By Justin Rossow
The proper division of Law and Gospel is one of the essential elements of Lutheran theology, and therefore of Lutheran preaching. But when good theology gets turned into rote practice, the result can be hazardous to your spiritual health.
You can get a handle on the definitions of Law and Gospel relatively simply: the Law tells us what we have to do to please God and, for fallen humanity, therefore shows us our sin. The Gospel is pure promise: it shows us what God did for us in Jesus and requires nothing from us. Easy enough.
But the practice of properly dividing Law and Gospel is difficult and, according to C. F. W. Walther—the guy who literally wrote the book on Law and Gospel—takes a life time to master. The difficulty comes not in defining the two, but in applying them.
The Law is spoken to break prideful sinners and bring them to repentance; the Gospel is the promise spoken to broken sinners that brings life, healing, and salvation. Of course, since we are 100% saint and 100% sinner at the same time, properly applying Law and Gospel can get tricky …
While Lutheran preachers going back to Luther have always sought to include both Law and Gospel in every sermon, it’s all too easy to make a Law/Gospel division not only the dynamic of our theology but the basic structure of our sermons.
On any text.
Preach Law, then preach Gospel.
It’s all too easy to make a Law/Gospel division the basic structure of our sermons.
When that happens, we are in danger of churning out sermons that sound the same week after week regardless of the unique aspects of the text or the people in front of us on any given Sunday. Preaching a formulaic one-half-Law-then-one-half-Gospel sermon every week requires us to strip every text down the least common denominator of how we have failed in what the text says and how Jesus forgives us anyway.
That kind of misapplication of the text could be called The Lutheran Meat Grinder because it takes the wide variety found in the biblical witness and reduces it all to the same uniform blah. Here’s how The Lutheran Meat Grinder typically works.
Paul tells us in Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always!” Stick that in The Lutheran Meat Grinder and your sermon looks like this:
- Paul tells us to rejoice.
- But, because of our sinfulness, we fail to rejoice.
- So Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins of not rejoicing.
- And now, in the power of the Spirit, we can rejoice!
The author to the Hebrews encourages us: “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us!” Put that through The Lutheran Meat Grinder and you get:
- God wants us to run with endurance.
- But, because of our sinfulness, we fail to run with endurance.
- So Jesus ran His race to the cross for us, to forgive our sins of not enduring.
- And now, in the power of the Spirit, we can run with endurance!
No matter if the text seeks to comfort, challenge, forgive, call to repentance, inspire action, or invite to prayer, you can make it say the same orthodox thing over and over again, turning any sermon into Law, then Gospel, then—if you dare—a little Sanctification at the end.
So how do you remain orthodox, but capture more of the variety expressed in the biblical text itself? Here are three suggestions.
1. Think Pragmatics
Pragmatics is the study of what a communication does. Is Paul trying to comfort or encourage? Is Jesus calling to trust or life change? Should your people think differently, act differently, or pray differently after this sermon?
The Lutheran Meat Grinder always sounds the same, in part because it always tries to do the same thing: preach hearers out of the Kingdom every week, and then preach them back in.
Your hearers need to know their sin and Jesus’ forgiveness, and they also need help taking the next step on their journey of faith. They could use some help figuring out how to rejoice always, or what running with endurance looks like, even as they cling to Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.
Focus on one small step the sermon can help the hearers make this week. Think pragmatics.
2. Vary the Structure
Another reason The Lutheran Meat Grinder produces homiletical sausage that looks the same every week is because of it’s structure: you preach one part Law, then one part Gospel.
In this case, our good theology has replaced good practice. It is essential that we trouble the comfortable and comfort the troubled. But the theological insight of Law/Gospel was never supposed to be a sermon structure.
In his Third Evening Lecture on Law and Gospel, C. F. W. Walther says, “You must not think that you have rightly divided the Word of Truth if you preach the Law in one part of your sermon and the Gospel in the other. No; a topographical division of this kind is worthless.”
Experiment with a variety of structures like Question Answered, Paradox Maintained, Story Interrupted, or Lowry’s Loop. Changing the structure from week to week will help both preachers and hearers stay interested and engaged.
3. Preach the Unique
Graphic images of faith and life aren’t limited to visions like Daniel or Revelation; even the Pauline epistles are alive with metaphors taken from city life, building construction, agriculture, marriage, parenting, clothing, the human body, household management, slavery, citizenship, the Roman court system, the Old Testament sacrificial system, the marketplace, banking, travel, warfare, the Olympics—and the list could go on.
The Lutheran Meat Grinder takes this rich variety and reduces it down to something that sounds the same week after week after week. And when the preacher is bored with the sermon, the hearers will be, too. Guaranteed.
Find what’s unique in the text and preach that. Don’t leave out Law or Gospel: preach both from the unique dynamics of the unique images in the biblical text.
When we use The Lutheran Meat Grinder, we not only mistreat the Word of Truth, we also misshape the discipleship lives of our hearers. When we preach the same basic sermon every week regardless of the text or occasion, we teach our hearers how to ignore context, pragmatics, and the intent of the author. We teach them instead to generalize every text of Scripture into how I have failed and how Jesus still loves me.
Although technically true, such a truncated experience of God’s Word will lead over time to truncated Christians who know they are forgiven sinners but don’t know anything else about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the life of faith, the mission of the Church, the Resurrection of the Flesh, or … anything else.
Truncated Christians know they are forgiven sinners but don’t know anything else.
So how do you teach your people to cling to the promise of forgiveness even as they rejoice in the wide variety of content, theme, and genre in Scripture? Preach what’s unique in the text. Experiment with different structures. And think pragmatics. Your sermons will sound, feel, and do something different from week to week. And your hearers will begin to encounter a richer Word in their own reading of Scripture as well.
Your people will be grateful you shelved The Lutheran Meat Grinder. And believe me, preaching will be a lot more fun!
For more on sermon structures, go to http://concordiatheology.org/sermon-structs/.
This blog was originally published in a shorter form at http://blog.lcef.org/2014/10/13/three-tips-avoid-lutheran-meat-grinder/