Preaching and Judgment
Recently a sister in the congregation came up to me after the service. She had serious objections to the manner in which, at the beginning of the service, I had laid our sins and guilt before the Lord. She deemed that such a confession of unworthiness was not fitting for a congregation that shares in the wealth of Pentecost and that may experience the fruits of the Spirit. When I pointed out to her what the church teaches us to pray in the prayers at the back of our church book, she replied, “That may well be, but I am in total disagreement with this.”
This reaction made me think. She brought me before the question: how do people arrive at such a reaction? Does this mean that among us sin is out of the picture? Are people becoming estranged from what Luther said so poignantly, “But righteousness does not enter our spirit than through the confession of unrighteousness” (Comm. on Psalm 117)? And what Calvin presents to us: “Indeed, we cannot aspire to him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves” (Institutes, I.i.1)? That this question may be reasonably asked also becomes clear from what Professor J. Douma writes in a recently published book, “He who thinks that in a Reformed worship service, after the reading of the Ten Commandments, the congregation obviously confesses its guilt before God’s holy face, has a different experience than I.”1 The professor has the sense that “among us there is rather a lack of knowledge of sin.”2
A previous article was concerned especially with the meaning of the preaching of judgment in connection with the closing of the kingdom of heaven to those who do not heartily repent, as is spoken of in Lord’s Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism. I now would like to draw your attention to the meaning of the preaching of judgment for believers. Especially because sin may not be lost from sight, we as believers repeatedly need to hear such preaching. How will we benefit from knowing him who saves from sin (see Matt. 1:21) when we no longer recognize ourselves as “poor sinners” (see Heidelberg Catechism, answer 126)?
Knowledge of Our Misery
How indispensable this self-knowledge is, we learn in Lord’s Day 1. The “experiential” knowledge of how great our sins and misery are, appears to be necessary to be able to joyfully live and die in the comfort given in answer 1. Knowledge of our powerlessness and guilt belongs to a life of faith. In answer 2 the believer is unmistakably speaking, the man who has just expressed the wonderful confession in answer 1. Knowledge of our own helplessness and guilt does not precede faith in Christ, but appears to be connected with an unbreakable bond. It is also not a stage that you leave behind. It does not say, “What must you have known…?” The Catechism uses the present tense: “What do you need to know…?” Answer 2 teaches how we can hold on to the confession of answer 1 in this life: by realizing time and again how great my sins and misery are. Yes, in this knowledge a believer needs to grow. Thus our textbook says in answer 115 that God desires that throughout our life we more and more become aware of our sinful nature. Clearly this is a lifelong learning process, where God wants that acknowledgement “we, poor sinners” to resound with ever greater intensity!
It is not superfluous to say this explicitly. For too often in the history of the church, people have unfortunately seen the knowledge of our own misery as a kind of portal on the road to life in the only comfort. This view is strongly held by “old writers” who are still well-loved in some Reformed circles. W. Schortinghuis in fact makes it a prerequisite by repeating that, if we want to be helped by the Lord Jesus, we first have to become a “ready” subject. Only when one sees oneself as lost, does the Saviour want to save us. People need to truly discover the five “dear nots”: I will not, I cannot, I know not, I have not, and I am not good.3
Th. Van der Groe emphasizes, “And truly, this is the right manner and method to preach fruitfully a crucified Christ under the blessing of heaven, that people … first with true seriousness to thoroughly convince people from the law of their sins, curse, and damnation; and of their blindness, powerlessness, and deadly enmity against Christ; until they, by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, feel the burden of the disastrous misery of their soul, and are thereby completely humbled and are in their hearts severely wounded and defeated!”4
This knowing of our own misery apart from faith and knowing Christ, has gone a long way from the teaching of Calvin. He states emphatically that there is no such thing as repentance that precedes faith in Christ. The Reformer writes, “They, however, that think that repentance precedes faith instead of flows from, or is produced by it… have never known its power and leave themselves to bring an all too light a proof of this feeling” (Institutes III.iii.1). For Calvin such experiential knowledge of our impotence and our guilt belong to the knowledge of faith.
We find this understanding of Calvin back in answer 2 of the Catechism. We can also find it in Lord’s Day 33: the heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin belongs to the life of true repentance. For God’s children it will always be there, next to “the heartfelt joy in God through Christ.” How much the realization of our own misery belongs to the life of the believer we hear also in Lord’s Day 23, where we read that the conscience of the believer accuses him of being guilty before God, and leads him to confess his guilt.
If Professor Douma evaluates the matter correctly, a red light should go off for us. For the knowledge of sin and guilt is essential to a life of faith, an indispensable comfort for life and death!
Preaching of the Law
When it comes to the knowledge of sin and guilt, the Catechism in Lord’s Day 2 directs us to God’s law. In Scripture, sin is always a matter of going against the law of God. It is therefore this law that makes us know our misery. This law is not the “bogeyman of Sinai,” but the law of God’s gracious dedication to his people. It is the law of the covenant, the law unto life (see Deut. 5:33; Acts 7:38). One cannot sharply contrast “law” and “gospel.” On the contrary, also the law is clothed with the gospel. In the Ten Commandments the LORD starts to give himself to his people; this becomes clear from the opening words. The law stands in the light of the gospel. Calvin sees the law rightly covered “by the covenant of the merciful adoption” (Institutes II.vii.2). Precisely that law, the law of God’s love, reveals how far we are removed from home and how we resemble the image of the prodigal son in the parable.
This counts even more for us as New Testament believers, because the law comes to us as “the law of Christ,” as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:21. Correctly, Lord’s Day 2 points us to Christ. In Christ we learn what the law demands of us. He came to “fulfill” the law (Matt. 5:17). This makes us aware of his instruction in which he shows how deep God’s law penetrates and how much the Lord lays his claim on us. It also makes us aware of his life of obedience that pictures all this before our very eyes. Especially at the end of that life we discover what the rule of God’s love contains and what obedience to that rule means. It has brought Jesus unimaginable suffering. Only at the cross do we really learn how terrible our sins are. For on Golgotha we encounter “the demand of the law” in all its weight on us. There we are shown what happens to people who do not confirm the words of the law by doing them (see Deut. 27:26). In the Crucified One we get to see what it means to be a “sinner”!
When Lord’s Day 2 states that we know our misery from the law of God, it is talking about the law as it is known in its sharpest detail in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every time again when we ask about how we know our sins and misery, the gospel will be opened. The catechism says, “Christ teaches us this.” He does so especially and most profoundly at his cross.
Indeed, we know our guilt from the law of God. But it is the law coming to us in all its clarity in the holy gospel.
This is how the Reformers have spoken of the revealing function of the law. It is especially Luther who mentions this discovering function various times. The law is the “hammer” with which God breaks our pride and self-righteousness to pieces. The unique function of the law is that it confronts us before God’s face and reveals to us his anger over our sin. The law is the “executioner” to make us long for Christ.
Also Calvin sees it the same way, even though there are some nuances. Constantly we are in need of “the tutorship” of the law. The law is “a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both” (Institutes II.vii.7). In our self- knowledge Calvin states this to be most important “that it principally consists in renouncing all idea of our own strength, and divesting ourselves of all confidence in our own righteousness, while, on the other hand, under a full consciousness of our wants, we learn true humility and self-abasement. Both of these the Lord accomplishes by his law” (Institutes II.viii.1).
I am writing in this article about judgment in the preaching. I am convinced that we are in great need of having this preaching of judgment. When the knowledge about one’s own sin and situation before the face of God is lacking, there our life and trust in the only comfort is in serious danger. Concretely this means that the law of God in its greatest strictness needs to be urged upon us every Sunday (see the “so strictly” in HC question 115). The judgment that is in God’s law as the law of Christ must be heard from the pulpit. It is indeed true: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1; cf. 5:1). But this does not mean that we can be silent about this condemnation. God’s commandments need to be preached strictly, so that the congregation learns to know their sin and guilt and begin to understand what it means that we are “poor sinners.” The church may not become estranged from what it has been praying for centuries:
Holy God and Father, we humble ourselves before you, for we have frequently and grievously sinned against you. We acknowledge that if you were to enter into judgment with us, we would deserve nothing but temporal and eternal death. We are deeply conscious of the fact that we are conceived and born in sin, and that all manner of evil desires against you and our neighbour fill our hearts. Moreover, we continually break your commandments in thoughts, words, and actions. We do not do that which you have expressly commanded, and what was forbidden, we did. In all this we have sinned against you, and we are not worthy to be called your children, nor to lift up our eyes to you in heaven.Dutch Psalm Book, p. 563
From this prayer it becomes clear also for believers how much God’s condemnation is still a daily reality. It is not true that we, when we believe in Christ, have nothing more to do with God’s wrath. Even though we are no longer “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), the reality is that the Lord continues to be terribly displeased with our sin (see HC, answer 10). That also explains why each day we have to “seek” eagerly the forgiveness in Christ (see HC, answer 115). The Catechism uses the present tense!
In Psalm 90 Moses complains that the wholesome understanding of God’s wrath is so seldom found. I think there is reason also today for that complaint. Therefore, the strict preaching of the judgment of God, which comes to us via the law, is still so necessary. For we may never forget what is confessed in Lord’s Day 4: “He is terribly displeased with our original sin as well as our actual sins.” Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law.
On the question on how the law is then to be “strictly” preached, the Catechism gives the answer by referring to its explanation of the Ten Commandments. The small word “if” in question 115, in my opinion, makes that clear. He who follows the different treatments of the Lord’s Days 34 to 44 discovers how our textbook each time again binds upon our hearts the depth of God’s law and points out time and again how we go against God’s commands. While the Catechism shows us a life of thankfulness—the laws are discussed in the framework of the gratitude!—the law also fulfills its revealing function. Both go hand in hand, and must have their place in the preaching about the Ten Commandments.
Thus in the preaching our life must be kept in the light of God’s law. In this way the law must have a pastoral nature to assist the congregation in concretely seeing the evil and shortcomings by which at times other sins than those mentioned in the Catechism must be dealt with, will come up, because we live in a different era and face different temptations (compare the concrete examples of answer 110: devices such as false weights and measures, counterfeit money). For modern sins, too, may not be lost from view.
Here too the regular preaching proves to be a wholesome tradition: it prevents one-sidedness and compels the servant of the Word to speak about God’s wrath, his judgment, his justice concerning our guilt, our evil and our deserved punishment. In a time when we hear much about God’s love, we must fully realize that God is the Holy One, who insists on the right of his love.
For the Sake of the Gospel
From Luther we can learn that preaching about our deserved condemnation will serve to proclaim the gospel. We have already heard him say it, “But justification does not come into the spirit than through the confession of unrighteousness.” When it comes to the role of executioner that the law performs, for Luther this is all about righteousness, and the forgiveness of sins by grace alone. Time and again the Reformer stresses that God gives grace to the humble. In order to bring us to this humility the law serves as a “hammer” that smashes our self-esteem to pieces. In answer 115 of the Catechism we find the echo of this teaching of Luther. God lets his law be preached so strictly to us, because he wants “that throughout our life we may more and more become aware of our sinful nature, and therefore seek more eagerly the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ.”
The strict preaching of the law is clearly aimed at what we may hear in the gospel. The self-knowledge about which the Heidelberg Catechism speaks is not a goal in itself, but it intends to lead us to the Lord Jesus. When you start to realize how critically ill you are, you will look more and more for healing with the great Healer (see Luke 5:31). Forgiveness can only be sought and found when you know of your own guilt and of God’s anger on all the sins we commit. Those who want to understand the wonder of the pardon must first hear its sentence.
God gives us open ears to hear this verdict in his law. And it echoes in our conscience, as Lord’s Day 23 teaches us. This conscience is not self-evident. It is made alive by God’s law. And by speaking to us, through the Lord himself, it continues to “accuse” us. Our conscience truly becomes “con-science”: a “with-knowledge.” It endorses completely what the Lord says, and passes judgment on itself. In this connection, C. Trimp writes, “The charge of the law resonates in the speaking conscience.… So deeply has this accusation penetrated into their lives, that the suspects accuse themselves!”5
That also explains why the strict preaching of the law is so necessary, for the consciences of God’s children must continue to speak! If the accusation of our conscience is silenced, how will we then, yet each day again, seek the acquittal in Christ’s blood?
Strict preaching of the law and of God’s judgment is ultimately also necessary for the gospel to remain the gospel. For the gospel cannot be understood without God’s law. It is indeed the gospel of the “ransom” (Matt. 20:28), of the atoning “blood” (Luke 22:20), of the “propitiation” (Rom. 3:25), of the “righteousness of God” (Rom. 3:22), of the “justification by faith” (Rom. 5:1), and of the “forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph. 1:17). Precisely through the preaching of the law, the gospel receives its deep resonance and we understand what the Lord Jesus means to us. The gospel receives its deep resonance through this. “It is the deep bass that enhances the lovely sounds of the gospel.”6 Where God’s law is no longer strictly proclaimed, all these foundational indications of our salvation in Christ will lose their grandeur and riches. A gospel without God’s law becomes a degraded gospel. It becomes a gospel that possibly still gives some encouragement to desperate people, but that no longer speaks of liberation from guilt before God, of redemption from sin, and of the great miracle that God brings freedom to godless people.
It also no longer brings true joy. For our real joy is and remains always the joy of David in Psalm 32, “You forgave the iniquity of my sin.” Because of that miracle he could joyfully sing, “You surround me with shouts of deliverance.”
I hope it has become clear how much we need the preaching of God’s judgment in our churches. At its deepest level it is about remaining in the gospel and holding onto the joy of the gospel. Only when we humble ourselves each time again under the judgment of God can we remain filled with intense joy that there is forgiveness in Christ. Yes, where one knows that he or she stands guilty before God, the jubilation can yet sound forth, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity…?” (Mic. 7:18). Indeed, “It becomes as it always has been already in the liturgy: those who want to sing Gloria in excelsis Deo needs to start with the Kyrie Eleison.”7
This article was translated by Wim Kanis.