; yea, both at once, or both in one.”

In the Puritan era, John Owen declared: “Let no man think to understand the gospel, who knoweth nothing of the law.” Without knowing the law we cannot know what it is to break the law. In other words, without the law we cannot know what sin is. Commenting on Isaiah 55, John Calvin noted how vigorously the prophet urged people to come to eat and drink spiritual food and drink. This was because “so great is the sluggishness of men that it is very difficult to arouse them”. In 20th century England, C. S. Lewis noted that “the greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin”. He saw sin abounding, yet so little sense of sin.

Christ calls on us to fear God who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Mt. 10:28). Luke tells us that the churches of Judea, Galilee and Samaria were “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:31). In his evangelism, the apostle Paul declares that he was motivated both by the fear of the Lord and the love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:11, 14).

The older evangelicalism recognised this. In 1737 Isaac Watts and John Guyse recorded that “wheresoever God works with power for salvation upon the minds of men, there will be some discoveries of a sense of sin, of the danger of the wrath of God”. We moderns evangelicals tend to be somewhat uneasy and even bewildered when we read of William Wilberforce’s experience: “for months I was in a state of the deepest depression, from strong con­victions of my guilt. Our first response is to hasten to reassure the poor soul that God loves him and that he must be saved.”

The Scripture is not so hasty. Only those who know they need to be saved will make any sense of coming to Christ as their Saviour. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter made it clear that his audience had recently crucified the one who is both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). Those who under­stood what they had done were cut to the heart (Acts 2:37). It was then that they asked the apostles what they should do.

Similarly, in Acts 16 we find that the Philippian jailer asks the right question of Paul and Silas: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). It is significant that he trembles as he asks this because he had very nearly suicided and ushered himself into eternity unprepared for the judgment (Acts 16:29). As a contrast, the rich young ruler was a respectable and reli­gious man, but he had little sense of sin, so he told Jesus that he had kept all of God’s commandments from his youth (Mt. 19:16-20). To him, the law was his ladder to climb to heaven.

Modern evangelicalism does not make a feature of sounding a trumpet blast of warning concerning the wrath of God against sin. It can be that the presentation of the gospel itself causes sinners to see their own sin. People hear of the cross of Christ, and their hearts are melted. It must also be said that it is the Spirit who convicts of sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11), and who gives us an understanding of spiritual realities (1 Cor. 2:14). Yet the law of God is also crucial for it is this that brings about a knowledge of sin (Rom.3:20; 7:7). As W. G. T. Shedd put it: “The Holy Spirit does not ordinarily regenerate a man until he is a convicted man.”

Christ calls us to come to Him to find rest for our souls (Mt. 11:28-30). The invitation is wooing enough, but unless we feel the burden of sin in our souls, it will mean nothing to us. Thomas Watson warned: “That which has kept many from obtaining Christ, is the conceiving they have had him too soon.”

We have all heard presenta­tions of the gospel where we were simply told to invite Jesus into our hearts or accept Him, but it was not made very clear why we should do this. One wonders how much modern evangelism is not concerned with preaching the gospel of Christ but with convincing people who are not Christians that they actually are Christians.

There are dangers everywhere in dealing with the souls of sinners. Preaching the law may be overdone, and has been overdone in some circles. Thomas Hooker was accused of “preparationism”, the practice of calling on sinners to make themselves prepared to come to Christ rather than simply calling on them to come to Christ. Such an approach makes for an undermining of free grace, and the cultivation of a legal spirit. As Thomas Goodwin memorably put it: “A man may be held too long under John the Baptist’s water.”

Somehow the Christian evangelist has to woo and frighten the sinner at the same time. We are to express the fear of the Lord and the love of the Lord. It is easy to be weak and it is easy to be heavy-handed. Schuller is so weak that he loses sight of the gospel. Some are so heavy-handed that they lose the spirit of the gospel. It is as William Gurnall said: “Sinners are not pelted into Christ with stones of hard provoking language, but wooed into Christ by heart-melting exhortations.”

The aphorisms of Dietrich Bonhoeffer have a way of sounding very clear and Reformed: “There can be no preaching of the law without the gospel, and no preaching of the gospel without the law.” The aphorism is indeed apt, but the prac­tice can be difficult. Ah, who is sufficient for these things?

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.