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Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching, Part 3

Dear Church Family,

In our continuing look at the nature and purposes of Christian preaching, most recently we have been considering evidences of the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching. The first two parts of “Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching” are available online here: Part 1, Part 2.

If you’ve read the previous installments of this mini-series, then you will know that I have argued that redemptive-historical preaching is the proper way of interpreting and applying the word of God. That is, interpreting and applying Scripture in light of the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, this methodology has sometimes been abused.

So, in parts one and two, we considered four evidences of the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching. Here now, in part three, we consider the fifth and final evidence.

5. “Second Use of the Law Only” Preaching

There is this idea in the abuse of Redemptive-Historical preaching that the only legitimate interpretive grid for understanding the Scriptures is what is known as the “Law-Gospel Hermeneutic.” Simply put, the Law-Gospel Hermeneutic means that every Scripture may be divided into one of these two categories: law or gospel. In the law passages there are only imperatives (only commands concerning what you must do); in the gospel passages there are only indicatives (only statements concerning what God in Christ has done for you). According to this methodology, the law is opposed to the gospel.

To be sure, there is a legitimate sense in which we may view the Scriptures this way: the law commands us to be perfect, we recognize our inability to keep the law, and then we see our need for Christ who has fulfilled the law for us (Galatians 4:4-5). At the same time, there is also a legitimate sense in which the law and the gospel are not opposed to one another, but the law actually sweetly complies with the gospel (WCF 19.7). To better understand what’s going on here, it’s helpful to consider what has historically been known as the three uses of the law. Reformed theologians have recognized, and for the most part agreed, that the law of God functions in at least three ways; the law has three uses.

First, in the “civil use” (usus politicus or civilus), the law of God is a goad to civil righteousness. This is the operation of God’s law in the realm of common grace. The law restrains sin and promotes righteousness. In this use, the law functions merely as a cold task-master. Second, in the “pedagogical use” (usus elenchticus or pedagogicus). the law of God is a tutor to drive us to Christ, a stumbling block, if you will. A person tries to keep the perfect, holy law of God, fails and comes up short, and thus sees his or her need for Christ who has kept the law for us. In this use, the law functions as a measuring stick against our sinfulness and sin, continually reminding us of our need for a perfect Savior. Third, in the “normative or didactic use” (usus didacticus or normativus), the law of God is a rule of life, a guide. While the first two uses of the law are employed with respect to both believers and unbelievers, the third use of the law is employed only for believers because only those who have been regenerated may actually keep God’s law. John Calvin wrote that this third use of the law is “the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end” (Calvin’s Institutes, 2.7.12).

Here’s why understanding these three uses is helpful. In the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching, only the second use of the law is used. That is not to say that in true redemptive-historical preaching, there is no place for preaching the law as a rule of life and guide for believers (the third use); however, in the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching, one never finds it. The fear is that if the listener hears a call to obedience, he or she will come away from the sermon with either undue despair (there’s no way I can live that way!) or misplaced arrogance (look how good I am!). These are legitimate concerns, but the answer is not to omit the demands that God makes on His people in our preaching. The answer is to be clear, balanced, and faithfully preach the text before us.

Though the exclusive Law-Gospel approach to preaching is gaining ground among some in the Reformed community, it is interesting to note that it is actually a very Lutheran distinctive. In a paper presented to the Evangelical Lutheran Confessional Forum in 1998, Mark DeGarmeaux described this distinctive Law-Gospel approach as one of the unique contributions to worship and preaching by the Lutheran tradition. He calls this type of preaching, “sacramental preaching.” You will note that in the following quote, the author is using “the gospel” in the narrow sense as referring only to justification by the substitutionary atonement of Christ:

Luther’s understanding of the distinction between Law and Gospel shines forth clearly in the preaching done in the Lutheran church. Of course, that statement is a bit idealistic because we all at times fall short in making this distinction, but we would hope that all Lutheran preachers strive to keep this distinction clear for themselves and for their hearers. The preaching in our Lutheran congregations should be neither the “dreary preaching of the Puritans” nor the legalism or mysticism of the papists, which both so easily go along with a lack of understanding concerning Law and Gospel and the means of grace. Lutheran preaching will be evangelical in that the Gospel predominates, and it will be sacramental because that Gospel emphasis proclaims “the wonderful works of God” (Act 2:11), “that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2Co 5:19-20).

Unfortunately, I imagine that the Psalmists’ confession and exhortation to delight in God’s law (e.g., Psalm 1:2; 40:7-8; 119:77, 174) might fall into DeGarmeaux’s category of the “dreary preaching of the Puritans”! So, I do not understand how this form of “sacramental preaching” (an odd phrase in itself) comports with what the Bible teaches about how believers are to view God’s law.

But, be that as it may, with this kind of an emphasis on the Law-Gospel hermeneutic as the only legitimate way to interpret the Scriptures, the proponents of this kind of preaching will often say that the preacher must always “expound the law so that people see their need for Christ, and then once they have seen their need, give them the gospel.” And, yes, this is a legitimate and necessary way of preaching from many portions of the Scriptures: law, then gospel. But, there are other forms as well: law, gospel, and then law again (where the law operates both in its second and third uses in the same sermon); gospel, then law (only the third use of the law). I could go on. The truth of the matter is that God’s people are to respond in various ways to the law of God: as that which reveals our need for Christ (e.g. Galatians 3:24ff; 2 Corinthians 5:21), as a rule of life (e.g. Exodus 20, esp. v 20; John 14:3; 1 John 5:3), as something to meditate upon (e.g. Psalm 1), as something to delight in (e.g. Psalm 119:70, 77, 92, 174), as a joy (Nehemiah 8:9-11), etc.


We’ll consider some of these things in future installments. For now, let me simply summarize as simply as I can the main benefit of pointing out this fifth and final evidence of the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching. To only preach the law of God in its second use – as a tutor to drive us to Christ – is to implicitly teach God’s people to have a negative view of God’s law.

Yet, according to the Apostle Paul (Romans 7:7-14), the Law isn’t the problem; our sin is the problem. So, yes, to preach the law of God in order to expose man’s need of the gospel and the forgiveness of sins that can only be found in Christ (and not in the law) is essential. This form of preaching addresses the need of the unbeliever, but it also addresses the need of believers who must be continually reminded of their ultimate need of Christ and His righteousness.

At the same time, because believers are regenerate (Titus 3:5-7), born again (John 3:1-8), new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), and have been given a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26-27), the law of God functions for them in an additional way: as a rule of life. By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the renewing of their natures, believers are called to walk in good works (Ephesians 2:10) and to be zealous to do good deeds (Titus 2:14) in keeping with God’s law.

Thus, a proper use of the second and third uses of the law in preaching helps believers to grow in their gratitude for what Christ has done for them and also instruct them as to how they may now live for Him in the pursuit of holiness.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch